The economy of excellence. Italian craftsmanship in international networks: traditions, technological innovation and communication strategies (19th - 20th century)


The main goal of this research project is to trace the history, the development and the way Italian quality products acquired their main traits, avoiding praises and descriptions of existing studies. At the same time, the approach of the project will not be strictly economic and will also explore the multifaceted cultural dimension involved in the success of small artisanal businesses. Despite the variety in its regulatory framework and detection methods, Italy has the highest percentage in Europe of artisanal businesses on the total amount of industrial activities. To better understand the main traits of this kind of business, its roots and territorial distribution in specialized districts with different lifespans, the historical dimension cannot be overlooked. Analysts often ascribe the success and potential of small artisanal businesses to their ability to establish themselves as heirs to the culture, skills and productions stemming from a tradition of deeply-rooted excellence in time and space. However, the “cultural heritage” of craftsmanship is often defined as static and objective, something to pass on and safeguard because of its intangibility.
This dimension undoubtedly exists, yet Italian quality craftsmanship has never been just the heir to an existing tradition. In Italy, in the post-unification period, artisanal quality and tradition were repeatedly reviewed, reinvented and, above all, adapted to market changes, trying to enhance creativity and the aesthetic values of “artistic crafts”. Afterward, in the 20th century, industry started to erode this aspect of traditional craftsmanship, to combine aesthetic with functionality, through design and a closer relation with art.
Today, “artistic crafts” are a small fraction of modern quality craftsmanship. The relation with art has given way to a much wider view of cultural heritage. The common perception is that the “Italian product” quality in the world is of course linked to myths and traditions of the “Bel Paese”, the homeland of art and culture, but, at the same time, broadens to include lifestyles, practices and taste, that are embroidered in landscapes, environments and history. Hence, they enhance traditional roots, including activities that once wouldn’t have been defined as artisanal. Therefore, this project aims at tracing the history of how Italian craftsmanship reinvented and adapted itself over the last two centuries, boosting production sectors that were able to survive and succeed internationally despite the current crisis.

The project ended in

Scientific coordinator
Prof. Giovanni Luigi Fontana