Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Alfa Romeo Badge

The cloisonne badge that introduced me to Alfa Romeo in the early 1960's.

For fifty-odd years, I've thought that Alfa Romeo had the coolest badge going.  It imparted a sense of history and exoticism and, in cloisonne rendering, quality and pride.  In the postwar era, it was customary for European cars to have cloisonne badges (from Volkswagen on up to Ferrari).  This seemed much more classy than the American practice of inventing a meaningless new name for a vehicle line or model and rendering it on the car in pot-metal script.

But it wasn't until recently that I looked into the symbolism on Alfa's badge.  I was re-reading Barbara Tuchman's excellent A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.  On page 240 (paperback edition) she writes:

     "The acme of ostentation awaited in Milan.  To have bought a daughter of the King of France
     for his son and now a son of the King of England for his daughter was a double triumph for
     Galeazzo Visconti and one more marvel in the notoriety of the Vipers of Milan, so-called from
     the family device of a serpent swallowing a struggling human figure, supposedly a Saracen."

That rang the Alfa bell in my head.  Tuchman goes on to explain that the Visconti family did politics in ways that the Corleone family would find breathtaking.  They enjoyed sex in ways that Larry Flynt would find impressive.  Both men and women, over generations.  The story of Jonah and the sea creature is about repentance.  So it's ironic but appropriate that the Viscontis would adopt him as their family symbol.

I decided to research the Alfa Romeo badge seriously--on Wikipedia.  ;-)   Here's a link to an article that told me more than I wanted to know:

It turns out that the Alfa badge has a lot to do with Milan, and not much to do with Alfa.  The red cross on a white background symbolizes Milan (and many other Western Christian entities and service-oriented groups, like the medieval Knights Templar and the modern Red Cross).  The Visconti family adapted the symbol of Jonah (not a Saracen) being swallowed by a sea serpent in the 1000's, later topped by a crown, to symbolize their rule of Milan beginning in 1277.  Milan retained the symbol after the Viscontis no longer ruled.  So the Alfa badge essentially says "Milan" twice.

Until now, I had always understood the Biblical Jonah to have been swallowed by a whale.  Not so.  In ancient Greek, he was swallowed by a ketos: a "great fish or sea creature."  Liturgical art depicting Jonah and the Serpent goes back to the 200's c.e.  "Sea creature" got transliterated into "whale" in the Middle Ages when the Bible was being translated from Greek into modern European languages.  The translators were looking for a more concrete word for a "sea creature" big enough to swallow a man.

Many renderings of Jonah being swallowed by the Serpent show him just being gulped down, or holding a tablet
describing his tribulation or its significance.  This rendering shows his arms extended, struggling.  That's the
version that made it onto the Visconti Coat of Arms and the Alfa Romeo badge.

The Visconti Coat of Arms.

Evolution of the Alfa Romeo badge: the stylized laurel wreath around the outside was added when Alfa began to rack
up racing victories in the 20's, 30's, and 40's.  The stylized 'S", for the House of Savoy, was abandoned in favor of a
tildy when Italy ceased being a kingdom and became a republic.  The current badge is simplified and modernized
by omitting the laurel wreath and scales on the serpent, rendering Jonah in red,  and making the crown more
abstract.  Normally, this kind of simplification in graphic design appeals to me--but not this time.

But it's still the coolest manufacturer's logo going...

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