Anonima Lombarda Fabbrica Automobili, or "Lombard Automobile Factory, Public Company" in Italian, (A.L.F.A. to us) was founded on June 24, 1910, and shortly thereafter selected a logo that looks a lot like the one in use today. So, what's with the man-eating snake, and what is the meaning behind the Alfa Romeo symbol?
A.L.F.A. was formed when a group of business entrepreneurs snapped up the workshops of the failing Italian branch of the French car maker Darracq, but that snaky move has nothing to do with it. The idea for the logo struck designer Romano Cattaneo in the Piazza Castello in central Milan while awaiting his number 14 tram. High on the wall of the Filarete Tower were several heraldic interpretations of the Biscione Visconteo, the coat of arms of the city of Milan and of the Visconti family that ruled it in medieval times.
Biscione basically means "grass snake," and the icon's association with Milan may stem from a bronzed serpent souvenir brought to the city from Constantinople by Arnolf II of Arsago, who served as archbishop of Milan from 998-1018. That image plus a representation of Milan's official flag—a red cross on a white background—are the elements that have defined all nine Alfa logos.
The simplest, purest interpretation of any design is usually the first. We clearly see the Biscione devouring a human that is believed to be a child or possibly a Moor or Ottoman Turk. The crown worn on the snake's head distinguishes this official Milanese symbol from that of the private Visconti family. The words ALFA at the top and MILANO at the bottom are separated by two figure-eight "Savoy Knots," a symbol of the royal House of Savoy, a branch of which unified Italy in 1861.
As World War I was erupting, the banks holding A.L.F.A. 's debt entrusted the running of the company to Nicola Romeo, an entrepreneur from Naples. The company's Portello (ex-Darracq) factory produced compressors, ammunition, and aircraft engines. When automotive production resumed, the company was renamed Alfa-Romeo and the logo was updated accordingly, and with a more linear font.
The logo was set in a golden laurel-leaf crown to celebrate the Alfa P2's victory in the first World Racing Car Championship, taking victory in two of the four championship races with Antonio Ascari driving in the European Grand Prix at Spa and Gastone Brilli-Peri cinching the Italian Grand Prix at Monza after Ascari's fatal crash while leading the French Grand Prix at Montlhéry in between.
With the fall of the Italian monarchy, the Imperial knots were swapped for two wavy lines. But more significant to this revision is the fact that wartime bombing severely damaged the entire Italian industrial base, including the supplier of Alfa's multicolored logo badges. This greatly simplified design was easier to manufacture in two-tone gold on red, with its less elaborate golden laurel wreath frame and its fatter, smoother serpent featuring fewer coils. The person he's devouring was also set on an angle. This most dramatic redesign in Alfa history was also its shortest lived.
The full-color logo returned with a silver surround in the year that Alfa Romeo took the inaugural Formula 1 World Championship title with Giuseppe "Nino" Farina claiming the title in a Tipo 158, aka "Alfetta." Alfa won again in 1951 with Juan Manuel Fangio in a Tipo 159 powered by a 1.5-liter 425-hp supercharged straight-eight engine capable of hitting 190 mph. (It was a methanol-guzzler, though, achieving 1.2 mpg!) Alfa withdrew from Formula 1 in 1952 to concentrate on profitable mass-production cars like the 1900.
This simplification of the design retained gold outlining of all lettering and of the cross and serpent, but the elaborate scale texture of the serpent's body, the human's musculature, the wavy texture in the blue surround, and the vertical line texture in the red cross were all smoothed out.
Of greatest significance in this redesign is the dropping of the wavy lines and the word "Milano," in recognition of Alfa's corporate expansion beyond the Milan environs. There was a big new plant in Pomigliano d'Arco near Naples built to construct the new Alfasud compact, and a new prototype test track at Balocco in the Piedmont region.
This revision continued the trend toward graphic simplification of the design that had started with the previous design losing the snake's knot or coil just beneath the human and one less back-and-forth zigzag in his body. This time around, the remnants of the laurel-wreath frame were eliminated and the typeface was switched to a simpler Futura font. To date this stands as Alfa's longest-lived logo design.
This final redesign by Robilant Associati of Milan tweaks the font again and eliminates the division bar separating the cross and the man-eating snake, which allows the snake to expand. The fatter snake features one less zigzag and the former blue and white backgrounds give way to a single silver textured field.