Super Barolo a precursor of Super Tuscan? A note on the origins of “Super Barolo” labels from the 1930s and 40s

Yesterday I received an email from Barolo and Barbaresco collector and chronicler extraordinaire Ken Vastola asking me about the label on a bottle of 1947 “Super Barolo” by Cappellano. That’s Augusto Cappellano in the photo above (via Ken’s excellent blog), the fifth and current generation of the Cappellano Barolo legacy.

A reader, said Ken, “wrote to me to say he thought [the bottles] must be fakes because the word super wasn’t borrowed from English until much later for supermarket or perhaps super gas. Then I found that photo of Augusto [Cappellano] holding a bottle of it, so I think it must be authentic.”

“Then today, I noticed that in a Wine Atlas of the Langhe, there is a profile of Giacomo Conterno. It says: ‘the Conterno advertising slogan for the tenth Fiera del Tartufo in 1938 was ‘Conterno Giacomo – Produttori Vini – Specalità Super – Barolo – Monfortino.’ And they translate super in Italian into super in English.”

In his post, Ken also makes a reference to a 1935 Super Barolo by Cappellano.

“So I wonder if this is an interesting topic for you: when did super make it into Italian and perhaps why? Could it have been the Superman comics which started in 1938?”

The adjective super, meaning above or excellent or superior, is a Latin word well known to Italians long before the 20th century. It comes from Latin superus, meaning above, upper, or higher.

But it’s unlikely that super Barolo was inspired by Superman. It’s true that Superman first appeared in the U.S. in 1938 and then in Italy for the first time in 1939. But the character wasn’t known as Superman in Italy until the 1970s. Although he appeared repeatedly in Italian cartoons from 1939 onward, he wasn’t associated with the name Superman until much later. While he had a number of names other than Superman, the uomo d’acciaio or man of steel seems to have been one of the character’s most frequently used nicknames.

This was probably due to the fact that Fascist-era censors (active during Mussolini’s reign, 1922-43) purposefully revised foreign media and they aggressively Italianized foreign-sounding words (so-called “linguistic purism” was a top priority for the Fascist regime).

But the adjective super was nonetheless highly popular during that period. Not thanks to Superman but rather to Nietzsche’s Übermensch (Uebermensch), the overman or super[hu]man.

I won’t go into the concept of the Nietzschean Superman here: check out the Wiki entry for background.

But Italian philologists point to a 1898 Italian-language book on Nietzsche and a 1899 translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra as works that popularized the term superuomo or superman in Italy and Italian.

As early as 1905, the proto-Fascist lexicographer Alfredo Panzini noted that “this term, for however long it will endure, has swiftly achieved remarkable popularity, although in a mocking and derisive sense. It was first used to denote the followers of Nietzsche or those who boast of following his philosophy and then later it was used for persons who boast, by means of their ostentatious demeanor, words, or style of dressing, of belonging to a separate and superior humanity as opposed to common, wretched humanity.”

One of the intriguing takeaways from Ken’s post is that above and beyond (excuse the pun!) its Fascist-era origins, it may have been a precursor for the term Super Tuscan, which seems to have first appeared in wine trade marketing materials in the 1980s, although it’s still unclear who coined the designation. To my knowledge, no one has ever taken credit for it nor have I been able to identify its author.

Image above via Glamazonia.it.

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