1920s Paris wasn’t the only city with a legendary cafe culture
In his memoir A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway immortalized the literary cafe culture of 1920s Paris, making La Closerie des Lilas and Les Deux Magots household names. He also convinced subsequent generations of American study abroad students that “Paris was always worth it,” despite his caveat “this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” Which is to say, it’s not always a Woody Allen film.
But Paris doesn’t have a monopoly on cool cafe culture. Milan, now best known as the fashion-conscious home of Armani and Prada, was equally rich with the exchange of ideas between humble creatives. At the heart of this exchange was a bar in the city’s bohemian Brera district, in close proximity to the prestigious Brera Academy. You’ll know it today by one word over the door: Jamaica.
Bar Jamaica, sometimes known as Giamaica, has been in owner Micaela Mainini’s family since 1911. Avant-garde artists Lucio Fontana, Dadamaino, and Piero Manzoni (most famous for packaging his own poo for a piece called Artist’s Shit) all regularly stopped by for an espresso, or to choose from the wine list carefully curated by Mainini’s late father, Elio, who's in the photo above. Allen Ginsberg was reportedly a fan, and legend has it Benito Mussolini once dined and dashed.
The bar’s name was coined in 1946. It was inspired by the Alfred Hitchcock movie Jamaica Inn, which was based on a book by Daphne du Maurier. The dark tale centers around a pub on the moors of Cornwall, England. The atmospheric mist reminded Bar Jamaica patron Giulio Confalonieri of Milan’s own foggy weather, so he thought it would be a fitting name for the bar.
“Jamaica is a place you love or you hate completely,” Mainini says. The bar is all dark wood and rattan chairs—no frills here. A rotating exhibition of art works still decorates the walls. Iconic Italian photographer Ugo Mulas, who would go on to document Andy Warhol and his pop art compatriots in New York City, captured the atmosphere of Bar Jamaica in photographs from the 1950s. Patrons sprawl across the chairs outside, cigarette smoke shrouding their conversations. In one photo, a woman holds up a kitten. In another, Elio is glimpsed through the window, smiling with a customer.
As for its food and drink specialities, Bar Jamaica sticks to Milanese specialities: risotto, breaded veal, and of course caffè. “We are very classic in this,” Mainini says. Customers also rave about their mozzarella di bufala with fresh tomatoes and basil.
A recent NPR piece on Italian coffee rituals explained how the espresso machine is an Italian invention and the mainstay of the country’s cafes. "It's the 5 M's," one owner told NPR. "Miscela—blend; macchina, the coffee machine; macinino, the grinder; manutenzione, machine maintenance; and mano, the skill of the barista." It’s a drink that invites discussion. “The most common ritual is drinking coffee standing up at a bar, chatting with the barista,” NPR said. You can observe this custom at any Italian cafe, but Bar Jamaica sees its patrons as extended family. Even though some regulars have moved away, “When they come back to Milan they come to Jamaica because they feel at home,” Mainini says.
In 2011, Cesare Cunaccia wrote a feature for Vogue Italia on the 100th anniversary of Bar Jamaica. “It was the place where artists met, where they had heated debates, violent fights and many card games,” Cunaccia wrote. Mainini says that scopa was a favorite card game of the customers. According to the guidebook L'Italia del caffè, painter Emilio Tadini once said that "an entire Olympus of minor gods watches over the dreams and aspirations of Bar Jamaica’s young patrons."
Which isn’t to diminish the talent of those that passed through those doors. Piero Manzoni in particular represented the spirit of the bar. He was at the forefront of Italy’s Arte Povera movement, which literally means “poor art.” “People of different classes speak together [at the bar]—so it was in the beginning, and so it is now,” Mainini says. Manzoni used fur, bread rolls, and even his own breath (inside a balloon, of course) to make his conceptual art. He proved that humble materials can address the most heady philosophical and political ideas.
When young artists couldn’t pay their bills, Elio wouldn’t accept art as payment, knowing how hard they’d worked on it. There was no chasing after unpaid bills; they simply stayed on the books. As for the Mussolini story? It really is just a legend. Mainini’s grandmother said that Mussolini passed Bar Jamaica on his commute to work, and sometimes stopped in to use the public phone.
Brera has changed a lot since then, including the art students themselves. Today’s students may prefer fancier food, or Instagram fodder—although it remains to be seen whether Starbucks will be a hit in Italy.
“In the 1950s, people were poor but more normal. When an artist sold a painting he used the money to offer drinks to the other friends,” Mainini says. “They didn’t want to become famous to be famous.”