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The cheese museum

Del: 15/01/2007

Packaging and literature, a strange combination? Maybe not.
Actually, years ago, I just happened to chance upon a short story by Italo Calvino: “the cheese museum” (in the collection of short stories “Palomar”, Mondadori).
The story describes, with surprising effectiveness and clarity, the evocative skills linked to the packaging of a product, and in particular of cheese in the shop window of a refined gourmet store in Paris.
In fact, Italo Calvino lived part of his life in Paris, and in this short story he describes his trip (a real esoteric journey) to a small cheese store, one of those rarefied paradises of the gourmand that Paris has never lacked. The fascination experienced by the author starts with the store sign that like a real ouverture unmistakeably states which pleasures and delights you can enjoy inside.

“This is a shop whose range seems meant to exemplify every conceivable form of dairy product; the very sign, "Spe-cialites froumageres," with that rare archaic or vernacular adjective, advises that here is guarded the legacy of a knowledge accumulated by a civilization through all its history and geography”.*

Then the protagonist, once he has entered the store has to wait for his turn, he has the time and the opportunity to examine the various cheeses in the glass counter, whose packaging (in paper, in straw or other materials) trigger his imagination.

“At that moment the whole line moves forward one place; and the person who till then had been standing beside the "Bleu d’Auvergne" veined with green now finds himself at the level of the "Brin d’amour," whose whiteness holds strands of dried straw stuck to it; the customer contemplating a ball wrapped in leaves can now concentrate on a cube dusted with ash.”*

So here we have the best representation of the phrase “to devour with one’s eyes” that we often use without realising what consequences it entails on a planning level when you approach a packaging. Actually, the character cannot taste the products displayed and just for this reason he is captured by the packaging and is swept almost magically into the worlds that the wrapping suggests. It is the triumph of the imagination transmitted by the packaging that prevails on the act of fruition, of actually eating.
The fascination of the product is such that it requires such competence and intuition to be described, that the protagonist comes to perceiving the cheese displayed as his only and to seeing the other clients as downright rivals.

The imaginary universe suggested by the packaging of the cheese, in fact, requests interpretative skills that are available to all, but that echo in the character’s mind so profoundly and personally that the product on display seems exclusively his and his alone.

“Mr. Palomar’s spirit vacillates between contrasting urges: the one that aims at complete, exhaustive knowledge and could be satisfied only by tasting all the varieties; and the one that tends toward an absolute choice, the identification of the cheese that is his alone, a cheese that certainly exists even if he cannot recognize it (cannot recognize himself in it).

Or else, or else: it is not a matter of choosing the right cheese, but of being chosen. There is a reciprocal relationship between cheese and customer: each cheese awaits its customer, poses so as to attract him, with a firmness or a somewhat haughty graininess, or, on the contrary, by melting in submissive abandon.”* 

 don’t think any texts on packaging and planning have managed to synthesize so precisely the power, the ability of fascination of what some still call “packaging”, confining it to a purely logistic area. In a more and more complex symbolic universe, within which the messages addressed to the consumer overlap chaotically, a packaging that is able to awaken effectively the imagination of the client, is an essential tool that requires unusual planning skills. The challenge of the “cheese museum” is still open and the best testimony is the ending of the short story.:

“ From his pocket he takes a notebook and a pen, and begins to write down some names, marking beside each name some feature that will enable him to recall the image to his memory; he tries also to make a synthetic sketch of the shape. He writes pave d’Airvault, and notes "green mold," draws a flat parallelepiped and to one side notes "4 cm. circa"; he writes St-Maure, notes "gray granular cylinder with a little shaft inside," and draws it, measuring it at a glance as about "20 cm."; then he writes Chabicholi and draws another little cylinder.

-Monsieur! Hoo there! Monsieur!" A young cheese-girl, dressed in pink, is standing in front of him while he is occupied with his notebook. It is his turn, he is next; in the line behind him, everyone is observing his incongruous behavior, heads are being shaken with those half-ironic, half-exasperated looks with which the inhabitants of the big cities consider the ever-increasing number of the mentally retarded wandering about the streets.

The elaborate and greedy order that he intended to make momentarily slips his mind; he stammers; he falls back on the most obvious, the most banal, the most advertised, as if the automatons of mass civilization were waiting only for this moment of uncertainty on his part in order to seize him again and have him at their mercy”.*

                                                                    Marco Rotondo 

*All citations taken from“Palomar” by Italo Calvino , Mondadori 1994 The short story is “The cheese museum” p. 98 and following

*All citations taken from"Palomar" by Italo Calvino, Mondadori 1994
Translations by William Weaver 



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