Thoughts on Italian Pipes

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Thoughts on Italian Pipes, by Sykes Wilford

It's tough not to love Italian pipes. Whether from Pesaro or the area around Como, north of Milan, Italian pipe makers have a sense of flair and elegance that sets them apart in the pipemaking world. This update spans those two major Italian pipe making regions, with Ser Jacopo and Rinaldo from Pesaro and Ardor, Radice and Brebbia all from near Como. Though there is a neoclassical streak in almost all Italian pipes, there are considerable stylistic differences between the two regions.

The Pesaro style, or school, is most closely associated with Mastro de Paja and Ser Jacopo and the man behind both companies-- Giancarlo Guidi, who currently runs Ser Jacopo, but previously headed up the pipemaking team at Mastro de Paja. According to Guidi and others, the Pesaro school was created in the 1960s and 1970s by small groups of local craftsmen who then splintered off into the various brands. The cross-pollination of ideas generated during the early years established the Pesaro school and that exchange of ideas continues today. Il Ceppo and Mastro de Paja are the oldest brands from the area that still make pipes, with Guidi splitting off from Mastro de Paja in 1982 to found Ser Jacopo. Georgio Imperatori, who founded Il Ceppo, worked with Giancarlo Guidi in the very early Pesaro school days, before Guidi founded Mastro de Paja. Similarly, Bruto Sordini of Don Carlos got his start under Guidi at Mastro de Paja. Many of the newer Italian brands, such as Rinaldo and L'Anatra, also have close ties to one of the older companies.

The Pesaro School is most traditionally neoclassical. Essentially, that means that they took classic English shapes-- Billiards, Dublins, Bulldogs etc-- and recreated them in new and interesting ways. Shapes are in many cases determined by the grain-- certainly not to the degree that many Danish, German and American pipes are-- but unlike most English pipes (especially in years past), the Pesaro school certainly considers grain in the making of their pipes. Looking back at the beginning of the 21st Century, this seems almost obvious. However, in the 1960s, neither the Italian pipe renaissance, nor the Danish revolution spurred by Sixten Ivarsson and Preben Holm, had yet come to pass. Until then, while attractive grain was considered positive, if it happened, it happened by accident. One need only look at Dunhills, GBDs, Barlings, Comoys and other great English pipes from the 1950s and before to see this. Combining this regard for traditional shapes with a concern for grain, one begins to understand the Pesaro pipe. Other influences are involved also, though. For lack of a better descriptor, Pesaro pipes look Italian. English pipes reflect British culture to a great degree, perhaps best articulated by traditional, refined elegance. Italian pipes, like Italian cars, are thematically more modern and more chic in their elegance.

To maintain the vehicular analogy for a moment, Italian, and especially Pesaro, pipes are to English pipes as 1960s Ferraris are to 1960s Rolls Royces. Both are of high-quality, but they are entirely different in terms of design and conception. Pesaro school pipes, both as a further explanation of their 'Italian-ness' and as an adjunct to it, also have an architectural flair that focuses on clean lines and holistically and cohesively designed shapes. Clearly, discussion and assessment of the Pesaro style, be it from an artistic or a craft perspective, is far from simple.

In the part of Lombardy north of Milan-- Como, Cucciago, Varese-- is the other center of Italian pipe making and the second hotbed of pipe development during the 1960s and 1970s. Though much of it can be traced to the Castello factory in Cucciago, influence and history of pipe making in this region is more widely distributed and indirect than in Pesaro. Certainly, Carlo Scotti's Castello deserves the reputation it has for being the first maker of upper-end, high-grade pipes in the region, beginning in 1947. Further, both Luigi Radice and Pepino Ascorti started their careers with Castello in the 1950s. They later (1969) formed Caminetto, which is now run by Roberto Ascorti, son of Pepino. Luigi Radice created the Radice brand in 1980 and parted ways with Pepino. The second piece of the story lies with Brebbia and Savinelli. The Brebbia factory (or rather the factory that later became the Brebbia factory) was founded by Achille Savinelli and Enea Buzzi, originally to supply pipes to the Savinelli shop in Milan. Later (in the early 1950s), Savinelli opened its own factory and the Brebbia name was adopted. Brebbia and Savinelli are different from every other maker mentioned herein in that their culture is that of a factory, not a workshop. Brebbia produces about 40,000 pipes annually, whereas, for comparison, Radice and his two sons produce less than 2000 pipes annually, usually between 1500 and 1800. Brebbia's focus has always been manufacturing efficiency-- being able to bring a great pipe to the market at a reasonable price-- over small scale artisanship. The other great pipemaker in northern Italy also started as a factory: Ardor, perhaps somewhat influenced by the success of Castello, moved their production from machine made, mass-produced pipes to meticulously crafted, hand-made pipes during the 1960s under Angelo and Dorelio Rovera.

Indeed, Giancarlo Guidi argues that this is the great difference between the pipe making culture in the Como region versus that in Pesaro. He argues that the Pesaro tradition has always been one of small craftsmen, while the tradition to the north is one of manufacturing. While he is correct in saying that the origins of Ardor, Brebbia, Savinelli and, to a lesser degree, Castello are manufacturing oriented, the hand made pipes coming from the likes of Luigi Radice, Roberto Ascorti (Caminetto) and Dorelio Rovera ( Ardor) suggests that this is certainly not the case today.

This region's style is certainly not as cohesively definable as that of Pesaro. For example, in the case of Radice, there are considerable elements that are traceable to Castello and Caminetto, but much of the shaping seems to have also been influenced by the Pesaro school. Ardor has a style that is very difficult to trace to another tradition. It is also difficult to quantify, except to say that it is exceptionally inventive and often whimsical. While their pipes are clearly recognizable as Italian, the Roveras have such a style of their own that it is nearly impossible to trace a stylistic lineage. As for Castello and Caminetto, there is a focus on traditional, strong shapes with clean lines. Savinelli and Brebbia are both imbued with a manufacturing mentality that is necessary given the way they make pipes. High-end pipes from both companies (such as Autographs from Savinelli) combine vestiges of this mentality (in terms of simple, well defined, robust forms) with the rigorous focus on hand made perfection espoused by Castello and Caminetto.

Though Italian pipes and pipe making deserve a far more exhaustive analysis than can be provided here, I hoped this served as an interesting introduction into the great world of Italian pipes.

by Sykes Wilford

With thanks to:

  • Alan Schwartz
  • Jon Tillman
  • David Field
  • Steve Monjure