In the 13th Century Marco Polo undertook a journey that no one else had ever made, across unknown and unexplored Asia. 24 years and 15,000 miles later he returned to introduce Europeans to central Asia and China for the first time. He is not the only Italian to have gone into uncharted territory in the name of innovation. Both before and after Marco Polo, Italians have long been at the forefront of invention, exhibiting a distinctive style, flair and passion in the process.
Even before Italians existed as a people, free-thinkers and inventors from the Italian peninsula had been seeing beyond their surroundings and tapping into a uniquely Italian spirit of innovation. The Roman Empire brought civilisation, with its architectural and mechanical advances, to the known world. Some of the Romans' most important achievements are well-known: the aqueduct and road-building, construction materials and civil engineering. But did you know that a kind of combine- harvester was originally invented by the Romans? The design was forgotten during the Dark Ages and never bettered until the 19th Century. Another invention, Glass blowing, developed by the Romans, is often referred to as the key to the success of Western civilisation. It was this invention which allowed test tubes and scientific experiments, thus contributing to the accumulation of knowledge and the making of countless other discoveries. This invention put Europe and Italy at the forefront of scientific progress.
The Italian-led Renaissance was another defining period in the history of humanity, changing forever how man saw himself. Italian Renaissance men led the repositioning of man as learner and inventor capable of shaping his own destiny through art and science. The Renaissance spawned geniuses such as Michelangelo Buonarotti, 200 years after Giotto had introduced the prospecive in painting, but the most memorable ideas were the creative sparks of Leonardo Da Vinci, who as early as the 15th Century made conceptual sketches of bicycles, flying machines, an armoured car, a machine gun and a helicopter. All ideas well before their time.
The Renaissance paved the way for science to explore the known world and once again, notable Italians were the forerunners in so many areas. Italian Galileo Galilei was able to literally look beyond the world around him, using a new type of telescope to see further than any man before him. He faced criticism and exile from Florence for championing a heliocentric view of the Universe, placing the Sun at the centre of the Solar System. With his empirical methods and forward-thinking, Galileo helped lay the foundations for modern science.
Other Italian scientists ahead of their time include Alessandro Volta, inventor of the first battery, who made great progress in the study of electricity, seen at the time as an incomprehensible and magical force. Despite scepticism about its potential, Guglielmo Marconi made waves in the study of radio communication, being the first to transmit messages by radio. His discoveries made modern radio, television and satellite communication possible. Another giant of Italian invention, physicist Enrico Fermi, guided the planning and construction of the first ever nuclear fission reactor and presided over the first ever nuclear reaction, a discovery which turned the World upside-down.
Throughout the ages, the Italian inventor has been characterised by innovation and the courage to pursue a goal, in spite of reactionaries, sceptics and often a complete lack of precedent. It is on this foundation that today's Italian innovators continue to make products synonymous with excellence and style. Fashion and fast cars are Italy's calling card, with fashion houses such as Gucci, Ferragamo, Versace, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana and Prada blazing a trail across the fashion landscape. Italian cars may not be the most widespread in the World, but nobody would deny that in terms of excellence, class and passion, Italian automobiles are the world-leaders. Posters of the latest Ferrari, Alfa-Romeo and Lamborghini models have been hung on the walls of boy's bedrooms across the world for generations. Another success story, Italian company Pininfarina, has become the global benchmark for classy design. It is revealing that its stated intention is to "dress" technology, to make it at once more beautiful and more efficient; a very Italian goal if ever there was one. When it comes to streamlined beauty and inspirational design, it seems that the Italian eye is second to none.
Italian excellence and forward-thinking is so far rooted in its history that it would be foolish to write off its current generation of designers. While it might be hard to predict which products and ideas will be successful in ten or twenty years' time, one thing seems to be certain: that Italians will remain on the cutting-edge of style and excellent design for many years to come.