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A poster for Esposizione internazionale d'Arte decorativa moderna, in Turin - 1902.

Italian Design and the Evolution of Stile Liberty and Art Nouveau

Part I of a Multi-part Series

Italian design has always exhibited a flair and a style that over time has a way of transcending eras and design periods. Italians love the newest in fashion and trends. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that so many designers have been at the forefront of their chosen industries. In this series, The Italian Tribune will examine the trends in design from the late 19th century through present times to view both timeless classics and up-to-the minute trends that did not always stand the test of time. When we look back a century ago, designs that were state-of-the-art faded from the scene as the “newest” looks emerged. With the benefit of hindsight, we can examine the beauty and richness of these designs and appreciate fully the art and magic that was created.

At the turn of the 20th century, Art Nouveau was all the rage. It was an international style of architecture and applied art, especially the decorative arts. Born as a reaction to the academic art of the 19th century, it was inspired by natural forms and structures, particularly the curved lines of plants and flowers. It is often referred to by different names. In Italy, Art Nouveau is called Stile Liberty, while in the U.S. it is often called Tiffany Style. Art Nouveau is considered to be a total art style, embracing a wide range of fine and decorative arts, including architecture, painting, graphic art, interior design, jewelry, furniture, textiles, ceramics, glass art and metal work. New technologies in printing and publishing allowed Art Nouveau to quickly reach a global audience. Art magazines, illustrated with photographs and color lithographs, played an essential role in popularizing the new style.

Stile Liberty featured flowers, ribbons, garlands, dragonflies, butterflies and graceful young women dancing, followed by a host of curvilinear, sinuous and spiraling forms. This new style broke with traditional artistic forms. The most important figure in Italian Art Nouveau furniture design was Carlo Bugatti. The son of an architect and sculptor, he was also the father of the famous automobile designer. Carlo studied at the Milanese Academy of Brera and later at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His work was distinguished by its exoticism and eccentricity and included silverware, textiles, ceramics and musical instruments. He is best remembered for his innovative furniture designs, shown first in the 1888 Milan Fine Arts Fair. His furniture often featured a keyhole design and had unusual coverings, including parchment and silk, as well as inlays of bone and ivory. It also sometimes had surprising organic shapes, copied after snails and cobras. Strikingly original, Carlo Bugatti’s furniture combines the picturesque asymmetry of Art Nouveau with the exotic influences, yet, there was nothing derivative in Bugatti’s work.

Pietro Fenoglio was an Italian architect and engineer from Torino. Born in 1865, he is considered one of the most important designers of Stile Liberty in Italy. After attending the Royal Application School for Engineers of Turin, his early projects were in a neo-Gothic style. Sensing the fashion of the time, he soon embraced the “new art” and became the major protagonist of the style in Turin. Fenoglio proved to be extremely prolific and gave Turin some of the greatest Italian examples of this new style. In 13 years, he contributed to the construction of over three hundred projects.

Fenoglio’s work became instantly recognizable by the skillful use of pastel colors, decorations that alternate floral subjects with circular geometric elements and his extensive use of decorative framing to separate portions of his construction “canvas.” He was also one of the organizers of the International Expositions in Turin occurring in 1902 and 1911. He was also active in the field of publishing, being among the founders and among the most important contributors to the magazine Architettura Italiana Moderna (Modern Italian Architecture).

Ernesto Basile was born in Palermo, Sicily, on January 31, 1857. Trained as an architect, he was an exponent of modernism and Art Nouveau. He became well-known because of his stylistic fusion of ancient, medieval and modern elements and is remembered as one of the pioneers of Art Nouveau in Italy.

His father, Giovanni Battista Filippo Basile, was also an architect as well as a professor at the University of Palermo. Ernesto graduated in 1878 as an architect from the Royal School of Engineering and Architecture. During the 1880s, he lived in Rome and became a professor of technical architecture at the University of Rome and succeeded his father Giovanni, who died in 1891, as a professor of architecture in Palermo in 1890. Among his notable students were Francesco Fichera, Saverio Fragapane, Francesco La Grassa, Enrico Calandra, Camillo Author, Salvatore Caronia Roberti, Giuseppe Vittorio Ugo and Gioacchino Luigi Mellucci.

His father had started the construction of the opera house Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele in Palermo in January, 1874, but it was stopped for eight years from 1882 until 1890. From 1891 until the completion of the project in 1897, Basile was the supervising architect of the building.

In 1903, his project for the new parliamentary hall was selected and presented by Giovani Giolitti, the Prime Minister of Italy. Basile fused the Roman classicist and Baroque elements of the building with Art Nouveau imagery. The construction of the Italian parliament in the Art Nouveau style was one of the most important moments of early modernism in architecture. It was completed in 1927.

By 1910, Art Nouveau was already out of style. It was replaced first by Art Deco and then by Modernism.