“Baci” Perugina chocolates, a Made-In-Italy icon, are celebrating their 100th birthday this year. “Baci” means “kisses” and their birth and history are appropriately the product of a secret love story between their creator Luisa Spagnoli and businessman/politician Giovanni Buitoni, 14 years her junior.
The Perugina confectionary company, still based in the central Italian city of Perugia, although owned since 1988 by the Swiss food giant Nestlé, is celebrating this milestone by launching a new chocolate called “Dolce Vita Baci”. Its recipe, to be released for Valentine’s Day, has a lemon-flavored center, coated by white chocolate with a hint of vanilla and topped with the ubiquitous whole hazelnut. Its tin-foil wrappings and outer packaging are also new, colorfully designed by the fashion designers Dolce & Gabbana. These will envelop the “100 Years Celebration Collection” and, separately of course, the “Limited Edition” of the “Dolce Vita Baci”.
To start from the beginning, “Baci”’s creator Luisa Sargentini was born in Perugia on October 30, 1877. At age 20 she married Annibale Spagnoli and, together with Leone Ascoli and Francesco Buitoni as their partners, in 1907 bought out a grocery shop and renamed it “Perugina”. Annibale started to make confetti and Luisa candies, chocolates and biscuits. Annibale and Luisa also soon produced three sons. While her husband Annibale and her lover Giovanni were away serving in the First World War, Luisa expanded the business–by the 1918 armistice she employed over 100 people.
In 1923 Annibale left the business; he’d discovered Luisa’s love affair with Giovanni, the son of his partner Francesco. The year before, in 1922, Luisa had come up with a brilliant idea: to use chopped hazelnuts leftover from her other sweets as the center of a new creamy chocolate filling topped with a whole toasted hazelnut and encased in dark chocolate. Because its irregular shape reminded Spagnoli of the knuckles of a clenched fist, she named her brainstorm “cazzotti”, “punches” in Italian. Giovanni persuaded her to soften the name to “Baci”, reasoning that customers would prefer purchasing a kiss to a punch.
The Perugina art director Federico Seneca, inspired by Luisa’s idea of inserting love messages, as she and Giovanni had done in their pre-War chocolates, decided to copy this idea for her bite-size “Baci”. He chose romantic texts by famous writers. For example, “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind”, a line in Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and “Love is not only a feeling; it is an art”, by Balzac.
In 1924 Seneca chose silver tinfoil with blue writing to wrap each chocolate individually and devised the blue and silver box depicting a couple, possibly Luisa and Giovanni, dressed in black and kissing under a shower of stars. The artist Francesco Hayez’s painting, “The Kiss”, had undoubtedly inspired Seneca.
The combination of the recipe, name, secret messages and packaging, made “Baci” an instant commercial success. Not to overlook Seneca’s politically astute design for one of the Kingdom of Italy’s first postage stamps, depicting an advertisement for “Baci” in 1925.
Valentine cards have never been an Italian custom, but red roses and chocolates, have. In fact, a 1927 advertisement boasts: “In just five years, Perugina has sold over 100 million ‘Baci’”.
There have been other historical highlights that are of interest:
In 1939 Perugina opened its first store in the USA: on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Today its New York shops are located at 140 Plymouth Street in Brooklyn and at Eataly in Madison Square, at 200 Fifth Ave. These two outlets alone cover 20 percent of American sales; outside New York City “Baci” are sold at Wal-Mart, and the supermarket chains Kroger and ShopRite.
In 1968 blue stars were added to the silver foil wrapping and in 1981 Perugina added a tube containing 7 “Baci” each to its packaging.
Longanesi published Giovanni Buitoni‘s autobiography, “La Storia di un Imprenditore”, in 1982, which describes the history of “Baci”, his love for Luisa with a moving passage about her premature death from throat cancer on September 21, 1935. From her deathbed, Giovanni recounts, Luisa promised to help him find a new love before she died. A day after Luisa’s promise, Giovanni met the young opera singer Letizia Cairone and married her a year later.
From 1997-99 Alitalia painted in “Baci” wrappings its Boeing 747-200-I-DEMF “Portofino”, which flew between Rome and New York.
The Eurochocolate, the world’s largest chocolate festival held annually in Perugia, saw the creation of the biggest “Baci” ever, that stood 2.15 meters tall, was 7.26 meters wide, and weighed 5,980 kilos. It entered the Guinness Book of Records.
Since 2011 Perugina has added white chocolate, milk chocolate, extra dark 70% and one with a fruity center to its permanent “Baci” repertoire as well as a “Baci” spread in 2021.
In February 2016 RAI television Channel 1 transmitted the two-part series “Luisa Spagnoli”.
In addition to Italian, today the love messages inserted in the Baci are published in Spanish, French, English, Chinese and Portuguese. Since 2017 they’ve included 100 proverbs in dialects from nine Italian regions: Campania, Lombardy, Umbria, Puglia, Liguria, Latium, Veneto, Sicily, and Piedmont. A study had shown Perugina that young Italians wish to learn their ancestors’ dying-out dialects.
For example, the Neapolitan idiom “Ògne scarrafone è bell’a màmm soja’” (every cockroach is beautiful in its mother’s eyes), the Milanese saying “I inamoraa guarden minge a spend” (lovers don’t care how much they spend) or the phrase “A son mach le muntagne ch’a s’ancontro nen”(only mountains never meet) in Perugia’s dialect.
Today Perugina reports that 1,500 “Baci” are produced every minute in Perugia, exported to 55 countries, with half a billion “Baci” sold each year.
To return to this year’s birthday celebrations, the Perugina Chocolate House will present a year-long exhibition about the history of “Baci”.
Located on Perugia’s Viale San Sisto 207/c, the House’s hours are Monday-Friday 9 AM-1 PM and 2 PM-5:30 PM, Saturday 10 AM-6 PM; closed Sunday.
Book your tour with a tasting or a chocolate making lesson by telephoning 800 800 907 from Italy, or from abroad 011-39-0245467655, or by writing to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reservations are required.