Italian Olive Oil Tins 1860-1960 is a book as specific and focused as its title suggests. The book displays the fruits of Tiziana Riva Guatelli’s lifelong passion and collection of tins and original lithographic artworks.
As I pondered the opening words for this review, an advert for olive oil came on the television. Having just immersed myself in the imagery of almost 100 years ago, it struck me how little has changed in all this time. The romantic and traditional iconography of rural Italy is still central to the advertising and appeal of olive oil, even if the packaging itself has become simplified and streamlined.
It is easy to enjoy books like these for only their pictures, which I admit I am prone to do, but to do so with Italian Olive Oil Tins would mean missing out on the excellent texts that preface the book (among them a piece by Francis Ford Coppola) and an understanding of the historical and technical context behind the designs.
The texts give an insightful introduction to olive oil, the use of the olive branch as an emblem worldwide, of Italian emigration and an overview of olive oil packaging and the use of lithographically printed tin. They also tell us how this collection came to be; what began as a marriage between a young girl and her beloved collection rather wonderfully becomes a real marriage between the now grown up collector and her husband (Riccardo), a renowned producer of oil tin cans. After Riccardo’s retirement from the business, a museum for Tiziana’s 6000-strong collection was created and a number of those pieces are now housed in the restaurant at Francis Ford Coppola’s California winery.
“…the golden age when Italian oil was expressly aimed at conquering – as never before – markets all over the world.”
The texts do a great job of building up the importance of what is to follow, how some old tin cans can tell us so much about a period of time and a culture.
Where as some books on a particular subject will only succeed in pulling together representative samples from across a spectrum, serving as a taster that highlights differences, Italian Olive Oil Tins comprehensively covers a specific time period, product and not only a specific country of production, but one area – Liguria – the worldwide olive oil capital for over 160 years. It is not the differences that are on display here, but the similarities.
Following the opening texts is the catalogue of images and from here on the collection is left to speak for itself. The collection is categorised by its imagery (animals, women, religion etc.) with only a few words prefacing each section.
The title gives a time period of 1860-1960, which is referred to in the opening texts, but in the catalogue of images we are only shown examples from the 1920s-1950s, predominantly the 1930s. Although this makes it difficult to find evidence of the progression of styles and iconography that the texts refer to, I actually appreciate how tightly focused this very narrow timeframe makes the book, it captures a very specific moment in time and one where so much was happening politically. For that reason I wished the book had given more of a political context to the designs – a fleeting mention of the tins’ artwork being used as fascist propaganda is made in the ‘History’ section.
“the image was meant as a bridge to the homeland”
What shines through, throughout Italian Olive Oil Tins, is how these tins (and the product within) served as an ambassador to Italy. As the texts explain, the export market of olive oil was driven by the emigration of Italians across the world. You’ll see many examples of packaging labelled as being imported to Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Buenos Aires, Brazil, Montreal and so on. These tins had to be something that the homesick Italian emigrant could proudly place on the countertop and a lot of the appeal of these artworks is that they show how Italians viewed themselves – or perhaps just as much as that – how Italians wished themselves to be viewed abroad.
Mention of course has to be made to the excellent quality with which the images have been reproduced in this publication. Glossy, colourful and crystal clear they spring off the page with such clarity that I could almost imagine reaching in and lifting one off the page like grabbing the Wonka Bar out of the chocolate television in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Many of the pictures are full page height and the book opens out nice and flat so they can be easily appreciated.
Italian Olive Oil Tins is a book for lovers of packaging, tins, vintage artwork, art nouveau, art deco and Italian iconography. Nostalgic and rich with decoration, it will leave you feeling slightly sad next time you scan the shelves of Sainsbury’s.
Italiane Per Olio D’Oliva / Italian Olive Oil Tins 1860-1960
Published by Silvana Editoriale, 2019.
Hardcover, 24x28cm, 192 pages, 160 illustrations.