Captured moments 1841-1941

Photography exhibit views a hundred years of Italy

John Groutt
November 30, 2006

If the cliché holds true that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ then the inaugural exhibit at the new Museo Nazionale Alinari della Fotografia presents a history of Italy during a crucial century that might fill an encyclopaedia if told in words. This special exhibit, entitled Vu d’Italie 1841-1941, I grandi Maestri della fotografia italiana nelle collezioni Alinari, consists of hundreds of photographs and presents Italy and the world through the lenses of many artists who were experimenting with a new science. Photography, first intro-duced in 1839, was quickly recognized as a revolutionary craft where technology sought to capture art. The nature of these progressive techniques reminds the viewer of the innovative techniques tested by the Renaissance artists of Florence four centuries earlier.  

In this show, the creative process begins with the chiaroscuro of daguerreotype used by an international group of men (there are no women represented in the exhibit). These photographers captured events and everyday life throughout a 100-year period in which Italy, and the world, was undergoing cataclysmic changes. The photos depicting the destruction of Messina and Reggio by the 1908 earth-quake illustrate more than just physical destruction.  The photos show buildings reduced to rubble and people sleeping on mattresses in the streets to avoid falling wreckage. These images call to mind the war-induced destr uction that would come later in the century, when an entire continent and the lives of its citizens would lie in even greater shambles. Stefano Lecchi’s photograph of the French army’s occupation of Rome in 1849, for example, offers the first photographic reportage of events of the Risorgimento. Another picture shows Pope Pius IX blessing a pitifully small contingent of Papal troops in 1868. These troops would later battle the Risorgimento officers shown in a photo hanging next to it.  

Another unique aspect of the show is the series of striking photographic portraits of renowned historical figures, including Giuseppe Garibaldi (1873), Giacomo Puccini (1895), and Queen Victoria (1880). The gruesome-looking skull of Lorenzo de’ Medici captures a ‘post-portrait,’ which can be called neither magnifico nor grand.  (Is this a photographic equivalent of Luca Signorelli’s skulls?)A 1914 street arrest of Mussolini finds its sequel in a telling photo from 1937, which shows an arrogant Duce visiting with Hitler in Germany.  Photos produced by the Fascist Propaganda studio of L’Istituto LUCE illustrate how the new medium could be used as a weapon of the State, creating the same type of propaganda adopted by the Medici artist Benozzo Gozzoli, who presented his patrons as priest-kings in the frescos in the chapel in Palazzo Medici-Riccardi.  

In addition to historically relevant shots and faces, the exhibit features evocative views from all over Italy. A photo of St. Peter’s in Rome was taken from the roof of one of the medieval apartment buildings that once stood where the broad and sterile Via del Concilliazi-one now blasts its way into Bernini’s piazza. In that example, a woman hangs out her wash on the roof of her flat which appears nearly inside Bernini’s columns. It is a beautiful contrast to the mundane and the magnificent.  The photos capture not only Italy. Images of India, Palestine and Japan are presented as well, with scenes that take us back to seem-ingly simpler and less hectic times. There are wooden ox-carts in an 1851 scene of the Temple of Vesta in Rome, deserted walls in Jerusa-lem in 1850, and the Flatiron Building in New York City in 1903. The roads surrounding all of these sites host few vehicles of any kind.

An unusual feature of the current exhibit is the attempt to help the blind ‘see’ some of the photos by means of an audio guide (in both Italian and English). Labels in Braille, and an ingenious use of tactile ‘pictures,’ recreate many of the one-dimensional photos as three-dimensional replicas. The visually impaired are thus allowed to touch the materials used to recreate the flat photograph.  Florence is fortunate to host its newest museum, especially if future shows, inspired by a collection of almost 4 million photos from the Alinari Archives, mirror the quality of this first exhibit. Both Florentines and visitors will have a chance to reach a new appreciation of photography—a strange hybrid of art and science.   Vu d’Italie 1841-1941 runs through December 10.Museo Nazionale Alinari della Fotografia, Piazza Santa Maria Novella, 14a. Tel. 055 216310. Museum hours are 9:30 – 19:30, Saturdays open until 11:30 pm.  Closed Wednesdays.

 

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