History comes on a plate in Italy, where each of the 150 pasta shapes has a story to tell and a sauce to sell.

Farfalle, fiocchi, and fusilli; penne, pipe, and rigatoni; a dozen sizes of spaghetti, and its relatives spaghettini and spaghettoni, not forgetting bavetti, bandelle and bucatini... from the mundane to the exotic, the list of Italy's pastas runs into the hundreds. How many bows, tubes and shells can one country need? Historical, geographical and gastronomic reasons may go some way to explaining the enormous variety available but Italy's relationship with pasta is far more complicated than even that.

Farfalle, fiocchi, and fusilli; penne, pipe, and rigatoni; a dozen sizes of spaghetti, and its relatives spaghettini and spaghettoni, not forgetting bavetti, bandelle and bucatini... from the mundane to the exotic, the list of Italy's pastas runs into the hundreds. How many bows, tubes and shells can one country need? Historical, geographical and gastronomic reasons may go some way to explaining the enormous variety available but Italy's relationship with pasta is far more complicated than even that.

Pasta is a foodstuff with such fundamental integrity that it has not been necessary, over the 1,000 years that it has been known to exist, to alter its basic ingredients. And when those root components – hard durum wheat flour and water – are mixed to a sturdy but willingly malleable paste, to an Italian they plead for creativity.

While the Far East is the original home of the noodle, the true history of pasta remains foggy. What is known is that by the 13th century just about everyone in Europe and the Middle East was eating some sort of grain-based paste (the Greeks had itria and laganon, the Persians ate lakhshah), and that pasta came to Italy in the form of little strings made by the Arabs who occupied Sicily. Those strings formed the basis of the whole Italian pasta asciutta (dried packaged pasta) phenomenon, but when pasta dough met the Sicilian town of Palermo, it found itself a master that would literally push it to extremes of ingenuity and inventiveness.

Made in the home over the centuries, pasta grew to be a popular, if labour-intensive food. It was the arrival of the mechanical mixer and press, in the 18th century, that made it more affordable, and pasta asciutta dug its roots into the cuisine of the South. Spaghetti freed Neapolitans from their tradition of cabbage and meat meals, and they were justifiably and passionately grateful – pasta features frequently in local art, literature, theatre and songs. Spaghetti was part of the landscape: the straw-coloured strands sashayed as they hung on racks in the streets, drying in the sea breeze. Vendors sold the staple dressed with cheese and oil out of kiosks – spaghetti could be eaten with fingers out of a piece of paper.

But pasta asciutta took its time to leave Italy. While ice-cream and wine hurtled their way up the lines of latitude to the rest of Europe, pasta asciutta – the dried durum-wheat pasta now seen as an international fast food – remained in the regions where it had first been made, with exports constrained to countries with immigrant Italian populations.

Pasta was long due its big bang; to be swept up in an amalgamation of mechanical automation and genius marketing during Italy's 1950s "economic miracle", the swiftest industrial revolution in Europe. As the country transformed from a largely agricultural to an industrial nation, the rest of the world cottoned on to la dolce vita, the incomparable art of good living. By the 1960s in London's newly cool Soho streets, strikingly wrapped packs of pasta were there with Vespas and Lambrettas, the Fiat 500, the Alfa Romeo Giulia and Gaggia espresso machines. Its inclusion was no accident.

"Pasta manages to be a vernacular that is also sophisticated, gloriously adaptable and fascinating – it is part of the Italian achievement to see beauty and to delight in everyday things," says Stephen Bayley, designer of a forthcoming exhibition, Pasta: Culture on a Plate. "More so than any other foodstuff, the paste lends itself to cutting, moulding or extruding into decorative shapes whose purpose is as much aesthetic as gastronomic," he explains, "even if the results are as whimsical as they are practical."

For their part, pasta manufacturers insist that the current list of 150 designs is truly needed. In all seriousness they cite regionalism, tradition and the appropriate curves, holes, edges and surfaces for Italy's lengthy list of companion sauces as the basis of such diversity. But while a range of reasoning can be applied to all those shapes, sizes and names, Bayley says that in the true spirit of the Italian art of eating, pasta is gastronomic play-dough, begging to be morphed, and puts the aesthetic treatment of pasta down to a typical Italian need to make mundane items things of beauty. "The concept of bella figura applies to food as well as anything else," he says.

It need hardly be said that Bayley's joy of pasta and Italian food is now shared by millions; the right sort of food for hectic lifestyles – easily available in a globalised food market. No one need travel far for the famous Italian brands and their dozens of forms in their dazzling come-hither packages. But pasta's economic boom in the 1950s was in stark contrast to the pre-war call for an all-out ban on eating the stuff.

In 1930, the notorious Futurist poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti called in his manifesto for a renewal of the nation's feeding habits – in particular he called for pasta to be outlawed. Pasta, Marinetti claimed, made the people of Italy sluggish, pessimistic and above all too fat for the "new heroic efforts that the race would require of them". The abolition of the pasta course ("an absurd gastronomic religion," said Marinetti) would help "make our bodies agile, suited to the light aluminium trains that will take place of the heavy iron, wood and steel ones we have today... we turn to food to set the correct diet for an increasingly aerial and fast life".

The manifesto now seems silly enough to have been totally ignored, but not a bit. Instead it provoked a terrific row, both in the press and between all sectors of an Italian society adjusting to a new – if false – identity under a totalitarian fascist regime. The food writer Elizabeth David, who later did much to highlight the identities of the many and various shapes of pasta asciutta to wide-eyed British readers in her book Italian Food (1954), found the tone of the manifesto disturbing. "Behind this amiable fooling lurked a sinister note," she wrote. "The fascist obsession with nationalism and patriotism, the war to come."

It was true. Marinetti, like his friend Mussolini, was pro-agriculture and anti-industry. Keeping out imported foreign wheat in favour of the home-grown rice of the North fitted nicely with government policy. (While durum wheat, used for dried pasta, was grown in the South, it was mostly imported.) But Marinetti's words were hitting Italians in tender places. "Convinced as we are in a probable future war; the most agile, most energetic nation will come out on top... spaghetti is not for fighters." Even more inflammatory were remarks accusing pasta-eating of being anti-virile.

This was too much for Barilla, the Parma pasta company, which was highly interested in the further development and progress of industry. The company's 1931 calendar featured a plump, rosy cheeked cupid riding a gigantic maccheroni. The image of the definitely virile boy was posted all over Parma; a crude message promoting the connection between maccheroni and male seduction. In the end it was a photograph of Marinetti forking spaghetti into his mouth which brought the dispute abruptly to a close.

However, common ground did exist between Marinetti and the entrepreneurial Barilla pasta makers: a shared sense that the future fortunes of Italy lay in energy and speed. For Barilla though, the dynamic would not come so much from the people as from the swifter fingers of automated machinery.

The first Barilla bakery selling pasta and bread had been opened by Pietro Barilla in 1877. Even then the bakery business was regulated and new bakeries needed major investment; their proprietors had to be well organised to survive the competition, let alone police inspection. Pietro Barilla was not only efficient but possessed with a good business brain and the spirit of self-sacrifice needed to work overnight, every night of the year. After four years, his was the fourth most productive bakery in Parma.

Machinery at that time was still made mainly of iron and wood. The local pasta was made with the soft wheat, grown in the North, fortified with egg. The dough was simply kneaded, rolled and cut into tagliatelle or shaped into tortellini. The shaped pasta, however, was made from hard durum-wheat dough and would be pushed through a large cylinder under enormous pressure provided by a wooden screw, until it was extruded through a dye that cast the shapes, and then cut. Maccheroni, spaghetti, rigatoni and the like would then be laid on trays or over bars to dry. The machinery for pasta kneading, extruding and cutting was gradually improving, and, in 1910, Barilla burned his wooden presses and opened the first factory filled with the latest cast-iron equipment. By 1933, when the first truly continuous press had been designed by Braibanti, automation was finally a possibility.

But total automation faced one last obstacle. Pasta was unmarketable in its packets unless carefully dried. The continuous press with a drier attached was elusive, and imitating the sun and sea breezes of Naples and Sicily was possible only if the pasta was aired for two days. The artisan pasta makers of the South had to be experts at spotting changes in humidity; a spaghetti strand will ferment if the art of drying is misjudged.

Suddenly for pasta, it all happened at once: the continuous production line – complete with drier; ideal economic conditions assisted by the post-war state and the Bank of Italy; entrepreneurial utopia in the form of a cheaper labour migrating from the South; inexpensive steel and fuel. Added to this was the nations' new passion for television – the daily state advertising programme, Carosello, was the most watched programme in Italy. It launched the now-famous Italian brand, and as children were traditionally sent to bed only after it was shown, Barilla's logo was ingrained on the brains of the next generation, too.

True, food production was being industrialised all over the world, but pasta was different: it could be mass produced without its original make-up being compromised. While every hour the British Chorleywood baking process would spit out a blur of sliced wrapped loaves of bread packed with flour improvers and other additives intended to help bread-making stand up to the speed of the process, industrially made pasta remains flour, water and nothing else.

The 12 production lines in Barilla's pasta asciutta plant in Parma now run too fast for their operators, who scramble on to bicycles to run checks on the line, their long white shirts flapping. This factory supplies northern Italy and Europe, there are further plants in Greece, Turkey, the US and, of course, two in the south of Italy, pasta asciutta's first true home.

But the application of high-speed production and brand imagery has had little bearing on the pasta itself; indeed, attempts by world-famous designers to invent new shapes fell foul of Italian cooks.

Many of the designs, still popular today, were created long before the sophisticated machinery. Maccheroni and spaghetti – the ancestors of the myriad of shells, ears, bows, hair, strings and quills – were simply only intended to enable a food to be made in the sun, not inside factory buildings. For all its charms, spaghetti was not created as some sort of Neopolitan practical joke so we could flick tomato sauce in each others' faces as we eat. Its length is necessary for it to dry in the sun without stretching and breaking; its smooth surface and uniform width enables it first to succeed as a useful food.

The foremost achievement is the integrity of the nourishment. The shapes may successfully cradle a certain sauce from a certain region but crucially they exist to give a three-dimensional pleasure: architecture for the eyes, and for the mouth. *

Pasta: Italian Culture on a Plate is at the Estorick Collection, 39A Canonbury Square, London N1, tel: 020 7704 9522, from 26 June to 15 September 2002

A many splendid thing The origins of pasta shapes

The whims of the art of pasta are indulged in many different shapes – whose names can change depending in which region they are eaten. Most of the 300 or so designs are "descendants" of spaghetti, gnocci and lasagne. Hollow pastas like maccheroni are a sub-group of spaghetti, while tagliatelli (ribbons) and farfalle (bows) are the flat pasta offspring of lasagne. Conchiglie (shells) and orechiette are derived from the original pasta dumplings gnocci – but are hollowed for purposes of drying. To complicate matters further, each shape is made in many sizes, often identified in the name: -oni ending denote large pasta, and -ini, small. Hence maccheroncini and maccheroni, anelloni and annelini...


Cut maccheroni at an angle and you have penne, its name inspired by feather quills. Tubular pastas range from the long, thick, tricky to cook zitti that is almost exclusively eaten in the South (indeed sneered at by Northern Italians), to maccheroni, mezzanelli, and slim bucatinis. Penne are less 'rustic'. Their narrow, pointed elegance lends them well to the more extravagant sauces made from wild mushrooms or tuna fish.


More than any other pasta, conchighlie (shells) can cradle a sauce. They are good for the runnier, light vegetable sauces such as the classic pomodoro (tomato). Any richly creamy or meaty sauce, however, will make a leaden dish. Conchiglie are derived from the dumpling shape of the early gnocci, but like orechiette, they were created as a rounded pasta that could be dried.


An ancient Neapolitan pasta shape which at first glance appears to be rigatoni, but in the tradition of pasta diversity its slight curve, based on the form of celery, gives it a totally different identity. In Naples the blunt-ended, ridged tubes were once known, fancifully, as elephant's teeth, but were later given the practical name Sedani – or celery. Barilla still makes sedani, suggesting rich meat and aromatic vegetable sauces to go with it.


Italian cooking uses two groups of pasta for soups: thread-like filini, capelle d'angelo (angel's hair) or tagliolini that soften in broth within a minute or two; and an army of tiny rings, bows, stars or 'rice' shapes – often, superstitiously, given names with religious meanings (aviemarie and paternostri) because they were fed to children. Vermicelli are slightly thicker, used not so much in soups but in the fish and shell-fish dishes.


The best known in a group of entwined pastas, fusilli must be made from hard durum wheat to hold their corksrew shape. The twisted nature of this group, which includes riccioli, gemelli and eliche, makes them efficient traps for the thinner sauces, but there is much more to be gained from the delight of their design, and in particular the feel of fusilli in the mouth.


The word rigate in a pasta name alludes to the ridged, striped surface that holds the meatier sauces so well – so you have penne rigati and conchiglie regate. Rigatoni are the giant, almost vulgar, long tubes whose ability to trap pockets of air makes them a favourite, and deceptively light, pasta for baked dishes.


So named because of its butterfly shape, these decorative bows formed from flat pasta belong to the group of 'cut' pastas that include lasagne, tortellini and tagliatelle. Because flat pasta, which doesn't need to be hung to dry, can be made with soft wheat, it was traditionally made and eaten in the North.


A charming pasta shape created out of twin strands of pasta entwined around one another; gemelli is pasta architecture at its best. Children love the feel of entwined pastas – serve gemelli to the young with the classic novice sauces aglio e olio (oil and garlic) and pomodoro (tomato).

Nidi di fettucini

Spaghetti and linguine made from durum wheat are strong enough to be hung over poles to dry but fragile flat egg pastas and hard thread pastas are formed into small nests that would once have been laid on trays to dry in the sun. The Roman fettucini (the classic tagliatelle from the North) and the wide-cut Tuscan papardelle are usually eaten with richer sauces made from chicken livers, wild boar, sausage, eggs and creamy cheeses.


Attempts over the years to create new pastas have often failed, most famously in 1983 when Giorgetto Giugiaro – designer of the VW beetle – failed to impress Italian housewives with his new creation, Marille (a complicated looping affair of a pasta). Sigaretti (cigarettes) are also a curiosity, one of those hundreds of obscure designs that never found success with otherwise broadminded pasta cooks. Must be something in the name...