Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 23, 2012
Paolo Morello La fotografia in Italia 1945–1975 Rome: Contrasto, 2010. 832 pp.; 221 ills. Cloth €120.00 (9788869652196)
Maria Antonella Pelizzari Photography and Italy Exposures. Edited by Mark Haworth-Booth and Peter Hamilton.. London: Reaktion Books, 2011. 192 pp.; 94 color ills.; 32 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9781861897695)

Writing in the 1930s, Italian artist, writer, and musician Alberto Savinio described the invention of photography as “a moment of transformation in the history of humanity that in some ways surpasses the conquest of Constantinople and the discovery of America” (quoted in Diego Mormorio, Una invenzione fatale, Palermo: Sellerio, 1985, 13). Although Savinio comes close, it is hard to overstate the importance of the ways in which photography offered entirely new ways of seeing the world to an unprecedented number of people. The new medium’s cultural impact in Italy was profound, and the country (unified only in 1860 and so almost as young as photography itself) quickly became a favored photographic subject. Tourists and natives alike gained a powerful new tool for recording the Bel Paese’s vast artistic heritage, its picturesque scenery, and the “local color” of its inhabitants. Photography played a vital role in capturing, and to some extent consolidating, Italy’s fragmented histories and identities, even as it confronted Italians with new visions of themselves and their country. In turn, the apparent immobility and timelessness of Italy seemed to offer a challenge to this most modern of technologies.

Yet, with the exception of exhibition catalogues and biographical collections, the young nation’s intense and often complex relationship with photography has been remarkably little studied. It was only in the 1970s that more than a committed few within Italy began to take photography seriously as a profession and as a cultural medium. Even then, as the art historian and scholar of photography Arturo Carlo Quintavalle has noted, scholars tended to engage in art-historical discussions of “great masters,” with little attention paid to photography as a shared socio-cultural phenomenon (Arturo Carlo Quintavalle, Messa a fuoco: Studi sulla fotografia, Milan: Feltrinelli, 1983, xxvii). While this is a common feature of much photographic historiography around the world, the abiding impact of Crocean idealism on Italian aesthetics and criticism, a peculiarly Italian fear of modernity, and perhaps also the sheer weight of the peninsula’s long and immensely rich tradition of visual culture exacerbated this tendency in Italy. Classic works on Italian photography that take different approaches, such as those by Giulio Bollati, Ando Gilardi, Paolo Costantini, Italo Zannier, and Quintavalle himself have never been translated into English, and some are now out of print. Italy produces hundreds of photography exhibition catalogues and coffee table books each year, but still relatively few studies of the medium that specifically focus on its Italian history.

This makes Antonella Pelizzari’s and Paolo Morello’s recent books particularly welcome contributions to an understanding of how Italy and photography have engaged with one another. While “great masters” still figure largely in both, and neither engages at length with vernacular photography’s critical role, the two works provide valuable assessments of photography’s evolution in Italy and of its significance within Italian culture. In considering the history of photography in Italy, rather than simply Italian photography, moreover, both books acknowledge Italy’s history of division and foreign rule, the country’s lasting appeal to foreigners, and the internationalism of many of its photographers.

Pelizzari’s readable and enlightening Photography and Italy takes a non-linear but broadly chronological approach to its subject, offering a wide-ranging survey of photography in Italy. Its eight chapters span the more than 170 years since the announcement of Louis Daguerre’s and Henry Fox Talbot’s photographic discoveries, and provide a stimulating account of both the history of photography in Italy and of Italian history. Pelizzari has carefully selected the photographs she finds most interesting and revealing, assembling them into a narrative that sometimes shifts unpredictably but provides significant insights into Italy’s under-researched photographic culture. While conforming to the conventions of Reaktions’s Exposures series, the title of the book is perhaps misleading, as Pelizzari’s emphasis lies squarely on Italy’s relationship to photography and its evolution, rather than on the ways in which Italy’s particular cultural, social, and historical conditions have affected the medium. Nevertheless, as she rightly points out in her introduction, the work “fills a cultural gap,” providing important information and context about an oddly neglected area of photographic history.

Pelizzari begins by locating the introduction of photography into Italy in the context of both the enormously challenging task of modernizing and unifying the politically, economically, and geographically divided peninsula and the urge to document and record its past glories. The first two chapters accordingly consider the role of the photograph in preserving Italy’s ancient monuments and marketing them to tourists, and in helping to build the myths of the Risorgimento on which the new nation founded itself. Pelizzari’s analysis of some of the most persistent Risorgimento mythologies and of the means through which photography helped to shape and define Italian identities in the young nation in the years after unification is incisive. Her discussions of the Risorgimento “war of images, in which the same event could lead to opposite interpretations and satisfy different consumers” (34), and of the iconography of photographs of Garibaldi and his famous “Thousand” (36–40), are excellent examples of her attentive reading of the volume’s many images.

The third chapter looks at the changing nature of tourism in Italy in the late nineteenth century and the representation of characteristic Italian “types” and physical environments, while the fourth discusses the proliferation of both amateur and professional photography in the period. Pelizzari provides examples of collaborations and exchanges like that of the painter-photographer Francesco Paolo Michetti and writer Gabriele D’Annunzio, or the photographic experimentation of literary veristi like Giovanni Verga, Federico De Roberto, and Luigi Capuana, pictorialism, and the art-world immersion of the photograpers of “La Bussola.” She also addresses various disciplinary influences on photographic work, such as that of psychology on the experiments of Paolo Mantegazza and Giacomo Brogi.

Fascism, Futurism, and the development of Italian photographic modernism form the thematic nucleus of chapter 5, whose photographs illustrate the imbrication of all three, as well as the attempts by some photographers to move beyond them. This brings Pelizzari to a discussion of postwar Italian photography in chapter 6. Here she contrasts new kinds of photography often produced for illustrated magazines: the socially aware work of photographers like Federico Patellani or Luigi Crocenzi; the fotoromanzi; the “ethnophotography” of Alfredo Camisa, Nino Migliori, and others; and the nexus of still photography and the paparazzi shot. As is typical throughout the book, the chapter includes references to photography’s connections to other arts like literature and cinema. For example, Pelizzari connects Cesare Colombo’s famous photograph of a young woman and an older man by the Isola Garibaldi overpass in Milan to contemporary works by the writer Italo Calvino and the filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni (132).

The final two chapters cover the work of some of Italy’s best known and/or most original contemporary photographic artists, from the poetic meditations of Mario Giacomelli’s work, to the extraordinary reinterpretation of Italian landscape in the photographs of Luigi Ghirri, to more recent work on the social landscape, like Moira Ricci’s poignant reworked family photographs, and Paola Di Bello’s and Tancredi Mangano’s work on the “socially discarded.” The book ends rather abruptly with a final paragraph on the contradictions of continuity and transformation that have characterized Italy since 1839, and have therefore also shaped its relations with photography. The format of the series no doubt dictated the book’s length, but a conclusion drawing together its many thematic threads would have been valuable.

Indeed, the restrictions of space and the need to cover an extensive time period required that Pelizzari generally limit herself to brief but pithy discussions of the photographs she includes. Her thought-provoking comments on these images and the way in which she threads them together to form a series of interrelated arguments about the place of photography in shaping and reflecting Italian visual and cultural identities provide an excellent introduction to a complex topic and suggest multiple areas for further research. The discussions of photography’s role in constructing regional, national, international, and class identities, in influencing artistic and professional debates, in reproducing iconic images of the past, and in shaping new images of a transformed nation make for stimulating reading that will appeal to anyone with an interest in photography, Italy, or both.

Morello’s exhaustively detailed La fotografia in Italia 1945–1975 will have a more specialist appeal, but also makes a significant contribution to the history of photography in Italy. It illustrates the fundamental role photography played in Italy between 1945 and 1975 in recording the changing image and values of a society that underwent an astonishing economic, social, and political transformation during that period. The book offers a comprehensive account of three decades that saw the birth of the Republic among the ruins of World War II, the so-called “economic miracle” of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the social, cultural, and economic upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It consists of two volumes, one of text and the other of more than two hundred beautifully reproduced photographs. Morello anticipates two further volumes on Italian photographic history and criticism.

Unlike Pelizzari’s necessarily brief history, Morello’s text might have benefitted from some judicious editing, particularly of the many lengthy quotations and at times impenetrable collections of names and dates. Examining Italian photography’s shifting styles, changing markets, and evolving public in the context of the nation’s postwar history, Morello nevertheless brings together the threads of amateur, professional, and artistic photography in Italy to build up a detailed picture of the medium’s many interdisciplinary interactions and its ongoing influence on and reflection of twentieth-century Italian culture and society.

Morello arranges his chapters chronologically and thematically, allowing for a structure that represents the complex interrelations of different forms of photography, and the changes in the economic and cultural systems in which the medium is inscribed. He begins with a chapter on art photography that addresses the artistic idealism of photographers like Giuseppe Cavalli and the other members of the group “La Bussola” and considers the enduring influence of Croce’s aesthetics. He moves on in the second chapter to analyze the influences of foreign photography in Italy on both professional and amateur photographers during the 1940s and 1950s, emphasizing the ways in which many interwar and postwar Italian photographers came to view photography as a koine that allowed them to move beyond the confines of a nation just emerging from twenty years of limited external aesthetic influence under fascism. While Morello refutes the notion of a deliberate, collective decision by postwar photographers to document those aspects of the country that fascism had denied or repressed, he shows how the political and economic transformations of the period allowed for new and sometimes contradictory kinds of photographic representation.

In the third chapter, he discusses the new possibilities offered by the exponential growth of illustrated magazines and the role and status (almost always lowly) of the photographers who worked for them. Morello examines the economy of photography, the complex hierarchies of the weeklies, and the Italian publishing industry in 1950s Italy in the political context of Christian Democratic dominance and Cold War American influence. He also looks at the cultural context of literary and filmic uses of photography, as in writer Elio Vittorini and photographer Luigi Croscenzi’s sometimes troubled collaborations, and considers the role of scandal and crime photography and the birth of the paparazzo. In chapter 4, Morello provides a nuanced discussion of the politics of photography’s representation of postwar poverty and the importance of this theme in early 1950s photography. His discussion ranges from political propaganda to the works of neorealist filmmakers and photographers and to those of the U.S. photographer William Klein. In the fifth chapter he looks at representations of the body, of death and of the sacred, examining in particular how ethnographers, photographers, and writers like Ernesto De Martino, Franco Pinna, and Leonardo Sciascia worked to document some of Italy’s regional ceremonies, minor miracles, and acts of faith and violence.

The sixth chapter, titled “The Country, the City and the World,” describes how photography responded to a country of extraordinary contradictions, from the wealthy industrialized cities of the North to the seemingly unchanging and poverty-stricken rural regions of the South. It also explains the important experience of photographers like Mario De Biasi, who had documented the “exotic” and “foreign” aspects of their own country and then travelled abroad to work as foreign correspondents for publications like Epoca (enormously increasing their appeal) and organizations like the Italian Touring Club. All this contributed to a widening of the Italian public’s international perspective. Chapter 7 anticipates the third volume Morello plans to publish, tracing the history of photographic criticism in Italy in the period 1945–1975 and outlining some of its challenges in negotiating the lines between photographic theory and practice. The final chapter, on “poets, masks, actors, ghosts,” is something of a potpourri, but mainly concerns the “big names” of Italian photography like Ugo Mulas, Mimmo Jodice, Mario Giacomelli, and Paolo Monti, as well as important social documentary works like those of the writer and photographer Carla Cerati. Morello ends his book by stopping rather than concluding, and also dispenses with an introduction. A clearer articulation of his vision of the book as a whole (or of the series of three books) would have been helpful to readers who undertake the long journey through it, however interesting and useful its many details and detours.

The choice to divide Morello’s book into a volume of texts and a smaller one of images is a boon to the reader’s wrists, but it does underline his relative lack of engagement with specific photographs. This is particularly noticeable when contrasted with Pelizzari’s much slimmer and necessarily less detailed volume, in which she nevertheless manages to weave the images into the fabric of the text, literally and intellectually. She consistently provides the reader with immediate visible evidence of her points and allows the selection of images to shape her argument.

Both books break new ground in photographic studies by including previously neglected images made in and of Italy. They contribute significantly to an understanding of the momentous transformations photography has wrought and recorded in Italy. Yet a study of how the fragmented and globalized entity known as Italy has influenced the photographic experience both within and beyond the peninsula and its islands remains to be written. As Geoffrey Batchen has argued, nation state-centered accounts of photography fail to fully account for the complex transnational interactions of identity and photographic practice (Geoffrey Batchen, “Beyond Recognition? Writing Photography’s National Histories.” Talk given at Victoria University of Wellington, April 15, 2011). Further work is needed that asks not just what photography has to say about Italy, but what the Italian cultural landscape reveals about photography itself. How does Italy’s anachronistic modernity, with its contradictory history of dramatic transformation and resistance to change, foreign dominance, and competing local identities, dialogue with what Roland Barthes called “the strange tense of the photograph”? How does photography define “Italian-ness,” and what do ideas of Italy do to photography? Books like the two reviewed here help fill a significant gap in the national historical literature of photography, but they also hint at the possibility of radically rethinking photography as a range of specifically located practices and experiences.

Sarah Patricia Hill
Senior Lecturer, Italian Programme, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand