Milan, 17 April 2019
One of the nice things about being in Milan at this time of the year is that it allows my wife and me to visit the various exhibitions which make up the city’s annual Design Week. This last week saw us tramping the highways and byways of Milan and dropping into exhibitions of design, mostly of furniture and furnishings, this week also being the time that Milan was holding the Salone del Mobile, its huge international exhibition of furniture and furnishings. I cannot say that I saw anything that knocked my socks off, or even just rolled them down. But it did allow us to visit a good number of old palazzi which were hosting exhibitions and which are out of bounds to the general public the rest of the year. It also allowed us to visit a small botanical garden that is tucked away behind the Brera Academy in the heart of Milan’s fashion district, a garden which neither of us knew existed. It is that visit which started off this post.
Our reason for going to the botanical garden was that ENI, Italy’s huge national oil and gas corporation, was holding an exhibition there on the theme of circular economy. This is an idea that is currently growing in importance in the environmental world and one which I have been running trainings on, and I was curious to see what ENI had to say on the subject. The short answer is: not terribly much. But I came away with this picture.
For readers who might be interested, the white core of this ring is composed of fungal mycelium, which ENI reminds us is completely biodegradable, and the outer casing is made of birch wood, which ENI says will be reused once the exhibition is over. Without much exaggeration, that pretty much sums up what ENI had to say about the circular economy in its exhibition.
Of greater interest for this post is what the makers of this ring have etched into the mycelium: apart from the title of the exhibition and the company’s name, the company’s logo: the six-legged dog. It is this dog which is the subject of this post. Or rather, given where this post started, it is the design history of this dog which I will write about.
My story starts in 1949, when Enrico Mattei, the charismatic boss of Agip, Italy’s national oil company, announced that oil and gas reserves had been discovered in the Po River plain. In truth, the finds were quite modest: the oil fields were to run dry quite quickly, while the gas fields, although they continue to chug along, have only a very modest output. But Mattei talked up the finds, offering a vision of Italy finally being self-sufficient in the fuels it needed to power its economic development, and thereby created a huge national stir. By late 1951, Italian refineries were beginning to produce the first petrol derived from Italian crude oil and Mattei’s PR office had come up with a name for this purely Italian petrol: Supercortemaggiore (Corte Maggiore being the place where the find had been made). In May 1952, Mattei decided to crank up excitement levels by announcing that Agip would hold a public competition open to all Italian citizens, inviting them to come up with, among other things, a publicity poster for Supercortemaggiore petrol. He made 10 million lire (or about 160,000 euros in today’s money) available in prize money to further whet people’s appetites. He composed a jury of very eminent persons to judge the entries; to give readers an idea of their eminence , the chair of the jury was the world-famous architect Giò Ponti.
Creative Italy got to work. By the closure of the competition in September, some 4,000 entries had been received. The jury ploughed through the submissions and for the Supercortemaggiore poster, it plumped for this:
The caption read: “Supercortemaggiore: the powerful Italian petrol”. But what really dominated the poster was a six-legged shaggy black dog blowing out a red flame over its back. The whole poster had a bright yellow background. The original drawing as submitted actually had the dog facing frontward with the flame shooting out forward. Mattei decreed that this was too aggressive, people could imagine they were faced with a canine version of a flame-thrower. No problem! The head was swiveled 180 degrees so that the flame flared harmlessly back over the dog’s back. The net result was that by late 1952 Italians up and down the land found themselves faced with huge billboards such as these.
Most advertising ideas work OK, some are a complete flop, and some work spectacularly well. The six-legged, fire-breathing, backward-looking, shaggy black dog falls into the last category; it was an instant hit with Italians. So popular did it become that in 1953, when Mattei created the new national oil and gas holding company, the Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi or ENI, with Agip as one of its subsidiaries, he decided that the dog should become the corporate brand. And so quite soon when Italians went to fill up at their local Agip petrol station they were faced with something like this.
In fact, this was how I first came across this intriguing dog. This was in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, where I was born a year or so after the shaggy black dog burst upon the scene. As an ex-Italian colony still full of Italians in the 1950s, Agip had a monopoly on the country’s petrol supply. It took a little while for the new ENI/Agip logo to grace every Agip petrol station, especially when the petrol stations were as far away from the center of the ENI empire as those in Asmara were. But they eventually got there, and I would have first seen the dog in 1958-59, from the back seat of the car as my father filled her up at the petrol station just behind our house.
Just to finish the design part, the dog has gone through some discreet remodelling as ENI has redesigned its look over the years. This is what it now looks like: slightly shorter than it was at the start and half out of the box rather than all in it. But the essentials are all still there.
At some point, everyone who looks at this dog asks themselves “why six legs?” or the more-or-less equivalent question “what kind of animal is this, actually?” To discuss this properly, I need to take a step sideways and relate a dramatic turn of evens which occurred in 1983, 30 or so years after Mattei held his competition. In that year, the startling news broke that Giuseppe Guzzi, the person who everyone had assumed was the creator of the dog – because the submission to the competition’s jury was in his name – was not in fact its author! He had been merely the front man for the dog’s real creator, Luigi Broggini, a respectable Milanese sculptor. Broggini died in 1983 and his children, who broke the news, felt that it was time for the real creator of the famous dog to get the credit he was due. It seems that Broggini was a bit of a cultural elitist; he felt that being linked to such a vulgar enterprise as designing a publicity poster for a brand of petrol was unworthy of a true artist such as he. This is a typical product of his artistic inclinations.
The cynic inside of me whispers that he probably didn’t deign to take the prize money; I only hope he shared it fairly with Guzzi to reward him for agreeing to be his front man.
So now we can return to the question of why six legs. Unfortunately, because Broggini died before his true role in this whole affair was revealed, we will never be able to ask the dog’s creator what he had in mind. I presume Broggini never told Guzzi, because it doesn’t seem that Guzzi ever gave any coherent response to this question. Maybe he would just smile mysteriously when asked and invite the questioners to come up with their own theory.
And come up with theories people have. One suggests that Broggini, thinking about the fact that the original crude oil lay underground, looked for possible models to the panoply of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses that peopled the shadowy underworld. Cerberus, the dog which guarded the entry to Hades, is considered one model. Cerberus was normally described as having three heads, a serpent for a tail, and snakes writhing out from his body in various places. But he had the normal amount of legs and he didn’t breathe fire. Here is a Greek vase depicting him.
The idea to have a fire-breathing animal no doubt comes from petrol’s readiness to burn. But what animal breathes fire? The answer is the dragon.
So another theory suggests that Broggini took a cue from a local Lombard legend of a dragon named Tarantasio which lived in a lake near Lodi, south-east of Milan (and perhaps not coincidentally quite close to the natural gas finds which Mattei announced in 1949). It was said that its breath was pestilential and it liked to devour little children. The Visconti, Lords of Milan, claimed that their ancestor had killed the terrible child-eating dragon and took it as the symbol on their coat of arms.
So maybe Broggini was imagining a dog from the underworld with dragon-like characteristics. Adding a dragon to the mix might explain the flaming mouth, but as far as I can make out dragons are, like dogs, four-legged. So we still have no explanation for the six legs. The best I can think of is that Broggini liked the idea of using Cerberus as a model, perhaps allied to a dragon-like ability to breathe fire, but didn’t think having multiple heads was a good idea and so decided on multiple legs. Whatever the reason, the ENI PR office came up with a really pathetic slogan: “the dog with six legs, faithful friend to the man on four wheels”. And the man who came up with this slogan was none other than the great film director, Ettore Scola! As I always say to my wife in cases like these, he surely needed to pay his rent and electricity bills.
Let me finish this post recounting what happened to the man who started the whole business of the competition which brought us the dragon-dog, Enrico Mattei. For Mattei, the real point of the competition was to strengthen public support for a strong national oil and gas company, which he could translate into political support. He succeeded spectacularly well. A year after the competition, he got the politicians to back his idea of creating ENI. He used the profits which Agip petroli and its sister company Agip gas made from the Italian oil and gas finds to fund his ventures in foreign countries rich in oil and gas. His long-term strategy was for ENI to become a competitor to the Seven Sisters (a term he invented to describe the seven – mainly US – corporations which at that time dominated the world’s oil and gas markets). To make this happen, he went to places the Seven Sisters couldn’t or didn’t want to go to, he offered the countries really good deals in the share of profits, and he wasn’t above offering succulent bribes. Judging by ENI’s heft today in the world market, I would say that Mattei got it right. But in the process he stepped on many, many toes. In 1962, he died when his private plane crashed while coming in to land at Milan airport. The inquest was rushed through and arrived at the conclusion that it was an accident. But this is Italy. Rumors continued to circulate that his plane had been sabotaged. In the early 1990s, his body and that of one of the two passengers on the plane with him were exhumed, and examination of metal fragments in their bones showed they had been deformed by an explosion. In 1994, the case was reopened and eventually the episode was reclassified as a homicide by a person or persons unknown. There has been enormous amounts of speculation as to who these “unknown persons” might be. At one time or other, the finger has been pointed at the British Secret Service, the French Secret Service, the OAS (the French irredentists for a French Algeria), the CIA, the Mafia (as a favour to their cousins in America, the Cosa Nostra), one or more of the Seven Sisters, and I’m sure I’ve missed a few. We’ll no doubt never know.
But we can all thank Mattei for that splendid six-legged, backward-looking, fire-breathing, shaggy black dog which he bequeathed the world!