The beauty of coffee machines

New insights into Mumac’s historical archive


Machine, a female noun in Italian. The machine, defined as a work of ingenuity “designed to carry out a job with considerable benefits”. If we add the function of dispensing one of the most popular drinks in the world, small soluble jewels, coffee machines also take on a generative, healing character, embodying daily presence, closeness, warmth, harmony and balance that can be savoured.


MUMAC’s historical archive, as well as the museum itself, contains countless unique insights into this beauty, which is at once discreet, sophisticated and elegant. It can range from the flowery Art Nouveau of the La Pavoni Ideale or Vittoria Arduino to the regal Deco aesthetic of La Rapida, which marked the start of LaCimbali’s production. A perfect example of femininity is the girl who dominates the Universal Mignonne from 1920.

The aesthetic appeal of espresso machines gradually became bold and often exciting, starting with the D.P. 47 by Gio Ponti, La Cornuta, labelled “the most beautiful and prized coffee machine in the world” because of its sinuous design, sculptural shape and innovative technology, which, as was often the case in the female world, concealed the hard work behind the aesthetically perfect design. We cannot forget the impact of the Gioiello, embellished with real gemstones, or the bronze and brass Faema Saturno, advertised by an attractive girl. Or even the machine whose name evokes its own sinuous curves: San Marco’s Lollobrigida launched in 1955.

Almost all the advertising posters, which characterise MUMAC from the Sala degli Albori, are captivating and seductive: the early-20th century “femme fatale” became not only a status symbol, but an emblem of naturalness that flourished on the coffee machines themselves.

Art Deco reinvented women by making them aware of their seductive power that could not be taken for granted. Women in the ‘50s appeared to be elegantly aware, through female advertising, in line with the taste of the period, which promoted the “Cimbalino”: together with the Gioiello professional espresso machine, launched by La Cimbali in 1950, a new name was created to define coffee with cream. “Cimbalino” soon became, thanks to a marketing strategy that was truly ahead of its time, the way in which people asked for espresso at a bar: a warm, intense, full-bodied, creamy coffee with a hazelnut-coloured streaky texture – the classic Italian espresso coffee. From north to south, espresso transformed into Cimbalino: “Full cream coffee, in other words the perfect coffee” reads one advertising brochure from this period. The idea of writing the expression “Cimbalino” on the grilles of machines, on promotional tasting vans, on exhibition stands and on cups, together with graphic designs featuring women on posters and in advertising that invited people to request it, became an extremely effective way of spreading the term worldwide to refer to good Italian coffee, with the result that even today the expression still exists in certain countries.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s emancipation went hand in hand with technology: new inventions made it less complicated and dangerous to make coffee in the places where it was consumed and women also started to work as baristas. Machines such as La Cimbali’s La Pitagora designed by the Castiglioni brothers, advertised as the machine that makes coffee by itself, and the Faema E61, an icon in bars from 1961 to the present day, featuring the invention of the electric volumetric pump, incorporate technologies that enable effortless espresso dispensing. The machine therefore became a tool that made it possible to offer ease of use in place of the strain and danger of the lever, a system dating back to the 1950s, or even the steam technology of the early days that had to operated by stokers in possession of a special patent.

Technological evolution has led us to the present day, in which “baristas” or coffee specialists draw our attention to the importance of getting to know and tasting coffee, sometimes even personally selecting and roasting the beans. A generation of new male and female professionals are starting to communicate again with consumers, who are becoming increasingly aware. Women also excel in international latte art competitions (an Italian woman is the current reigning champion in this discipline) or in the “coffee in good spirits” or “French press” specialties, in which it is often women who skilfully balance the ingredients in the first case and the strength of extraction in the second.


For Archivissima 2020 and La Notte degli Archivi (The Archives’ Night), MUMAC has created a video which, through original images of posters, brochures and advertisements from the ‘50s taken from its archive and Library, presents women who often starred in stories in La Cimbali’s house organ “La Caffettiera” and in the “Coffee Club” magazine that was distributed at the time in bars equipped with their own Faema machine, or as authors of books such as “Aunt Martha’s corner cupboard stories about tea, coffee, sugar and rice” written by Mary & Elizabeth Kirby in 1898, the only copy in Italy and Europe.

Coffee as a socially and artistically invigorating drink is also celebrated in another fascinating book that combines museums and coffee: Un caffè al museo. Caffetterie dei musei d’Europa (A coffee in the museum. Cafés in European museums), also written by a woman, Maria Sole Pantanella. The author illustrates the concept of the modern museum as a cultural meeting place where various pleasures coexist: you can go and see an exhibition, attend a conference, listen to a concert in the auditorium, shop at the bookshop and finally enjoy an espresso at one of the refreshment spots. The result is an interesting artistic and gastronomic itinerary that crosses Europe from Moscow to Lisbon and from Helsinki to Rome, culminating in London and Paris.

Another intriguing book is L’aroma del mondo: un viaggio nell’universo e nell’emozione del caffè (The aroma of the world: a journey into the universe and emotion of coffee) by Elisabetta Illy, because after all, “coffee is the balm of the heart and spirit” as Giuseppe Verdi put it. Both the MUMAC archive and its invaluable Library were created to celebrate the history and development of this generative and regenerative drink.