Category Archives: Science, Industry & Transport

Visconti, a Scented Story

cipria copy
Cipria, published by A. & G. Carisch & C° in 1931, illustrated by Bonfanti.

The ‘Cipria’ slow fox-trot sheet music is publicity for a perfumed face powder sold by Cipria is the Italian word for face powder., after the initials of its founder Count Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone, was one of the largest perfume houses during the twenties and thirties in Italy.

Count Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone

Giuseppe belonged to the Visconti dynasty, that combined one of the oldest Italian aristocratic families with a great Milanese industrial empire. Although Giuseppe was openly bisexual, he married the elegant daughter of a pharmaceutical and cosmetics industrialist, Carla Erba. The couple got seven children, one of whom would become the famous film director Luchino Visconti (Death in Venice, The Damned, The Leopard, …). The family owned some marvellous palaces which would eventually be used by Visconti in his films to recreate the splendour of his own childhood.

Carla Erba, wife of Giuseppe and mother of Luchino Visconti

Giuseppe and Carla belonged to the circle of King Vittorio Emanuele III and his wife Queen Helena. Giuseppe even became gentleman-in-waiting to the queen and some say he became her lover. Apparently also Carla had extra marital relations. The Visconti couple was said to live apart. The composers Toscanini and Puccini were their friends, but also the music editor Ricordi and the novelist Gabriele D’Annunzio.

Giuseppe Visconti was a person with eclectic interests. Noblesse oblige: he became patron of the arts, was on the board of directors of the Scala, and managed several theatres. He himself was an amateur actor and liked to put on make up and dress as a woman. The Viscontis enjoyed a private theatre not only in their Milanese palazzo but also in their monumental villa near Lake Como.

In the middle Giuseppe Visconti performing in his home theatre.

In the first years of the 20th century the romantic Giuseppe Visconti created from some hovels and old stables surrounding a castle falling into ruin, a complete and totally faked but charming medieval village. This place called Grazzano Visconti, near Milan, can still be visited today.

The neo-medieval village, Grazzano Visconti, created by the father of Luchino Visconti.

Giuseppe also was director of Inter Milan and an entrepreneur. Asked by his father in law, Giuseppe started to create perfumes. He was so taken by mixing fragrances that he started his own firm: After the March on Rome in 1922 by which Mussolini came to power in Italy, industrialists felt optimistic to become leaders in their speciality. So did It wanted to create a new perfume representative of the revolutionary times. To this end they held one of the first nation-wide marketing researches in Italy. The survey took months and as a result created a new fragrance. The writer and family friend Gabriele d’Annuncio tried the perfume and named it Giacinto innamorato, after its main component: the scent of hyacinths.

The brand name Giacinto innamorato is of course also noticeable on the ‘Cipria’ sheet music cover, as is the typical signature.


The perfume flacons were packaged and designed in beautiful art-deco style with a lot of rich gold ink.

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Giacinto Innamorato perfumed postcard.

With the help of an intensive publicity campaign Giacinto Innamorato soon became known in the whole country. Soon there would follow other well-known fragrances. stopped its activity in 1970.

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Another Giacinto Innamorato perfumed card.
tumblr_nirxh0m4ue1qdtsn5o1_1280 perfume shop, Milan 1955

We’ll end this post with an extract from Luchino Visconti’s last film I’Innocente (1976) based on a novel by family friend Gabriele d’Anniunzio. Although Luchino Visconti had Marxist principles, no one was in a better position than him to portrait the elegance and lavishness of the Italian aristocracy as well as their decadence and irresponsibility. The sumptuous costumes and settings were a second nature to him.

Say cheese !

La Wachkyrie, edited by Clapson in 1919, illustration: Benjamin Rabier

Benjamin Rabier’s drawing of a jovial cow on this cover inspired French cheesemaker Léon Bel for trademarking his cheese La vache qui rit shortly after the First World War. In Europe La vache qui rit (the laughing cow) was and still is a popular brand of industrial soft, molten cheese.

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Léon Bel’s shop in Lons-le-Saunier in the French Jura

Benjamin Rabier (1864-1939) is an illustrator and comic book artist, famous for his animal caricatures. He originally drew the head of the laughing cow as an insignia for the Service Automobile of the French army (see our previous post WWI insignia decorating sheet music for other examples). The laughing cow, nicknamed La Wachkyrie, was painted on the sides of trucks and converted buses of the  RVF B.70 section. That section was part of the massive Ravitaillement en Viande Fraîche, in order to supply fresh meat to the troops near the war front at Verdun. It was later, when Clapson published his song in 1919, that Rabier’s drawing appeared on it’s cover.

Insignia La Wachkyrie for the RVF section of the French Automobile Service during WWI

The nickname La Wachkyrie, which reads in French as la vache qui rit, intended to poke fun at the Germans’ mythical Valkyries of Norse legend who were supposed to lead the German warriors to victory.

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Parisian bus from section RVF B70 with the Wachkyrie painted on the canvas.

Léon Bel himself had served in the RVF B.70 section. And just like every other soldier of this section he had received a free copy of the song La Wachkyrie from the publisher Clapson. Maybe having the sheet music at home triggered Léon Bel’s idea to use the same name and illustration to launch his new brand of molten cheese. Léon Bel’s first attempt at drawing a laughing cow himself was not very successful. It shows an uninspired, rather bored-looking cow behind a fence. Luckily Léon Bel contacted Benjamin Rabier to fine-tune the logo. He succeeded in creating a more cheerful, very feminine red cow wearing cheese box earrings.

On the left, the cheese box as originally illustrated by Léon Bel. Right, the complete design makeover by Benjamin Rabier.
On the left, the cheese box as originally illustrated by Léon Bel. Right, the complete design makeover by Benjamin Rabier.

Some time later Bel wrapped the round cheese in 8 individual small triangle portions and a success story was born.

ancienne-boiteAnd now here is the true reason for this post: 77 seconds of the French spoken 1950 commercial for La Vache qui rit and the cook’s astonishing imitation of a laughing cow!

Ironically and by accident, the drawing of La Vache qui rit was used in the Second World War as the insignia for a German U-boat. The story goes like this. The German submarine ace Günther Prien was killed in action in 1941. To commemorate him Jost Metzler, another captain, instructed his crew to use the same insignia as that of the late captain Prien’s U-boat. Unfortunately he forgot to add a sketch of that insignia, that is to say a snorting bull.

Captain Günther Prien’s personal insignia, a snorting bull

At the submarine base in Lorient in Brittany, a crew member copied the first drawing of a cow he could lay his hands on: a package of popular French cheese. Our occasional artist copied it with such a German gründlichkeit that he even transcribed the words La vache qui rit on the submarine’s hull.

A crew member painting La Vache qui rit on the U-69.

This artistic faux pas led to great amusement and ridicule. While captain Prien was nicknamed The Bull of Scapa Flow, Captain Metzler became known as The Laughing Cow of Lorient. But Captain Metzler, clearly not a narrow-minded man, saw the fun of it all. And when he wrote his memoirs in 1954 he titled his book Die Lachende Kuh, or The Laughing Cow.

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Miss Plum Pudding

Weird-looking plum pudding! It resembles a giant fuming conker, or a ready-to-explode sea mine carried by a fierce hostess. Perhaps the illustrator never saw a real Christmas pudding in his Belle-Epoque Germany. Anyway, he preferred to stay anonymous…

Thomson’s Plum Pudding Model of the atom 1904.

There is a very remote possibility that the illustrator was inspired by the then newly-proposed Plum Pudding Model of the atom by J. J. Thomson. Thomson discovered the electron in 1897. He initially called these mysterious particles corpuscles. In 1904 Thomson, an Englishman suggested that electrons are components of an atom and proposed his Plum Pudding Model: a collection of negatively charged plums (an old word for raisins) immersed in a positively-charged soup, or pudding. This model was discarded and followed by the Rutherford model (1909) and by the Rutherford-Bohr model (1913).