Telling the Italian Innovators to the Americans

Il racconto agli americani degli innovatori italiani

Jun 22, 2022 444 ITA ENG

I often realize how much my love for Italy has greatly increased since We the Italians was born, and therefore from the moment I started to tell those who live in America about my country. I found that it doesn't just happen to me.

Luca Cottini is a fantastic Italian who teaches at Villanova University, in Pennsylvania. He perfectly embodies all the keywords of We the Italians: Two flags One heart, Italy needs more America and vice versa, when Italian talent meets the American meritocratic environment, wonderful things happen. An interview not to be missed, I leave the floor to Luca and I thank him infinitely.

Luca, what is the path that led you from Italy to the United States?

I studied in Italy, classical literature at the State University of Milan; I taught in Italy for a couple of years, in middle and high school in my city, Varese. I realized at a certain point that my ideal, which was to be able to study and teach at the same time, was not feasible in Italy; if one teaches full time in school, the challenge is purely educational but one does not really have the time to study at a high level. While in the university field, studying at a high level does not guarantee the possibility of teaching, which instead is the other lung of my business and the activity of those involved in humanities.

I looked for a few programs in the world where this was possible and this is the norm in the United States, so I did a few applications just to try and not live my whole life with the regret of not having tried it and I am ended up at Notre Dame, where I did a Masters degree and discovered a world, and then I met my wife and the story became much longer and more beautiful. What I discovered is that observing Italy from the outside is something extraordinary and very enriching. From there I decided to continue my journey, and I did a PhD at Harvard, where I was lucky enough to be able to go to the largest university library in the world.

This gave me a much more complex vision of Italy than what I could have gained by specializing in the purely literary field in Italy. So I started a career, I worked as a professor at McGill University in Montreal Canada, and nine years ago I moved to Pennsylvania, 15 miles from Philadelphia, to Villanova University where there was the possibility of directing an Italian studues program, that is to put my experience into a more complex world that brings together education, literature, business, design and professional life. It means putting Italy within a very large horizon.

What do you teach in your Italian Studies course at Villanova University?

In reality, what I teach continues my research activity. What I discovered above all at Harvard is a world of Italy in which the literary imagination and that of the  visual arts is connected to the material imagination, of design, of architecture but also of storytelling as an industrial fact in cinema and publishing. I transfer this to the educational environment with our students. We deal with Italy from all points of view: I teach literature courses, for which Manzoni, Calvino, Collodi - this semester I had the opportunity to teach the Adventures of Pinocchio in a maximum security prison here in Philadelphia - but then I also teach “Concept courses”. It means that I take a concept that has an interdisciplinary dimension, for example baroque, futurism or design itself, and look at it from multiple perspectives. This is something that cannot be done in Italy because the university is linked to a perspective of watertight compartments that do not intersect.

In addition to this, I teach "Italy in Business" courses, linked to the business, to the Italian entrepreneurship model, which is a model that combines productivity with culture.

In your book The Art of Objects. The Birth of Italian Industrial Culture, 1878-1928 you deal with the birth of Italian industrial culture. Can you tell us something about this?

This is the book that was born during my research project at Harvard in the meeting with my mentors, Giuliana Minghelli and Jeffrey Schnapp: they took me out of my purely literary perspective and encouraged me to observe the age of the first industrial transition - between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century - with an approach that considered two stories as not separate that weret always considered as such. The first story is the history of literary decadence, where these years are observed starting from the repercussion of the crisis that this transition has generated. The other story is that of modernism, which wants to observe these years starting only from the enthusiasm that these changes generate.

In the common narrative these two stories self-eliminate each other. Observing the world starting from literature and observing these years through 50 years of Corriere della Sera and L’Illustrazione Italiana that I was able to consult in the library at Harvard, I realized how in reality these two stories were on two parallel tracks. The world of so-called material, industrial culture and the world of culture were connected, and observing this period only from one of the two was limiting.

I chose to start with objects, observing some of them that were born in that period: bicycles, cigarettes, gramophones, watches. These objects are not only products that enter the market but at a certain point enter the newspapers, in art - the bicycle in Boccioni's "Dynamism of a cyclist", watches enter Pirandello's novellas. Buying an iPad is a commercial act. But if you insert an iPad inside a painting, then that object becomes something else. Starting from these objects, I began to observe together what we call culture and what we call industry, which are actually two sides of the same activity. Industry means work, culture means cultivation. They both have to do with the effort that man puts into a piece of reality to make it produce the fruit.

In the Italian case of that era, culture and industry go together because Italy is lagging behind from an industrial point of view and has to create a niche of competitiveness: and it does so by adding to the industrial product, which is a serial and anonymous product, a cultural aspect. What is defined as an incomplete modernity from an Anglo-Saxon perspective, that is, an industrialization that is not completed and that is described as a defect of Italian modernization, instead becomes precisely the point of distinction of Italian modernity, that is, this relationship between industry and culture . An industry that needs intellectuals and artists to give the product a substance, an authenticity, a depth that the product alone would not have, if considered in its cold seriality.

Then I began to observe a series of meetings between intellectuals and entrepreneurs who generated this model which then flourished in the 1930s but especially in the 1950s, after the war, the model of Made in Italy, that is the model that associates the product with a lifestyle, an aesthetic: the industrial product that aspires to become a museum product. There is the story of Umberto Boccioni who designs some advertisements for Edoardo Bianchi for the Touring Club magazine: it is strange that one of the greatest artists designs advertisements for ephemeral products, if we think about it. Senator Borletti, founder of Rinascente, seeks D'Annunzio to create the brand of his store, and D'Annunzio actually also creates the brand for his production line of watches and alarm clocks, which he calls the “Sveglie Veglia”: then after the second world war, Veglia becomes a company of speedometers for all luxury cars. Davide Campari seeks Fortunato Depero to design the bottle: if we think that the iconic Campari bottle is from 1932 and is 90 years old, we understand that the product that associates the commercial aspect with the cultural aspect is a product that lasts over time, it is not only ephemeral.

Yes or no question. This is a typically Italian way of doing industry, which differs from the American one. Would you have been able to spread these Italian excellences if you had stayed in Italy and hadn't gone to the United States?


This is where Italian Innovators was born, right? Please, describe what it is ...

Yes, Italian Innovators was born as an extension of the book. The book was very successful in academia, I also received awards. But I didn't want to be content with being in all the libraries in the world. A book lives when it is alive among people, and I wanted these contents, which are part of academic research, to be a model of connection between humanities and the business world. And I also wanted this to be a model to show the value of academic research in the economic field, because as I said the cultural aspect adds value to the product and this is important for an industry, especially if it aims to last over time.

Through my training I have learned that one way to keep a project alive is to learn another language in which to translate it. When you learn a new language, you discover things you thought you already knew. Thus, translating my ten-year research into the language of technology, of the podcast, at the beginning of the project I aspired to discover what I thought I knew, that is, to keep it alive. I made a series of episodes, of profiles of a series of entrepreneurs who were already part of my work: but I told them in a light form, for a wide audience, not assuming that everyone knew what I had studied or that they knew everything about Italy. And in this sense the dialogue with America is important because it offers you an audience that listens to a story only if it is beautiful, and this forces you to tell these stories not in a self-referential way but to discover in these stories what really is the key point. Working on these profiles, then, the thing grew and I added interviews because I was interested not only in giving a historical aspect of the great innovators of the late 19th century such as Davide Campari, Alfonso Bialetti, Edoardo Bianchi, but I wanted to show how this model of industry still applies in Italy now.

So I happened to interview Mauro Porcini who is the Chief Designer of Pepsi, a product that is capable of generating a world, let's think of the Super Bowl half time show. Or to interview Clio Make-up, with whom we observed make-up from both an industrial and cultural point of view. She is a painter who has applied the construction of the pictorial face to make-up. Through her, the program had even more visibility and a YouTube channel was also born, which is now my starting point in which I have added to the interviews my lessons of Italian cultural history observed from the Middle Ages to the present from a double perspective, cultural and entrepreneurial. The lessons are in English, available to everyone, divided into various playlists. There is the playlist of the Innovators' profiles, there are the interviews, there are the lessons and then there are the various categories, because I have also grouped the episodes in thematic playlists such as sports, women, entrepreneurship, science, academia, materials, technology & communication, automobile & transportation, fashion, food and drink, design, music. The various categories serve so that we can better orient ourselves within what has now become, after four years, a collection of many episodes.

How do you select the protagonists of the Italian Innovators episodes?

I had the first ones ready, then later I started to take a path outside my track and I started what is really a business, that of getting out of yourself and going to look for something. I like the word "business" because in Italian it means what in English it translates as both "company" and "adventure", so it brings together the industrial dimension and the dimension of storytelling. But since I have been researching various protagonists, I have realized that industries do not know how to tell about themselves. An industrial story told by the company is on average foundation, first product, expansion, foreign and then the present, told from an economic, numerical perspective. In these stories, on the other hand, I am going to look for what is the triggering moment, the human lock pick that launched this enterprise, which is not an economic fact, but an extremely human one. Whoever gives life to a company - and this is a typical characteristic of Italy - is usually a business captain, he wants to do the business, like Ulysses.

In telling these stories my model, returning to my classical studies, is actually Plutarch. Plutarch writes the "Parallel Lives" and describes his method in the introduction to the life of Alexander the Great, which is parallel to that of Julius Caesar. Plutarch does not want to write biographies of these characters because they are boring and because everyone already knows them. What he wants to do is instead go and find the moment when something has set in motion within them, generating inertia. This is exactly what I do, I don't look for a description of a chronology in my biographies or profiles, but the inner history of a company, what created it, the motive. These profiles all have to do with stories in which this motive is extremely strong, and illuminates an aspect of the Italian industrial model. All the protagonists of my episodes have this horizon in common, that of the encounter between humanities and business.

What's your triggering moment?

The death of my father, a couple of years ago, which pushed me to seek value, substance, and the relationship with the public. I started this project four years ago, but in the beginning I was doing it as a side story. My father's death actually made me realize that this could become a bigger story and that I had to give it credit and importance.

Is there an episode you are particularly attached to for some reason?

I fall in love with all the episodes, so it's hard to choose. However, I will mention two that are particularly significant for me.

One is the one about Walter Bonatti, a great Italian mountaineer, because this illuminates the word "enterprise". Bonatti was the first to go to K2, he made a whole series of conquests, then in the 1950s and 1960s he traveled to all parts of the world and talked about his exploits for "Epoca". When I talk about business, in this case I am referring both to the aspect of extremely meticulous preparation, therefore of analytics, of strategy, the strategic mindset, and to the aspect of the story. The story is important because it is like Ulysses with Polyphemus: his undertaking, that is to find a solution and to get out of the cave, is not complete until he tells Polyphemus the story of "I am Nobody". The business is exactly this: a combination of strategic mindset and narrative mindset. The two go together. This, for example, is found a lot in the fashion world, where the manager has to work together with the creative designer, to create an overlap of the two aspects. This is the key to a company's success.

The second episode I want to mention is the story of Adriano Ducati, who was the first to broadcast a radio message from Bologna to the United States. Ducati was a physics student in Bologna where in the 1920s there was the legend of Marconi. He invented this radio transmission tool and it was a huge success. Ducati was the largest Italian electric company, producing radios, ctelevision ameras, electric razors and cameras. In 1944 the allies bombed Bologna and completely destroyed Ducati, and the great history of the company that had five thousand employees ends. However, during the war, as a side business, Ducati had started adding small scooters to bicycles. The product was called "Cucciolo" and took hold because the roads were all bad and people went around by bicycle or with a moped. So this story started with radios, developed with a small engine to support bicycles and has now become a motorcycle legend. But the personal story of Adriano Ducati is also funny, who after the war sells the company to the state because he was bankrupt and moves to the United States and becomes a scientist working on Apollo 11, the space mission to the moon. And this interests me because a company, like a story in literature, starts with an intention, but then the story goes on its own and takes other ramifications for which Ducati becomes a scientist of Apollo 11 and the radio factory becomes a legend. of motorcycles. And this is part of what a company is, we start with an idea and then follow along.

Among those you have dealt with, who do you think is the Italian innovator who deserves greater recognition than he has received up to now?

I’ll tell you a few, names that are perhaps not part of the highly successful collective imagination, all characters to whom I have dedicated episodes. One is Elsa Schiaparelli, the pioneer of Italian fashion. Another is Carlo Bugatti, the great father of Italian Art Nouveau furniture and the father of Ettore Bugatti, later a pioneer in the automotive sector. There is Gianni Caproni, the father of Italian aviation. Ferdinando Bocconi is a great entrepreneur and visionary in imagining a new model of university: a model for which he was inspired by Stanford in California. Bocconi University was born because the son of Ferdinando Bocconi, Luigi Bocconi, had died in the battle of Adua in 1896 and to honor him his father, who was the owner of the Bocconi stores, the largest Italian Department store at the end of the 19th century, decides not to make him a monument but to open a university, with a new approach. This is the same story as Stanford. Leland Stanford was the governor of California and decided to open a university with a less vertical structure with rigid compartments, but horizontal, to honor his son who died prematurely.

In the contemporary field, I found the story of Maria Candida Gentile very beautiful, she is an olfactory designer, an artistic perfumery designer who has really reinvented the concept of perfume. Perfume as the creator of a space, not just as one of the most sold products in the portfolio of all fashion houses.

I understand that, among the things you and I have in common, there is also the fact that our love for Italy has grown since we tell about it, each in his own way, to the Americans. Is that so? And if so, in your opinion, why?

As far as I'm concerned, and I mean it in emotional terms, because my wife is American. The encounter with the other always raises the question "who am I?"  When you encounter a radically different culture you are forced to wonder what makes you different. In this sense, the encounter with America from an academic point of view but also from an emotional and also educational point of view with my students, for me is an encounter that brings the richness of a self-discovery, of being able to observe oneself from inside and from outside, and also to be able to observe Italy through the eyes of Americans and to see things in Italy that I have always seen in front of me but that I have never really seen.

For example, by telling these stories, I had the opportunity to discover environments, spaces that were always in front of me but that I had never noticed. The Camparino bar in Milan comes to mind. Going to the university, it was in front of me every time I got out of the subway at the Duomo stop but I never realized that this was the bar that Davide Campari had chosen as his company's flagship store and that it was decorated by Eugenio Quarti, who was one of the great Italian Art Nouveau decorators, and Alessandro Mazzucotelli, who is the greatest artist of wrought iron. And Davide Campari conceives this shop as a museum one hundred years before today, when the business of corporate museums is consolidated and rooted.

So that with America for me is a generative encounter. Furthermore, also taking up something contained in the episode dedicated to Sergio Marchionne, the fact of being an Italian living in the United States generates what Marchionne calls the immigrant's mindset, that is the attitude of the emigrant: which is an attitude that is never happy with what you have but must always imagine the space in front of it, because there is no previous context that supports you. You have to create the space, you have to imagine it. And this from the entrepreneurial point of view is extremely important because it generates an attitude - the immigrant's mindset - that makes you get out of yourself, from what you already are, from the default position that you are happy with what you already have, and instead it forces you to look for the new and above all to imagine a path, in an uncharted territory, an unmapped territory. This is the heart of business and it is also the heart of innovation: the desire to enter this unknown space. Living in America for me coincides with this daily experience, of always being in search of a newly built space.

In your opinion, how have the two countries you and I deal with, Italy and the United States, influenced each other historically and how do they influence each other today?

I tell this in several episodes. The most obvious answer is through emigration, that is, the direction from Italy to the United States. However, I also analyze the opposite direction: for example in my scholarship study how Americans have built an influence in Italy. This can be seen in the early 1900s but especially in the post Marshall Plan years. I dedicated an interview to this, on the American influence in Italy in the postwar years, to which I coupled an episode on the Italian influence in the United States in the same years. It is interesting because it describes how Italians went from a negative idea that described them as criminals, fascists, anarchists, emigrants, to the idea of being the ones everyone wanted to imitate.

What interests me about this meeting between Italy and the United States is to make it intelligible by placing myself halfway between the two worlds and acting as a translator. Translating means carrying here and there, like someone carrying water from one side to the other. This is what a translator does. And while you do it you realize that what you are doing is not bringing notions from one side to the other but observing how the two sides, in their interaction, create an original and new culture, which in one episode we defined as a truly transatlantic culture.

This can be seen in food, to which I dedicated an interview with an academic, Simone Cinotto, in which we talked about how the Italian diet and the American diet are integrated. Many Italian products that we associate with Italianness are actually born in the context of the American market, one is balsamic vinegar which is discovered by American chefs: the culture of balsamic vinegar is Modenese but the launch on the market is starting from this American context.

This is also true in the automotive sector. Ferrari starts producing cars for the street because the American market asks for them, since Enzo Ferrari wanted to continue his racing business but could not support it economically: so, reluctantly, he decided to open the market for street vehicles for Ferrari. The Ferrari Dino is the first to arrive in the United States in the 1950s and is requested by the American market which has great economic power, and this is essential because in a company who finances is the one who makes a dream come true. It is the encounter between Ferrari's vision and the American market that creates value, both cultural and monetary: so in this sense the transatlantic culture is exactly the construction of a space for the creation of new stories. It is like doing a translation: you are not copying a text from one language to another, you are reinventing it and, after all, reinventing a text is also what literature does. Every form of art is reinvented art. At the same time, business, products and innovation very often arise from the reinvention of something that is already known, that which is in the memory and that perhaps in the encounter with another is activated and becomes something generative. Many Italian companies actually have their largest market and their headquarters here in the United States.

Sometimes looking to the future of our country the fear arises that the direction in which it is going is quite wrong. But we at We the Italians think positively, and it seems to me that it's the same for you, I hope I'm not wrong. What do you see in the future of Italy?

Italic fatalism has always been a dimension present in national culture: it is part of a certain servility, of a subjection to different dominations. The crisis can be observed in a fatalistic key or it can be observed in an innovative key. Precisely because Italy has been subjected for many years or has experienced extremely serious crisis situations, we are a laboratory where new solutions are always sought. I cannot give a percentage between those who are fatalistic and those who seek solutions. But what interests me is to emphasize how the aspect of the crisis is a dominant aspect of national culture, and I read this in a positive key because the crisis is that situation that forces us to find solutions, not to be lazy.

The sixteenth century is a century of protracted wars throughout the national territory which later became Italy. In this context of military history that culminates in 1527 with the Sack of Rome, which was like 9/11 of the 16th century, the Renaissance is created: not as a space that reflects that society but as a space for new solutions, for the invention of something else. to get out of the negative moment. Even if one thinks of post-World War II Italian history, the problems were gigantic from many different points of view. Yet in this context of crisis the language of design and fashion develops to find more adequate or better solutions that creatively resolve a difficult situation.

This is also true of Geppetto, who is the archetype of the Italian designer, who makes Pinocchio's shoes from the bark of a tree, makes his clothes from the wallpaper and creates his hat with the breadcrumbs. Geppetto would have every reason in the world to complain about his situation but instead of being a fatalist he interprets the crisis as an opportunity.

With Italian Innovators, I try to explain how I see the future of Italy, and I do it with a video in which I tell my individual identity through the metaphor of the snail. The snail is the symbol of the variety of being in the Baroque paintings of still lifes. But the snail is also the animal that represents a certain model of innovation that Italy embodies. It is the model of those who go within themselves to discover their tradition, what is already consolidated, their heritage: and the only way to discover it is to throw it out. Paradoxically, the Italian innovation model is a move forward by going backwards, observing something that you already have and is extraordinary, but finding in this something not the reason to keep its excellence immobile, but the opportunity to discover what Giò Ponti called "the occult forces that set tradition in motion."

So if, for example, you go to Urbino and see Palazzo Ducale, don't look at it as a static monument but as something that someone has set up, has decided to build. Italy produces objects that are not serial, they are not anonymous, but they are objects that have a depth, an authenticity, a genuineness. And in this sense they have a value that is recognized. This is our future. Sergio Pininfarina called it “innovating but not too much”. This is in the DNA of Italian business, different from the American one which is more pioneering, that is, the search for novelty, the border, but also in a more ephemeral way.

The Italian companies that are and will be able to build value in an authentic way, starting from this reinvented tradition, have and always will have a capacity for positive and innovative impact.  Campari, Lavazza, Ferrero are huge holdings because they have managed to build this path and not be satisfied. But think also of stories like that of Brunello Cucinelli, who links a product to philosophy and ethics. Or think of the story of Pietro Catelli, founder of Chicco, one of the large holding companies in the baby products sector, with the ability to build a product not only as an isolated product but as part of a holistic constellation of products that serve the child. This is a positive and innovative idea.

In this sense, Italy does not have to invent much, it simply has to go inside its shell and bring out the strength that this shell contains, striving not to be satisfied with maintaining the status quo, because the temptation to close one’s self in it’s own shell is very easy.

You may be interested