The Art of Objects: The Birth of Italian Industrial Culture, 1878-1928.
The image of the discobolus, twisting astride the Borletti & Pezzi watch factory in Milan as he readies to throw an elegant pocket watch in place of the discus, on the front cover of Luca Cottini's The Art of Objects, offers a perfect visualization of the book's title and contents. It bridges art and industrialization across time--a time that goes well beyond the span of the first major phase of Italian industrialization indicated in the subtitle, 1878-1928, as it reaches back to the classical roots of Italian civilization. It also establishes a link across disciplines and fields of endeavor--from the production of different kinds of artifacts, be they industrial buildings, statues, or timepieces, to considerations of their role and meaning in the history of Italian economy, politics, social mores, literature, art and aesthetic theories, etc. After appreciating the beauty of the picture on the cover, we come to understand it fully as we read Cottini's analysis in the second chapter of the volume, "Timepieces and Italian Modern Time," following a general overview of fundamental elements "At the Origin of Italian Industrialization" and its "incompleteness" in comparison with northern European nations, in the first chapter.
Cottini poignantly contextualizes the image in its original setting, on the cover of the Rivista mensile del Touring Club Italiano of August 1912, aimed at a growing middle-class readership that was to discover the newly unified Italy in its leisure time thus strengthening the national identity. The author links the function of this watchthrowing discobolus as advertisement to broader considerations on global and national developments in the notion of time and on the establishment of international timekeeping, as well as to the early history of the industrial production of clocks and personal watches in Italy, its ties to politics and the rise of Fascism, and the place of timepieces in works of literature (from Giosue Carducci and Giovanni Pascoli to Matilde Serao, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Guido Gozzano, etc.), music (Amilcare Ponchielli), and art (Giovanni Segantini, Carlo Carra, Giorgio De Chirico), at the turn of the 20th century. The discussion of Borletti's entrepreneurial ability to change production in his factories based on demand (switching from watches to bomb fuses during the First World War) and his role in the development of the advertising and publishing industry in Italy, as well as his collaborations with D'Annunzio in particular, serve well to stress the close interconnection of industryalization, politics, and culture, showing also how high culture is influenced by the creation of new products and in turn influences their perception. Additionally, this chapter presents an excellent example of the interdisciplinary method Cottini applies throughout the book.
The same ability to work across and establish connections among different disciplines, while focusing on a specific object or category of objects, characterizes also the following chapters. Chapter 3, "Industrial Photographs and the Fictional Vision," thus outlines the developments and the rise in popularity of photography and cinema between art and technology, literature and business, personal hobby and mass media, science and political propaganda. Chapter 4, "Bicycles and the Moving Body of the Nation," similarly analyzes the entrance of bicycles in the Italian national conscience and culture in relation to the birth of a cycling industry, the presence of bicycles in Italian literature and painting, their role in nation building as tools for the exploration of the national territory as well as the positioning of Italy on the global stage (for example through sport competitions such as the Giro d'ltalia, though Mussolini privileged soccer as a national sport). Chapter 5, "Gramophones, Radio, and the New Languages of Sound," again moves between the history of the invention and technical development of sound transmitting and recording devices and the related changes in the consumption of music from an economic, social, and cultural viewpoint, with particularly interesting sections on the relation between music and graphic design and on the rising of a new aesthetics of music, first popularizing and then shifting away from opera in favor of new musical languages and forms of communication. Chapter 6, "Cigarettes and Smoke: The Modern Lightness of Being," stands somewhat apart from the other sections of The Art of Objects as it only limitedly deals with the industrial production of cigarettes in Italy, focusing instead on the metaphoric, symbolic, and psychological significance of smoke as a by-product of cigarette smoking, modern means of transportation (trains, airplanes, steam ships), industrial production, and war, in literature and the visual arts. Chapter 7, "Toys, Clothes, Furniture, and the Aesthetic Power of Play," interestingly brings together items of everyday life that are redefined by changing cultural attitudes--such as the recognition of the importance of child play--nationalistic policies aiming at economic independence, and the reciprocal influence of the decorative arts and mechanical production, thanks in particular to the creative impulse of futurist artists like Fortunato Depero and Giacomo Balla. Finally, in Chapter 8, "The Industrial Laboratory of Italian Modernity," Cottini concludes his excursion through industrially produced objects of particular cultural importance with some reflections on the birth of a specifically Italian style favored by Fascism and born in the "hybrid culture [of the early industrial age], generated around the irregular encounter of modern production systems with the philosophical and aesthetic legacies of the humanistic tradition" (p. 178), in reaction to and in spite of "limited political freedom and the lack of financial resources and materials for supplies" (p. 180).
At the end of the volume, before exhaustive notes and a valuable bibliography, beautiful reproductions of some of the most important visual materials analyzed by Cottini enliven and concretize the discussion, which is further extended online by the author's podcast series on "The Italian Innovators" (https://www. italianinnovators.com).
Overall, Luca Cottini's work brings a great contribution to the field of Italian Studies, rightfully recognized by the 2018 Book Prize of the American Association for Italian Studies for a work in the 20th and 21st centuries. While some parts of the book would benefit from a more detailed discussion of economic and technical details, I believe The Art of Objects is an excellent teaching tool and reference resource. In a world that values technology and business over art and literature because of their higher practical value, Cottini's volume offers the opportunity to introduce college students to aspects of Italian culture that are too often dismissed in a traditional approach to teaching, whereas they should be seen as important conduits to an appreciation of Italian art and literature.
Reviewed by: Marina Della Putta Johnston, University of Pennsylvania, USA