Made in Italy: Heritage

written by the Holden School

Italy is a country of heritage. Cultural, artistic and architectural heritage: impossible to avoid when the centre of the world for several centuries was the Mediterranean, and your land (a receptacle of peoples and traditions) is in the midst of it. There's one heritage, however, that Italians carry with particularly great pride: that of Leonardo Da Vinci. It's like an echo, like a spark of genius that we all dream of igniting. We look at his self-portrait hoping to see something of ourselves, we look at his drawings, with their unmistakable touch of red chalk, as if they had been made by one of our ancestors, not too long ago.

However, one specific Italian - and one specific drawing - have given form to this special heritage with the hope for a future perspective, like the mission of a seed that must be nurtured to turn into a fruit. The said drawing is of the aerial screw, a project that Leonardo illustrated in Folio 83v of Manuscript B, during his first stay in Milan. «I find, - Leonardo wrote, - should this instrument made with a screw be well made, [...] and be spun swiftly, the said screw will make it spiral up in the air and it will rise high». Similarly to what a screw does when piercing through wood, in the inventor's intentions this structure should have spiralled into the air, exploiting its density: centuries ahead of his time, he hypothesized and formulated the propulsive efficiency of the propeller.

More or less four centuries later, another Italian (considered by many of his contemporaries a worthy heir of the Florentine genius) started from that drawing to transform intuition into reality. Corradino D'Ascanio is that one specific Italian. Born in Popoli in 1891, he was a very young researcher of an equally young science: aeronautics. At the age of 16, he had already built a type of hang-glider and had only one idea in his mind: to build the first vertical flying device, the first helicopter. In 1926 D'Ascanio began production. Two superimposed rotors firmly connected to the drive shaft: the experiment didn't go well, he nearly got seriously injured. At that point, Corradino inserted a universal joint at the coupling of each blade to the drive shaft: things began to work and, in 1928, the General Directorate of Construction and Supply of the Ministry of Aeronautics signed a contract for the production of the helicopter.

Two years later a machine destined to remain a milestone of vertical flight was ready. For the first time in the world, after the homologation tests, three official records in the helicopter category were set at the Ciampino North airfield: the machine rose to a height of 18 meters, remained in the air for 8 minutes and 45 seconds and, thanks to its 90-horsepower Fiat engine, flew 1,078 meters in a straight line. A success that resonated all around the world.
However, the war, high costs of production and the productive priorities of a country undergoing reconstruction slowed down the great dream that starting from Leonardo to D'Ascanio had obsessed the Italian genius. But sometimes, heritage is surprising: it has different ways of expressing itself while still carrying the same treasure within. Thanks to the knowledge acquired in the aeronautical field, D'Ascanio found himself having to take over a new production: the scooter, that Germans, French and English had tackled with models way too expensive and unsuitable for mass production.

D'Ascanio designed a self-supporting bodywork made of stamped metal sheets capable of offering greater resistance than the tube system and less expensive to manufacture. The gearbox was in line with the wheel-motor unit so that the gears could be changed with simple hand movements; and, finally, the transmission did not use a chain, thus saving space in the central shaft: the new scooter could be ridden while sitting and without having to climb over it; which made it suitable for everyone: "even women and priests", as the advertisements were constantly pointing out. Despite many people doubting the sturdiness of that vehicle "with the little body of a wasp", D'Ascanio's structural calculations were correct and therefore, in April 1946 the Vespa, with those shapes inherited from nature and Italian genius, made its official debut: since then it has covered 75 years of roads and history. A Frenchman crossed the English Channel (making his Vespa amphibious!) and an Australian travelled around the world on one. It has been portrayed in films such as Roman Holiday, La Dolce Vita and has been exhibited at the MoMA in New York. But above all, journey after journey, it's still here.