Milan, 26 February 2021
Two weeks ago, my wife and I had decided to go up to Lake Como for a hike. We got ourselves all prepared, we arrived in good time at the train station … only to discover that the railway workers had gone on a half-day strike!
We were floored. It was such a beautiful day! The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky, we couldn’t let it go to waste! I suggested we do instead a long urban hike through Milan and its suburbs. My wife immediately upped the ante and suggested we walk all the way to Monza. After a moment’s hesitation (“Monza? How far is that!?” Answer: a mere 16 km), I agreed and used Google Maps to find us a route.
It was … an interesting walk, shall we say, taking us as it did past the hulking remains of Milan’s industrial past mixed in with what must have once been smart villas owned by the owners of those same industrial remains; past areas which still showed vestiges of an agricultural past but which now were just dead lands squeezed between train lines and highways; past cheap suburban housing erected in haste in the 1960s and ’70s for all those people who commute to Milan and back every day.
I may one day include this walk in a more general musing about industrial decay in the developed countries. But all I want to say today is that along the way, quite by chance – as I say, I merely followed Google Map’s suggested route – we passed the old factory where, once upon a time (in the early decades of the 20th Century, to be precise) the Italian alcoholic drink Campari was made. (As the photo shows, the building is now enveloped in a massive modern building)
I made a mental note and carried on walking. Then, a few days later, when my wife and I finally did make it to Lake Como, we came across this fountain, erected in the 1930s, which, as readers can see, also acted as a promotion of Campari.
I knew immediately that these two chance encounters with Campari within a few days of each other were A Sign. It was clear that I had to write a post about that most Italian of alcoholic drinks! But also a post about a company which did not become one of the hulking ruins that my wife and I walked by on the road to Monza but managed to turn itself into a hulking multinational.
For those of my readers who might have been living in a parallel universe all their lives and never heard of Campari, I start with some basics. First, the look of the drink:
As readers can see, it is incredibly red, almost scarlet, in colour. This is achieved by adding cochineal to the recipe (at least, in the original; Lord knows what artificial colourant they use nowadays) – cochineal is the protective carapace of a tiny insect that lives on prickly pears (I only mention this irrelevant fact because it allows me to make a link to a previous post I wrote about prickly pears). Here is a pile of carapaces.
And here is a pile of the colourant extracted from these carapaces.
As for the other ingredients, we have pure ethanol of course – it wouldn’t be an alcoholic drink without it. We have water – drinking undiluted ethanol would be undrinkable and probably illegal. For taste, we have “bitter herbs” not further specified – as I’ve discovered with other herb-infused drinks, the identity of these “herbs” is always a tightly held secret (although one article I read claimed that during the writer’s visit to Campari’s modern bottling plant outside Milan he was told that two of the herbs used were rhubarb and ginseng). We also have chinotto, a sour citrus fruit closely allied to the bitter orange.
Those two sets of ingredients make for a bitter taste, and in fact Campari’s proper name is Bitter Campari. Finally, we have the bark of the cascarilla, a plant that is a member of the Croton family and is native to the Caribbean.
The cascarilla adds to the bitterness but is also a so-called stomachic, something that is supposed to stimulate the taste buds, thus producing reflex secretion of gastric juices, which in turn increases appetite. This is why, rather than being considered a digestif, to be drunk after a meal as an aid to digestion, Campari was touted right from the start as an aperitif to drink before starting the meal; it got your stomach ready for what you were about to eat. I’m not sure if there is any real science behind this claim (or behind similar claims that digestifs aid digestion, for that matter), but in the old days it surely gave men (always men, of course) a good excuse to pop into the local bar and have a drink (or two) before they wended their way – perhaps a little unsteadily – home for lunch or dinner (and then they could wend their way back to the bar for a digestif or two – nice life!).
That’s the basic product. But how do you drink it? Not neat, that’s for sure (maybe there are people who drink it so, but they are weird). Nowadays, of course, when every barman – sorry, barperson – between Milan and San Francisco to the west and Sydney to the east wants to distinguish themselves from every other barperson, there are a variety of concoctions available in bars which include Campari: the Milano Torino (Campari and red Vermouth in equal parts – explanation of nomenclature: Campari was invented in Milan, Vermouth in Turin), the Negroni (Campari, red Vermouth, gin), the Americano (same as the Negroni but replacing the gin with soda water), Negroni sbagliato [Negroni gone wrong] (same as the Negroni but replacing the gin with a sparkling white wine), the Cinque a Zero [5-0] (8 parts white wine, 2 parts Campari), the Pirlo con Campari [Wanker with Campari] (white wine, sparkling water, Campari), the Garibaldi (Campari and orange juice), the Anita (Campari and bitter orange juice – explanation of nomenclature: Anita was Garibaldi’s wife), etc., etc., etc. But the real – the original – the only – way to drink Campari is with a shot of cold soda water: no more, no less. Anything else is just froth and noise.
That’s the way the originator of Campari, Gaspare Campari, used to serve it, in the 1860s and beyond, in the bar he owned on Piazza Duomo in Milan, at the corner with the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. The bar was, appropriately enough, called Caffè Campari. Here’s a photo of it in a later period.
Interesting fellow, Gaspare. Born in 1828 into a family of humble agricultural workers in the province of Pavia, he had a passion for the black arts of distillation. In a different era, I could imagine him ending up as a rural alchemist or sorcerer. Instead, in the 1840s he went off to Turin and learned how to distill properly and make cordials, liqueurs, digestifs, aperitifs, and other alcoholic elixirs. He kept inventing various alcoholic concoctions all his life, giving them colourful names: Elixir for a Long Life, Oil of Rhum, Rose Liqueur, and so on. But with his bright red concoction he hit a sweet spot among his Milanese customers. Originally, he called it Bitter as Used in Holland (in reference to the apparent Dutch fondness for bitter cordials), but it became so popular and so tied to his bar that it became known as Mr. Campari’s Bitter. From there, it was but a short hop, skip and a jump to it simply becoming Bitter Campari.
I don’t know if Gaspare was just lucky or if he had an instinctive understanding of marketing – I want to believe the latter – but his decision to open a bar in Milan’s spanking new, swanky Galleria was a stroke of marketing genius. His bar became the hang-out of the Milanese chatterati, ensuring a bourgeois respectability for his bright red concoction. The business boomed. Here we have a picture of him in his prime, with his family.
Unfortunately, Gaspare died in the early 1880s when he was in his mid-50s. Without probably meaning to, he had taken the first small steps towards creating an industrial product. While he was first and foremost a caffe owner, he also bottled and sold his beverages. But this was very much an artisanal affair: he had a room behind the bar where he did his “production” and bottling.
It was his son Davide who turned the company into a real industrial business. After taking over after the death of his father, he started by decoupling the production activities from the bar. He built a modern production plant – the one my wife and I walked past – in the outskirts of Milan, selling the products through multiple outlets and not just the bar. He ran the production side, leaving the running of the bar to his younger brother Guido.
Not that the bar was not a good business. It continued to be a mainstay in the lives of Milan’s bourgeoisie. It even was honoured in 1910 by being the backdrop of a painting by the futurist artist Umberto Boccioni, Rissa in Galleria, Fight in the Galleria.
And Davide even expanded the bar business. In 1915, he opened a new bar, opposite the Caffè Campari on the other side of the Galleria, which he called the Camparino (the little Campari). It still exists. It’s a lovely little bar, decked out in what was then the latest fashion in interior design.
But about five years after opening the Camparino, Davide decided to sell off both bars and focus the business on making the Campari products. This was where the real money was.
Davide’s next step was to focus the company’s production on its best selling products and shed the rest. This meant dropping all those fancifully-named products his father had created and concentrating on just Bitter Campari and one other popular product, a raspberry-based cordial. After that, he only created one more new product, the Campari Soda, which came onto the market in 1932. It was really a clever knock-off of Bitter Campari, being simply a ready-made mix of Bitter Campari and soda water. A touch of genius was to get a famous futurist artist, Fortunato Depero, to design the bottle. Depero did such a good job that the bottle became iconic and is still in use today.
Davide also started a global expansion of the company, opening production plants in France and Argentina (in the latter case, no doubt to serve the large Italian immigrant population there pining for products from the Old Country).
Finally, Davide invested heavily in advertising (Gaspare had never used advertising to promote his liquid wares). He had understood that for a product like Campari for which there was no need, but only desire, advertising was key to increase the product’s desirability and therefore its sales. He started with some fairly standard advertising.
But he went on to use some of the biggest names in the advertising business. Leonetto Cappiello created this poster for Campari, which is still very well known.
Fortunato Depero – he who designed the bottle for Campari Soda – came up with various proposals, this painting being the one I like best (its title is “Squisito al Selz”, “delicious with soda water”).
But it seems that Davide preferred using Depero’s style in black and white advertizing in newspapers, like this one (the joke is in what’s written: “If the rain were Bitter Campari”).
In the same black-and-white vein, Ugo Mochi produced a series of posters. This example brings together in one place a number of individual posters he made for Campari.
In his more serious (but perhaps less remunerative) moments, Mochi, who was known as the Poet of the Shadows, was an illustrator of animals, like in this example.
In the same mode of elegance as Mochi, we have this poster by Enrico Sacchetti.
While in a very sensual mode, we have this poster by Marcello Dudovich.
I’m actually surprised this poster was allowed by the censorship authorities (we’re talking 1904), but they let it through (perhaps the censorship committee had been at the Campari bottle a little too much before they started their work).
Davide died in 1936, when he was just shy of 70. He and his wife had had no children, so the company was taken over by his younger brother Guido, a sister, and a nephew – as in all good family businesses, the business stayed in the family. They – and later generations – kept following Davide’s business strategy, not really trying anything new, and the company ticked along. So there’s really nothing new to report, not even in the advertising field. Finally, in 1982, the last of the Campari family sold out to two of the company’s senior managers, one of whom – Domenico Garavoglia – came out on top (how the second fellow was eliminated I have failed to establish). It is his son, Luca Garavoglio, who now runs the company.
Actually, he doesn’t run a company, he runs an empire. Like the poet, Luca came to two roads in the wood. It was the 1990s, and the growth strategy for companies in the food and drinks sector (and in the consumer products sector more generally) was to snap up well-known – and profitable – brands and create vast income flows by the savvy management of this stable of brands. Luca was faced with a choice. Either he could continue Davide’s strategy of concentrating on just one product, with the almost mathematical certainty that Campari would be bought up and become just one more brand in someone else’s stable of brands. Or he could start snapping up brands himself and manage his own stable of brands. He chose the latter road in the wood, and his decision paid off handsomely. Luca is a billionaire and Campari currently owns 38 brands; I list here a few, the ones I am personally familiar with: Aperol, Grand Marnier, Cynar, Cinzano Vermouth, Bisquit, Glen Grant, and Crodino – in addition to, of course, Campari Bitter and Campari Soda.
Is this a good turn of events? Well, on the one hand Campari still exists, it’s not a concrete shell on the road to Monza, with broken windows and weeds growing in the old carpark. On the other hand, it exists only as a soulless multinational, buying and selling brands like kids swap in the school playground the images they find in their breakfast cereal packages. It’s no longer an Italian company – its headquarters have been moved to the Netherlands – it no longer has any real roots in the culture from which it sprang. I have already mourned this loss of local identity in an earlier post on mustard, which I think is especially critical where food is concerned. I mourn it again here. Foods – and drinks – come from a “terroir”, as the French call it; if their link to that terroir is severed, they are merely an artificiality, a compendium of chemicals. And we are all the poorer for that.