Put a fire-breathing, six-legged dog in your tank!
In the legend of Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers who founded Rome, as babies they were saved from certain death on the banks of the River Tiber by a mother wolf—who suckled them until they grew healthy and strong—strong enough to kill each other for the power of Rome, foreshadowing the glories and bloodshed of the Holy Roman Empire.
You might know this legend. You probably learned it in school, as it is one of Italy’s most enduring myths, and a wolf stands a symbol of imperial power.
The beast in the black-and yellow logo pictured is not that wolf. In fact, it isn’t a wolf at all.
Instead, it’s a six-legged, spike-backed, fire-breathing dog. It appeared throughout motorsports history as one of Formula One’s most famous icons. Its company, Italy’s national petroleum concern, reached far into Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia. Hanging on banners over Estoril, flying on the flanks of Alain Prost’s Ferrari 643, the screaming yellow logo is distinctive, immediately recognizable, and much, much weirder than you realize.
AGIP, the Azienda Generale Italiana Petroli, began as Italy’s national gasoline company. It evolved from trouble: for 50 years, American petroleum company Sinclair Oil had been exploring in Sicily, taking investment capital from the state and returning barely half of it. Fascist Italy of the 1920s was a powerless nation; its coal was imported at high rates, its power plants were scarce and weak. Mussolini’s government chose to partner with Sinclair, and protests from the opposition claimed corruption. Socialist politician Giacomo Matteotti spoke out against it, and for his efforts he was assassinated by fascists. AGIP was founded in 1926 to undo all this damage. It soon tied up with FIAT, aggressively built refineries, and began seeking out fields in Iraq and Libya—which it abandoned during World War II.
In 1949, the company struck oil in Cortemaggiore in northern Italy, just south of Milan. The oil field returned a modest deposit, but its symbolic value was huge: company president Enrico Mattei leveraged it to convince the public that Italy needed its own oil company, instead of relying on foreign imports. Italy’s homegrown oil was branded after its home: Supercortemaggiore. And by 1952, AGIP’s flagship product needed a logo.
In May 1952, Mattei launched a competition. The winner would receive 10 million lire, or nearly 160,000 Euros, along with the satisfaction of seeing their logo on billboards, gas pumps, stations across the country. A jury of Italy’s most influential artists and designers, including Modernist legend Giò Ponti, would pass judgement.
In only a few weeks, AGIP received over 4000 entries. The jury met 14 times to figure out a winner, which it announced in September that year. And the winner was… a dog with a dragon’s breath, a modern centaur, its head cocked unnaturally back, apparently trying to set itself on fire. According to the designer, the creature’s six legs represented the four wheels of an automobile, coupled with the two legs of its driver. Traces of a chimera can be seen across its flanks: an amalgamation of a dog’s body, a dragon’s spiky back, and a lion’s tail. Six-legged creatures allegedly appear in the art and woodcarvings of the Makonde people, in Tanzania and Mozambique, foreshadowing Italy’s continuing neo-colonial oil exploitation.According to the designer it exuded strength, energy, and optimism. Mattei liked it because it was aggressive.
The next year, AGIP evolved into ENI, a total energy producer. Buoyed by the strength of natural gas, ENI grew its empire and the dog became its symbol. Italy had now grown wheels, and the inhabitants of this modern world, behind the wheel of Cinquecentos, saw the dog everywhere.
And yet, who drew the dog? It wouldn’t be quintessentially Italian without a minor scandal, would it? Graphic designer Giuseppe Guzzi had presented the work and for 30 years had received the credit. But in 1983, it was revealed that sculptor Luigi Broggini had conjured the dog—he so disdained the crassness of a commercial competition, especially for an oil company, that he asked his pupil Guzzi take credit for it. After Broggini’s death that year, Guzzi came forward with the proper credit.
Supposedly, Broggini had been inspired by the legend of the Tarantasio, the serpent-like dragon of Gerundo Lake, carved into Milan’s ornate Duomo. The dragon would occasionally rise up and devour the peasantry, Italy’s own Trogdor. It took an anonymous knight from Milan’s Visconti family to slay the beast, an act not without its own perils.
The slaying of the Tarantasio appears on the Visconti family crest as a snake, devouring a man—depicted on the badge of that other great tentpole of Italian motoring, Alfa Romeo. A dog, a dragon, a serpent, a scorpion, a charging bull, and a prancing horse—Italy is nothing if not a land crawling with fearsome creatures.