From its beginning in Milan to becoming an Italian icon, taking in Count Negroni, Fellini, squashed red beetles and, most importantly, the time Lucy Britner met Clive Owen – this is the history of Campari.

In the same year Abraham Lincoln was elected 16th president of the United States (that’s 1861, just in case you didn’t know), Gaspare Campari hit upon a successful (and very secret) recipe for a new drink with a bitter flavour. The Campari archives describe Gaspare as “both stubborn and brave”, since he set about making his “bitter in the Dutch style”, when  at the time, the world of liqueurs was dominated with cordials, elixirs and the like.

Seven years later, in 1867, Gaspare opened a venue in Milan – Caffè Campari – next to the city’s landmark Duomo. And by 1904, Campari was in production at its first plant in Milan’s Sesto San Giovanni.

In 1915, Gaspare’s son Davide opened Camparino as a ‘younger sibling’ bar next to his father’s Caffè Campari. The Aperitivo moment took off and the bar’s signature drink, the simple and delicious Campari and soda, was a hit.

Classic cocktails

It’s impossible to talk about Campari without talking about classic cocktails and the titans that are the Americano and the Negroni. The Americano, which is a mix of Campari, sweet vermouth and soda water, was on the menu at Caffè Campari in the late 1860s, where it was known as the ‘Milano-Torino’ because Campari came from Milan and vermouth from Turin. The story goes that it became known as the Americano thanks to its popularity with American tourists.

The Americano is also the precursor to the Negroni. And like all good booze stories, the origins of the Negroni are soaked in confusion. My favourite tale is the one that suggests that in 1919 a Count Camillo Negroni asked the bartender (Fosco Scarselli) at Caffè Casoni to swap out the soda in his Americano and replace it with gin. That’s MoM’s kind of Count.

Campari advert

Campari advert by Nizzoli from 1920s

Art attack

And as more and more drinkers were imbibing Campari – Counts or otherwise – the brand was also making inroads in the art world. In the 1920s, Leonetto Cappiello created the famous Spiritello sprite wrapped in an orange peel and by the 30s, Campari’s advertising has taken on the deco, futuristic style. The 40s and 50s saw Campari engage with more artists and in the 60s, Bruno Munari designed the iconic ‘Graphic Declination of the name Campari’ poster for the opening of the Milan subway. (It’s one with all the Campari labels sort of torn up and stuck on a red background).

From the art scene to the big screen and by 1985, Campari’s relationship with the world of film reached a new peak with Federico Fellini (of La Dolce Vita fame) directing a commercial for the Italian market.

The ‘80s and ‘90s saw Campari capitalise on the economic growth of the era as consumers set out to be seen drinking the right thing. And in the 90s, Kelly LeBrock (Weird Science and The Woman in Red) became a different woman in red as she fronted the brand’s ‘It’s Fantasy’ ads.

By the 2000s, the mega stars were in full flow, with the likes of Salma Hayek, Eva Mendes and Jessica Alba all featuring in campaigns as well as the once famous Campari Calendar – a calendar that counted Mario Testino among its photographers.

While the world of art of film was in full swing, things were changing in the background, too, and in 2006, the company largely stopped using little red cochineal beetles to get the bright red Campari colouring. Sadly, they were never the subject of a calendar.

Galleria Campari

When a brand has amassed so much art, its owners need somewhere to put it all, so in 2010 the new Galleria Campari opened, coinciding with Campari’s 150th birthday.

Then, in 2016, Campari took down the calendar in favour of the Red Diaries film activation and British actor Clive Owen was announced as the star of the 2017 campaign. And yes, this whole article has just been a ruse, dear reader, to share this picture of me at the launch event with Clive Owen. Look how happy he is to meet a drinks journalist!

Clive Owen meets Lucy Britner, Campari

Clive Owen meets Lucy Britner!

Anyway, anyway… Owen was followed in 2018 by Guardians of the Galaxy actor Zoe Saldana and in 2019 by Blade Runner 2049-star Ana de Armas.

The big news for the brand this year harks back to Campari’s relationship with Fellini and the 2021 ‘Fellini Forward’ campaign designed to explore Fellini’s genius, using AI to emulate his works. A documentary following the process will be launched at Venice Film Festival on 7 September and New York Film Festival on 29 September, before wider release on-demand. 

Francesca Fabbri Fellini, Fellini’s niece, is involved in the project and it basically involves a “seamless collaboration between human and Artificial Intelligence”. It’ll probably make more sense if you just watch the video.

In recent company results, brand Campari delivered near 40% organic growth in the first half of 2021, compared to last year, thanks largely to all you home cocktail creators and the gradual reopening of bars.

So, mine’s a Negroni. Here’s to making it Count.