On the trail of Italy's strangely beautiful street signs

Published 24th February 2016
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On the trail of Italy's strangely beautiful street signs
Written by By James Clough, Special to CNN
The most interesting Italian signs and inscriptions are rare, and usually have to be patiently hunted down.
What distinguishes them is the variety of original shapes -- or letterforms -- that are sometimes used in situations that would be unthinkable in polite "Anglo" circumstances.
Before typefaces and fonts dominated the scene, Italy had no standardization of letterforms for commercial signs, and there were no printed manuals for sign-writers. This freedom and detachment from standard lettering, as well as the craftsmanship and creativity of the sign-makers and designers, are what make Italian signs so extraordinary.

Sign-making in Italy today

In Italy there is a tiny number of professionals still designing and painting letters by hand. All other makers of signs use font-derived letters and, to my knowledge, no professionals have been cutting letters in stone by hand for several decades.
One consequence of these ready-made font-derived letters for signs and inscriptions has been widespread banality, especially of shop signs, and a dreary national uniformity of street-name lettering in recently built suburbia and many town centers.

The freedom of Art Nouveau

Before the end of the nineteenth-century, traditional letterforms started to give way to Art Nouveau styles. In the early 1900s there was an outburst of fantasy that occupied every area of lettering from posters to book jackets, shop signs to gravestones and even institutional inscriptions. The freedom to make unconventional lettering, sanctified by the Art Nouveau movement, continued throughout the twentieth century at both professional and amateur levels.
It is precisely this freedom that makes some twentieth century Italian signs so extraordinary. They are a mirror of Italian society because they reflect a variety of cultural milieus, attitudes and pulsations that permeate the country at all levels, both public and private.

Italians (arguably) do it better

In Britain, the craft of cutting letters in stone by hand is still practiced by a considerable number of professional lettercutters. There are many elegant examples of lettering done by these men and women, and the quality of their work is unquestionably high. Although sign painting has been a declining trade for several decades, the British craftsmen in this field were also deft interpreters of traditional letterforms.
But, unlike their Italian colleagues, the Brits were rarely inventors of original ones. Despite some recent innovations, on the whole, stone-cut and hand-painted British letters of the twentieth century derive either from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries or from the influence of the Romans, and italics of men like Eric Gill. There was also an obsession with Imperial roman letters during the first half of the twentieth century.
The best British signs tend to be more "bourgeois," and much more predictable than the best Italian work.

Why do signs matter?

Depending on whose opinion you have, a piece of lettering may be a work of art, in or out of fashion, good, bad or ugly. It may also be suitable or unsuitable for its purpose and may look good or bad within the space it occupies, or congruous or incongruous in relation to the surrounding architectural environment.
Some might say signs need to be functional and nothing more. I would say that only a "No smoking" sign, or an exit sign in a cinema, need to be functional and, perhaps, nothing else. Even a diehard type nerd would find it difficult to object to an illuminated "Exit" sign in uppercase Helvetica.
The alphabet has always been a medium for artistic expression and signs are now attracting more attention than ever. Besides their obvious necessity as functional objects, looking at them is useful for enhancing perception and training the eyes. But above all they are, quite simply, just nice to look at and enjoy.
Taken from Signs of Italy by James Clough, published by Lazy Dog Press and designed by Bunker. This piece was edited exclusively for CNN.