You’ve seen them before, with their backgrounds of dark, saturated reds and fancifully cartoonish depictions—often of mustachioed men and glamorous women from long ago in bucket hats and flowing dresses. One might additionally spot a whimsical animal or a floating glass seltzer bottle. And prominently displayed in big, bold letters: Campari.
The walls of Italian restaurants, bars and home dens illustrate the power of the iconic liqueur’s image; essentially, a prerequisite for culinary la dolce vita-fied street cred. Showcasing something from Campari’s vast archive of imagery is so common that it borders on cliche—akin to dorm rooms with Flight Club posters or suburban homes with Live~Laugh~Love paraphernalia. Indeed, if there’s an eatery or bar that ends in a vowel and begins with an “Il,” there’s an outsize chance it has classic Campari imagery somewhere along the walls, and not just in the form of the bottles shelved at the bar.
It’s September now; a month in which the brand shines even brighter. Here in New York, Little Italy’s Feast of San Gennaro attracts scores of revelers who traverse the area’s old-school restaurants, munching on Zeppole and getting tipsy on Negronis: one of the liqueur’s claims to cocktail fame. Uptown at Lincoln Center, the New York Film Festival’s main sponsor is Campari, and there are dedicated bars slinging out frothy Campari sodas. Also this month, the world celebrates that glorious fête known as Negroni Week. It’s a Holy period for many—including probably Stanley Tucci—with restaurants and bars around the globe offering Negroni specials and variations, all meant to help spread the good word about the popular citrus-forward apéritif.
On a recent rainy Monday night at the Greenwich Village restaurant One Fifth, a Negroni Week confab was underway. Under fresh ownership as of last year, the warm wooden space has been a restaurant of some sort since 1911. That makes it old, though not as old as Campari, which was invented in Milan in 1860. Among the revelers, munching on pizzas and arancini and sipping on Negronis, are Campari employees, superfans of the brand and sundry people who are both. That includes someone I meet who has a literal Negroni tattoo with the words BITTER on her upper arm. Turns out Campari culture runs needle-deep.
“The arts have been a very important aspect of the brand since the very beginning of the company,” Julka Villa, Head of Marketing for Gruppo Campari, later tells me. “Back in the 19th Century, what was very visionary of the Campari family was an understanding that artists could tell the story of Campari in a very creative way. At that time, it was the beginning of publicity and promotion. Without this, I don’t think it’d be as popular or successful.”
In fact, it could be said that Davide Campari was an early pioneer of modern advertising. Family patriarch Gaspare Campari opened Milan’s Camparino, their very own bar in the shadow of the city’s famed Duomo, and the nearby Cafe Campari, where they served up glasses of their eponymous concoction to members of the city’s upper-class and artistic communities, both of which flocked to the hotspots. But Davide was the brain behind the brand’s eye-catching marketing efforts. “The city’s artists were among Davide’s friends and customers, and he saw that cooperation with artists was a very powerful way to advertise his product,” says Villa.
As the recipe for Campari was, and is, a closely guarded secret, those artists were given complete creative control to interpret the liquid and its virtues as they wished. Among them was Leonetto Cappiello, the Italian artist and father of the advertising poster, whose signature style became synonymous with early 20th-century marketing.
Based in Paris and known to create illustrations for both French and Italian brands, Cappiello typically chose a singular, sometimes fantastical image, which he depicted on a solid backdrop. In addition to working with Campari—his most famous image, 1921’s Bitter Campari, showcases a clownish figure wrapped around the peels of an orange while holding a Campari bottle—he also created posters marketing Absinthe (for Muara Quina), Cognac (for Gautier Freres) and Vermouth (for Cinzano). All reside in the sweet spot between advertisement and art.
Cappiello’s work is on full display at La Belle Epoque, a West Village shop that specializes in vintage poster sales. “Our clients often request liquor-related posters, including Campari,” says owner Linda Tarasuk, who has been collecting vintage posters herself for almost fifty years. “There are many Campari advertisements from the 20th century, but our gallery’s collection includes pieces from as far back as the 1880s.”
According to Tarasuk, other artists who helped create a distinctive visual image for the brand included Marcello Nizzoli, Louis Koller, Fortunato Depero and Marcello Dudovich.
“There’s a very famous Dudovich work with two lovers embracing,” says Villa of her favorite piece from the Campari cannon. “The color is twisted to red; it’s a very iconic painting really representing what we call the ‘red passion.’ It’s connected to the brand through its color.” Except for perhaps Campbell’s Soup thanks to Warhol’s prints, few other brands enjoy the luxury of their advertisements doubling as art. It’s that quality that lured even Federico Fellini, the iconic and uncompromising auteur, to direct a video ad for the liqueur in 1984—the only commercial of his storied career.
And like all artworks and imagery that become ubiquitous, from Van Gogh’s Sunflowers to Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, the market for Campari originals can be ravenous. “Due to reproduction prints, while Campari posters can be seen in many locations, very few are authentic originals,” explains Tarasuk. “[But also] due to the number of reproductions, the market makes the originals seem much more accessible and available.”
With decades of art under the brand’s belt, it should be no surprise that Campari has not only a museum devoted to its history but also a dedicated team to preserve it. Naturally located in Milan, the Galleria Campari displays a litany of items that trace the legend of the brand from its humble beginnings to its growth into a worldwide phenomenon so big that the Campari company umbrella encompasses a range of household liquors, including tequila (Espolon), vodka (Skyy) and whisky (Wild Turkey). Another member of the family is Campari’s lighter, less-bitter sister, Aperol.
But it’s Campari, and its singularly striking imagery, that is still the most recognizable, in New York, in Italy and beyond. “About ten or twelve years ago, I was living in Brazil and went into a bar in Sao Paulo,” recalls Villa. “It was a very cool place in the city, and as part of the entire design of the bar, they chose a piece from Campari. It really stands for a culture—and an era.”