In Liguria, during the early twentieth century, there was strong increase in olive oil production; with scientific chemistry on the rise, edible oils became possible for human consumption. Olive oil factories, in Oneglia and Imperia, played a major role in this newfound production of refined olive oil. Consumer demand grew, and Italians began to export this precious cooking ingredient abroad. To maintain the quality and characteristics of the original product, it was decided to pack the oil in tinplate containers, a material that allowed optimal packaging. Tin oilcans became the standard method of packaging for the Italian olive oil industry.
To Italy, the year 1861 represented a sense of unity that was so desired, but also cost great effort and sacrifice; it also marked the beginning of a phenomenon that would inexorably change the future of the nation through emigration abroad. Our country, newly formed, recorded one of the largest exodus of migration in modern history. For many expats, the choice of leaving their country of origin was not to deny Italy, rather to find a new sense of home. Most Italian emigrants mainly chose to go to Australia, North America, or Latin America. Italian communities abroad grew, and tried to fill a sense of nostalgia through the search of culinary flavors that would remind them of their homeland far away. Emigrated Italians could find most of the ingredients they needed to make their favourite dishes from home, however, the one piece missing was their precious olive oil. They decided to continue the history of Italian olive oil production through importing it into their new countries of residence.
Entrepreneurship in Liguria, a leading city in international trade, intended to make a product that could be truly unique for potential consumers both home and abroad; this product not only had to be good, but it also had to have attractive packaging to meet the growing desires of customers. To meet the demands of the international market, Liguria began producing containers for its olive oil that would reflect its cultural history and best represent this iconic product of Italian cuisine.
In order to make this production successful, it became essential to locate and hire talented artists in industrial design, who could specifically work with lithographed tinplating, to create the images for the olive oil cans. Young artists were joined by leading designers in the industry, including: Gino Boccassile, Aurelio Craffonara, Plinio Nomellini and later Armando Testa. Together these designers worked hard to create commendable Italian motifs and images for the lithographed oilcans.
Initially, these designs were simple figures, but later, became more complex portrayals of Italian history and culture. The graphic designers drew from both the nineteenth-century and Art Deco traditions with an aim to engage consumers through traditional art with a modern twist. To broaden the consumer audience, the design of the oilcans contained titles and product descriptions both in Italian and English. Interestingly, at that time, the oilcans did not contain the name of its manufacturer, rather only had images that represented olive oil as an Italian cultural icon. When seen today, one of these oilcans might seem to have contained an ambiguous product, yet in its own time, the fact that the manufacturer’s name was not included was considered normal.
We have tried to capture the true essence of the cultural history of the Liguria oilcan throughout our museum collection. Along the ancient walls of our mill extends a maze of colours that strikes visitors as a beautiful representation of historical Italian culture and landscapes that surround the museum. We have categorized the oilcans according the themes and images presented on then most frequently. The female figure plays a privileged role within the images’ themes, and often depicts traditional cherubs or the typical Belle Epoque. Other themes pay homage to Italian landmarks, including: Grotta Azzura, the Arch of Peace, Sanremo, and Mole Antonelliana. Additionally, one of the most important themes is the celebrated unification of Italy, which portrays motifs of Italian patriots. Within this theme, Italy itself is symbolized by a young female warrior, inspired by the French artist Eugène Delacroix, wearing a tunic and helmet that represent national freedom.