The golden age of Naples
Venture beyond the hustle and bustle of the historic core of Naples, into the seaside areas of Chiaia and Posillipo and up to the hills of Vomero and you will find buildings decorated with the curving floral forms and arched windows typical of art nouveau architecture. Take a walk among these Liberty style buildings and you are transported to the late 19th century when Naples was still struggling with poverty and disease, but also boasted ambitious new architectural landmarks and a lively scene of coffeehouses, theaters, salons and literary reviews, all of which made the city a cultural capital. It was during this belle epoque that two brothers opened the French-style department store Grandi Magazzini Italiani E & A Mele. A store unlike any the city had seen before, Magazzini Mele captured the spirit of optimism, sophistication and artistic innovation that defined turn-of-the-century Naples.
History of an Italian department store
Emmidio and Alfonso Mele opened Grandi Magazzini Italiani Mele in 1889. Unlike traditional boutiques, which were small and specialized in a specific type of merchandise, Magazzini Mele offered a broad range of products, including fabric, clothing and accessories for men, women, children and infants. These items were sold in an unprecedentedly large two-story store as well as through a mail-order catalogue.
With dramatic and frequently changing window displays and the invitation to browse without buying, soon the store became a social destination, a place to see and be seen, especially for visitors to the big city. The tagline for Magazzini Mele might have been “the absolute best deal,” but the store soon became associated with glamour, sophistication and quality. In part this was because its size meant the Magazzini could offer the latest European fashions, but it was also due to the store’s novel approach to advertising.
Art Nouveau advertising
While boutiques had traditionally depended on word of mouth and announcements in the local paper to gain customers, Magazzini Mele adopted an aggressive approach to creating a public image. The store sought out the best Art Nouveau artists, such as Leopoldo Metlicovitz, Marcello Dudovich, Leonetto Cappiello, and Aleardo Villa, to create advertisements which were placed not only in Naples’ newspapers, but also in those of Milan and Rome. Mele became the largest account for Ricordi, the pioneering Milanese lithographer, which quickly put its very best artists to work for the trailblazing retailer.
The Mele poster collection
While the Grandi Magazzini Italiani Mele was a huge success, its fortune was tied to the personalities that founded it. When Emmidio and Alfonso Mele died after WWI (in 1918 and 1928), the store went into a rapid decline and by 1932 had gone out of business. However, the fact that the store continues to be known more than 80 years after it ceased activity, proves that the Mele brothers were true visionaries when it came to advertising. Today the Mele posters are highly collectible and sought after around the world. Thanks to the art comissioned by the Mele brothers today we can let ourselves travel back to and elegant and glamorous world of stylish women and debonair men, much the same as shoppers did at the turn of the century.