Bicycles, sports, and the birth of Italian tourism #ItalianModernities #lectures
In this presentation we’ll talk about bicycles and the way in which bicycles affected the birth of Italy's mechanic industry, and not only the mechanic industry, but also the development of sports and tourism as platforms to create a national imagination. We'll talk about bicycles as symbols of industrial modernity. We'll talk about bicycles as the tool which develops the forms of tourism and sports and also about bicycles as an imaginative platform for creating a collective imagery of the nation.
When we talk about bicycles, we are talking about a tool that underwent a process of long transformation, a hundred-year development of a technology that turned into a very interesting and impactful industry. The first model of bicycles was the celérifère, invented during the French Revolution by the Count Mède de Sivrac in 1791. It was a kind of walker. To this model over the years were added elements that now compose what we know as the bicycle. In 1818 Carl von Dries invented the Dreisienne, which was a walker, but with a handlebar.
To it, it was added the element of the pedals in the Michadine by the mechanic Michaux, basically a velocipede with pedals. This was developed into the famous model of the Grandbi since the 1870s. This model developed later in the 1880s with the idea of the safety bicycles with wheels that were less dangerous than the grandbi, that, despite the shape or what you might think, was pretty fast. With this development, Italy has an important impact, especially thanks to the invention of 1885 by a mechanic from Milan, Edoardo Bianchi, who invented the safety bicycle with wheels of equal diameter. This is the final point of the evolution of what we call the bicycle.
This event of 1885 is particularly important in connection with another event of three years later, which is the invention in 1888 of the pneumatic tire by the Scottish engineer John Dunlop. This is an important set of circumstances that make it possible to combine a new technology, like the one that Bianchi developed, with a new use of rubber. Rubber, as in the case of the Italian rubber and tire company Pirelli, was used to cover telegraphic wires, to isolate them. After the development of Dunlop’s pneumatic tire, all the production was reconverted from telegraphic cables (and seeing all the cables that we have, you understand that this was a pretty big business) to the production of tires, as a way to create a wheel with a cushion.
This is fundamental because it creates an association between the mechanical element and the component of rubber which will be at the base of the development of Italy's mechanical industry. We see in these years the opening of a number of important brands of mechanical production and assembling of tools and components, which make up for a bicycle. This is the beginning of what would later develop into the car mechanical industry and also, if think about the Wright brothers, who were cyclists and bicycle mechanics, the development of light materials that would eventually impact the development of flight. Bicycles were related to competition, as we see in this ad by Toulouse Lautrec for la châine Simpson, and also, they were related, as we see in the ad of the father of modern poster Jules Cheret, to femininity: to muscularity on the one hand and on the other to a sense of liberation and emancipation, related to the idea of pedaling, so going on a bicycle, as a form of flying, of freeing oneself from the obligations and the slowness of walking but also from the obligation of needing another animal - in this case the horse - to move quickly.
The bicycle is really the first element of self-transportation. It really changes the game and it's the base of a new capacity of movement in the late 19th century. As it appears in Bianchi's ads, bicycles are related to this experience of flying (we can connect to it by remembering how we first learnt how to go to ride a bicycle as children: this impression of being free and being almost flying). In contemporary ads, bicycles are related to movement, health, and a fit body.
This is an image of piazza Duomo in Milan from the late 19th century, where we see gentlemen, elegant businessmen who are riding their bicycles through the city. Bicycles at this point are connected to health, to wealth, as we see in the image of the businessman (they were pretty expensive), to well-being, to a body that is moving, but also to economic and financial well-being, to elegance (they were luxury tools at this point), to speed (the ability to cross space more quickly) and, as we were saying, to the new notion of a moving body (as we see in the image the moving bodies of the gentlemen as opposed to the still or slow bodies of the passersby). All these words are words that are synthesized by the word modernity. Bicycles are intrinsically related to modernity.
We talked about a moving body, and we have to open a little parenthesis here about the notion of how the body becomes central to the understanding of modernity and how bicycle captures this new importance of the body, not just in the political context, but also in the philosophical context. The issue of the body is related to the issue of gymnastics, to the development of a fit body. This starts 8 years after Italian unification with the foundation in 1869 of the Italian gymnastics Federation. The importance of gymnastics is even more stressed by the fact that in 1878 the Italian Minister of Education, who was a well-known critic, the author of the first histories of Italian literature, Francesco De Sanctis, made gymnastics mandatory in school. So, a literary critic seeing the value of a fit body for the newly formed nation.
This generates a fierce debate in the 1880s in Italy, over which model of gymnastics the nation was supposed to follow. This will also be crucial in defining a moment of tension between the Vatican and the Italian state with regard to physical education, so how to deal with the issue of the body. The issue of the body is related to the necessity to create a coordinated social body and bind the body of the individual to the national body. The necessity to create a coordinated body is emblematized by the metaphor of the body of Pinocchio that becomes coordinated and becomes the body of a child, no longer separated in disarticulated pieces, but working organically as a national body.
With regard to the models of approach to the issue of gymnastics, there were two schools that embodied different political alliances. There was the school of Mosso, who was supporting the so-called Swedish model of gymnastics, favoring flexibility and freedom of movements, which was related to a democratic approach and favored by those who were stressing the necessity to find an alliance with the democracies of France and England. The other model was a Prussian model or a militaristic focus on coordinated movements executed all at the same time, and this was promoted by Bauman and was also related to the necessity to align Italy with the militaristic model of Prussia. The contrast between the Vatican and Italian sports society was related to the issue of the body as a central form of understanding of the human person and its relationship to society. This relates to the overall philosophical context of the second half of the 19th century that rediscovers the body as a central element in the human self-assessment: from the Victorian ideology of the mens sana in corpore sano (healthy mind in healthy body), which was at the base of the development of British industrialism, to the idea of Darwinism, in Darwin's recognition of the body as a site where we can assess change or evolution or progress. The discourse by Darwin inevitably lends itself to a social repercussion which is developed by Spencer - the so-called social Darwinism - relating this function of the body, as an element that reveals progress in evolution, to racial distinctions, to the pursuit of record and primacy.
This was also related to the development of sports, not just in the Victorian ideology, but also in the creation of sports as a statement to make sure that one nation or one race had the fittest body and was the fittest for the survival. The discovery of the body is also key in the thought of three contemporary philosophers: Nietzsche, for whom the body is the site of a greater reason (this is a polemic that Nietzsche starts against the Platonic division of body and soul and also a critique against the Christian primacy of the soul over the body, in a platonic reading of Christianity over an Aristotelian reading of Christianity where the notion of incarnation is actually key to the understanding of the body as a key kernel of the Christian event); then in Marx the body becomes aligned to a line of thought that starts in the Enlightenment with the famous book the man-machine by La Mettrie (the idea of a body which is conceived as a machine, in purely materialistic terms); and, lastly, with Bergson, the idea of body as the site of a living memory. Within this context, the project of the industrial bourgeoisie of the north to construct around bicycles a new modern Italian culture was a project that related to the notion of the body, the centrality of the body, involved in in the act of cycling. Bicycles become central cultural objects to know and travel the country's geographic body, its territory, to regenerate the individual body (its muscles and make it fit), but also to form a new social body (a coordinated individual that works with the body of society). This is evident in the images that we see of bicycle races where the body of the cyclist is an emblem or a metaphor of the body of everybody else and it's also racing, surrounded by the social body, in the body of the national territory. This becomes a key metaphor to understand the impact of bicycles.
The success of bicycles develops around a key moment that happens in Milan in 1893. It's the time where, 8 years after Bianchi's invention, bicycles start to become more popular. The Italian cyclists gathered for the first time in a congress. This congress opposes two clubs, which embody two different philosophies of this new commercial item: the first club was the Milano Veloce club, and the Milano veloce Club was opposed to the Torino Veloce club. On the one hand, the Milano Veloce club was supporting the ideology of biciclettismo, which saw bicycles as recreational vehicles for traveling the country, whereas the Torino Veloce club was supporting the ideology of velocipedismo, which instead saw velocipedes as tools for competition and racing as emblematized by the name velocipede (veloce in Italian means fast).
The first school had as its champion the cyclist Luigi Masetti, who wrote a letter to the Corriere della Sera in 1993 with a bet to go with his bicycle from Milan to the Universal Exposition of Chicago and send letters during his trip as in an Italian cycling version of Jules Verne in its Tour around the world in 80 days. On the other hand, the velocipedismo was supported by the birth of the Unione velocipedistica italiana (the union of Italian velocipedists) that was pursuing a new relevance for cycling races that replaced horse races. On the one hand, the philosophy of biciclettismo, that clashed with the philosophy of velocipedismo in the Congress of Milan, generated, the year after, in 1894, the form of the Touring Club ciclistico italiano (the cycling Italian Touring Club), which is better known as the Italian Touring Club since the Year 1900. On the other hand, velocipedismo, which split in this context, developed in 1896 a new form, out of the union of two magazines Il ciclista (cyclist) and La tripletta into a newspaper called la Gazzetta dello Sport, which will become the most important Italian sports newspaper. We'll see the impact of the Touring Club and Gazzetta dello sport in the formation of tourism on the one hand and on the other of sports.
Despite the division of these two movements, we have to say that this congress of 1893 was elaborating a common platform developing a market for bicycles, but also developing a market by creating spaces of common imagination. These spaces were all related to the collective creation of a national imagination, as a way to create a unified national body. On the one hand, the Touring Club Italiano is paramount to understanding the creation of tourism in Italy.
The club moved from advertising the so-called trip out of town (gita fuori porta) to promoting cycling trips (passeggiate ciclistiche) and it did so by providing its members with guides, planimetries, ads for products and tools and information on the roads. This was a way to measure and map the nation, not only the profile of the territory and the geography, but also the measurement of heights and distance as a very scientific act. We move from the idea of the Grand Tour of the humanistic tradition (visiting Milan, Venice, Rome, Naples, Pompeii, and Sicily) to the idea of a petit tour of Italy in small stages, the stages that were allowed by the human capability to ride a bicycle (50 or 70 or maybe a hundred-kilometer stages). This explains why the guides were so fundamental to understand and decipher the space in between the big cities of the Grand Tour. In parallel with this new model of the petit tour of cicloturismo (cycling tourism), there is a moment that launches another idea of how to move through space, which is the passeggiata ciclistica (the cycling trip) organized by the founders of the Touring club italiano Bertarelli and Johnson in 1895 from Milan (the city where the club was located) to Rome.
As we can see in this image, bicycles and the two cyclists in the front (Bertarelli and Johnson) are setting into motion the immobility of the country, emblematized by the ruins and by the stillness of people. This was a process through which club was aiming at making its members discover the body of the nation, and at revitalizing its territory. This was a form of nation-building through sightseeing, as proven by the destinations of the other passeggiate ciclistiche: Monte Rosa, Libya later (after the conquest of Tripolitania) in terms of geography. The passeggiate ciclistiche were also aimed at discovering the Italian recent history as in the pilgrimage to the tomb of Victor Emmanuel II or the caravan to commemorate the expedition of the thousands in the second war of independence, or the trip to Rome for the Jubilee of the nation. So, from political advocacy - lobbying to lower the taxes that were imposed on velocipedes or lobbying for the development of new infrastructures and roads - the club creates a sort of national comradeship, where these common events and feats were meant to create a common platform of imagination. In Benedict Anderson's terms, the club is an imagined community.
This starts from the effort of the members to connect to the highest ranks of the Italian nation, for example by having the Queen Margherita as its member. This is a deliberate project that involves also the government. The club also creates an imagined community through its Rivista, its magazine La rivista del Touring Club, where the promotion of bicycles as commercial tools is combined with their artistic connotation as aesthetic tools, as we see in the two covers by Umberto Boccioni, of March 1908 and April 1908, where again we see, as for Toulouse Lautrec and Chéret, the idea of bicycles in connection to racing and competition, on the one hand, and, on the other, of cycling in relation to femininity, fashion and luxury. Cicloturismo as a philosophy creates the idea of vocation, as a structured form, as a structured experience, but vacation is also a field of exchange and national shared imagination. Vacation is a platform where we can share our stories and create a common imagination and be united in it. Vacation is born as a monetary surplus that is produced by industrialization.
The word vacation comes from vacating. The economic surplus of industrialization makes it possible to do something that was unheard of before, that is, to ‘vacate’ from life and its needs, and its urgency. Vacation is a byproduct of industrialization and, in the context of the Touring Club, vacation becomes a tool of national imagination. Vacation triggers the need to build infrastructures, and this is where the advocacy part comes into play again: the idea of building roads and building hotels. This idea was also spurred by the British who started to come to Italy after the discovery in 1860s by a physician that the sea water has benefits on health.
This prompted the British to move to Italy and build grand hotels in Venice, Sanremo, and Rimini. Among the hotels, the most striking one is in Varese, the Grand Hotel Campo de Fiori, which was the first hotel ever built at a kilometer’s height. This idea of vacation has a monetary component and an engineering component but also a cultural component, because it stirs the necessity to create a discourse around vacation: guides but also reports through La rivista del Touring Club, ads of places to visit. Vacation creates a new idea, a new knowledge in motion of the nation. So, moving throughout the nation and getting to know its sights by sight and no longer through vedute (views) or just through the selection of the most important cities.
On the other hand, La Gazzetta dello sport is also related to the creation of a national imagery, in this case through the idea of sports. As we will see, the ideas of sports and tourism work on the same platform despite their differences. La gazzetta dello sport is born out of the project of velocipedism, that is, of the idea of transforming sports into an aestheticization of the values of capitalism.
The Victorian ideology launched sports as an aesthetic representation of the values of industry: competition, teamwork, spirit of improvement, pursuit of results, and the obsession to measure and record results. Sports is also promoted as an effective synthesis of the two key ideologies of the 19th century: idealism (romanticism: the hero, the champion) and positivism (scientism: recording and measuring the feats of a champion, measuring the time, measuring the kilometers). Sports was also a way to create a discourse through competitions and through the birth of a press that stimulates the market and a collective imagination. Sports is beneficial to the economy and to the creation of a common pattern of italianity for a nation like Italy that was composed of a patchwork of many different identities.
The Gazzetta dello sport is launching the Giro d'italia project in 1909. The Tour de France was born in 1903 and the Giro d'italia was the equivalent of it, but the Giro d'Italia was meant as a way to know (meaning to travel) and measure at the same time the national territory, the geographic body of the nation. This is done through its measurement, the planimetric and maps in the same way as for tourism, but in this case with regard to racing. It was also meant to bind the individual body of the cyclist to the social body (the masses).
The idea of creating through the body of the cyclist a magnetism that could bind the body to the masses, as we see in many images of the races. The Giro d'Italia was meant, in the same way as tourism, as a way to set the national body in motion. The national body as a territory, as a set of individuals, but also as a collective mass, moving and rediscovering its own life and territory.
In the first Giro d'Italia of 1909, as you see from the map, the south is not included. This was related to the lack of infrastructures (of roads) in the south. With the development of Giro d'Italia and tourism the market is fed, and the cultural imagination is also nurtured. Bicycles start to penetrate the artistic imagination, especially literature. I list here a few books and poems that are dedicated to the bicycle. This is quite remarkable because you have to imagine that, if you buy a commercial item like an iPad or a bicycle, you can certainly use it, but if you place that same item, an I-pad within a literary work or a canvas, as it happens in this case for bicycles, the same item undergoes a cultural negotiation, it becomes something else and it means something else.
Bicycles will become the emblem for Pascoli or Gozzano or Pirandello of a separation between an immobile culture (or an eternal culture) and a culture in motion, a culture that implies a moving body (as mirrored in bicycles). The poet Dino Campana in the early 20th century dedicated to the bicycle a Nietzschean ode, not only to the bicycle but also to the Giro d'Italia. As in the equivalent of the Ballie ad for Pirelli of 1913, Campana writes the first poem dedicated to the Giro d'Italia. I won't read it, but you can understand this idea of the turba, a whirlwind, that this movement generates, and this whirlwind is saluted with the triple greeting at the end Dyonisos Dyonisos Dyonisos, indicating an outburst of Dionysian spirit, which is unleashed. So the body as the site of a greater spirit in Nietzschean terms. This moving body, releasing energy and muscularity, becomes also the focus of Umberto Boccioni.
This is a sketch by Boccioni, published on Lacerba and this sketch is an evolution of the cover that Boccioni drew for La rivista del Touring Club, identifying bicycle, in this case, with masculinity. This is a graphic development within futurism, of a more masculine approach to the representation of bicycles. So no longer the feminine connection, as for example, you see in Pirandello or in De Amicis, but the emphasis on the muscularity that will be developed in the famous dynamism of a cyclist, where we can see the body of a cyclist wedging through space.
The wedge was a symbol of the breaking of space, the breaking of its bi-dimensionality and the breaking of codes. The bicycle here is associated not just to the mimetic representation of reality, but to the representation of the dynamism of the cyclists or the impression that cycling gives on us and to the unleashing of an energy that allows man to conquer space. This will become the theme of painting, where bicycle is something that in Sironi is related to the climbing (the cyclist) or the descending. This is a good metaphor for Le due strade (The two roads) by Guido Gozzano, depicting a slow poet ascending a mountain and a very fast cyclist going down a hill.
This going down is marked by the question “where?”. This becomes a metaphor of modernity that accelerates the slow pace of life that has been running eternally in Italy for centuries and breaks with this new timing. This notion of breaking that we see in Boccioni's Dynamism of the cyclist will be retrieved also by Prampolini, another Futurist, in the Dynamism of a cyclist, and also by Depero, who will insist on the idea of cycling as a form of wedging of space, opening up a new three-dimensional element in the painting.
During fascism cycling loses its importance. Mussolini emphasizes soccer over cycling, because cycling exposed, as we saw in the map of the 1909 Giro d’Italia, Italy's lack of roads and infrastructures, something that was seen as embarrassing for the regime. The regime looked more favorably at soccer, because soccer was a team sport and embodied the notion of the regime as a collective state rather than a state based on individual feats. Italy's victory in the World Cups of 1934 and 1938 was something that the Duce cherished because it brought visibility to the nation, whereas Italian cyclists were not winning in international competitions. During the war and after the war, bicycles once again changed their cultural connotation: from symbols of luxury at the beginning, to symbols of a shared imagination, to degraded symbols during fascism, and to symbols, especially during neorealism, of Italy's rebirth, of Italy's poverty and need to be reborn after the war in the Reconstruction period.
The stealing of a bicycle in Bicycle thieves, the masterpiece by Vittorio De Sica, becomes a dramatic moment because bicycles were the only tool that allowed people to move and therefore go to work, in the context of post-war Italy. Bicycles were related to poverty but also to the hope of reconstructing the new nation. In the 1950s bicycles embodied once again the collective identity of the nation in the rivalry between Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi, the two big Italian champions who won both in the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France between the 1940s and 1950s. The two cyclists embodied the social division between the Catholic and devout Bartali and the secular cyclist Coppi, who was involved in an affair while he was married. This caused a fierce social debate, especially after a trial for adultery.
In post-war Italy, cycling was a mirror of the nation's social tensions in the 1950s. I want to conclude with the idea of bicycle sharing, which is now developing, as a way to see how the same commercial item acquires even more different meanings in relation to different contexts. Bicycles now are vintage tools, but also green tools, and means of transportation that allow a cleaner capability of movement. This concludes our itinerary from the beginning, the creation of a technology, to the culturalization of this technology and its identification with the project of construction of a national imagination and the project of reading reality through items that capture our imagination.