The crowds and the emptiness

"In the towns and cities of northern Italy the streets have a heavy impasto of history, a composition in which everyone lives. The landscape is layered with reinvention"

Few images encapsulate the poignancy of the Italian coronavirus crisis more than that of Andrea Bocelli performing outside the Duomo di Milano, a lone figure in front of a vast cascade of marble. What struck me, however, was its familiarity. As several new photo-books bear testament, for decades now photographers have cast northern Italy as a fixed stage for temporary players.

In Cesare Colombo’s mid-century shots of Milan, figures remain ghostly; they are largely missing from Luigi Ghirri’s snapshots of Bologna, Turin and Parma in the 1970s and ’80s; and they are lively, but capricious, in the monumental works of Massimo Vitali, taken in more recent years along the beaches of the Ligurian Sea. Each, in their way, has caught something of the region’s sense of the elegiac.

The novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafón, who died last month, was a resident of Los Angeles. He once remarked that in his city you got the sense “that there’s a mysterious patrol at night: when the streets are empty and everyone’s asleep, they go erasing the past”. The opposite is in play in the towns and cities of northern Italy, where the streets have a heavy impasto of history, a composition in which everyone lives. The landscape is layered with reinvention, as industrial and political fortunes, grinding poverty and brief gentrification have shaped and reshaped it.

This is true of the whole country but in the north the weather adds further fluctuations. Inland, as Colombo and Ghirri both captured, the air is heavy with fog; buildings appear elemental as stone and atmosphere get confused. And, as Vitali details, in the height of summer the coast can sizzle and shimmer to an alienating degree.

In his photographs from the late 1950s, Colombo pictured the Milanese as phantoms. They haunt the parks, they wait on platforms, they shelter from the rain. Even caught en masse, or at Mass, a single face will stand out within his frame, often looking straight into the lens. He sees them, they see him, everyone else is oblivious.

A survey of his work, Cesare Colombo: Photographs, 1952-2012, illustrates how, while he largely worked in monochrome, when he shot in colour he used hues like subtle suggestions: the yellow edge of a pavement, a dash of red on a dress, the green panels of a tram. Not technically perfect—figures are often a little soft in a Colombo picture—the imprecise nature of his focus matches his fleeting subjects. Photographs, Colombo noted, were for the “analysis of one’s fears as well as analysis of desolate urban structures that evoke solitude and soliloquies”.

“Largo Cairoli, ore 8, 1956, Milano”, © Cesare Colombo. (Civico Archivio Fotografico, inv. COL 7)

In the work of Luigi Ghirri, however, we discover a country that is also stuck in time: a late 20th-century Italy of coastal resorts, museums and market squares that already seems nostalgic. Rather than rose-tinted tourist views, people are notable largely by their absence. The restaurants are empty, the beaches are bare, the hotels stay vacant. Ghirri was the maestro of silence.

A major retrospective volume of his work, The Map and the Territory, highlights his obsessions: isolated houses, advertising boards, dawn and dusk. His prints were almost impressionistic in their bleached-out pastel shades. Like memory, his images are hazy.

Ghirri came to photography during the 1970s, in his twenties, focusing primarily on the architecture and topographical quirks of Emilia-Romagna and the Veneto. He captures lonesome swings and slides in Ravenna and a church waiting for its congregation in Modena. He made ghost towns out of Bologna, Ferrara and Trieste and when a figure does appear—a sleeping dog, a lone stroller—they seem lost.

The stillness of these pictures doesn’t detract from the intellect at play. Ghirri explained that he was as enlightened by the ballads of Bob Dylan and the brushstrokes of Brueghel, as he was the work of other photographers. His work, however, would never emerge from the woozy world of analogue photography. Ghirri died in 1992, aged just 49, a tragedy that meant that his Italy remains preserved under his rather graceful glaze.

“Photography has spiritual links with the end of the world,” remarked the film director Wim Wenders. Photographs record what will never be the same again. Ghirri saw it slightly more romantically: “Taking photographs is above all restoring a sense of wonder, like observing the world through an adolescent eye.”

Colombo and Ghirri were both writers and historians as well as photographers, both understood the context of their images. In the 1980s, Colombo compiled an anthology of Italian photographs to celebrate the medium’s centenary in the country. “In the magic Italian landscape, nature, evoked by centuries of painting and poetry appeared through the photographic lens to be suddenly damaged by bridges and tunnels,” he wrote. “The camera could finally document everything.”

“Genoa Pegli West”, 2006, by Massimo Vitali (©Massimo Vitali)

Everything is precisely what you get in a Massimo Vitali panorama. At first glance, Vitali’s work might appear the antithesis of Colombo and Ghirri’s still scenes: his large format, immensely detailed pictures focus on the sunbathers, swimmers and posers that pepper Italy’s beaches, pools and piers. Often hordes of them. But, again in a nod to Brueghel, look closer and the viewer sees that each of these figures tells its own tale. These characters are alone in a pack: a boy takes his first plunge in a Genoese pool; a woman, lost in thought, stares out to sea.

Vitali has photographed bathers and revellers all around the world—a collection of which feature in Short Stories—and has come to the conclusion that less is more: the crowds have gradually dispersed in his pictures. “I think I can get what I want with fewer people and less eventful situations,” he notes.

Following several months of lockdown, Vitali recently returned to the seaside, taking his large-format camera to the resort of Tonfano in Tuscany. From his studio in Lucca, Vitali tells me that there was a sense of uncertainty rather than sadness on the sands. “Young kids were perfectly at ease, they consider themselves immortal, but the rest of the people were very cautious.”

You can find the existentialism in his work, he says, “if you know how to read a photo”. His photographs are full of humanity but they celebrate its most evanescent events. “Humanity is ephemeral,” he says, “It’s not something I am trying to underline, but it is natural.”

Vitali’s colour scheme, like those of Colombo and Ghirri, remains calm. “Ghirri was definitely a master of the subdued,” Vitali says. “I shared a printer with him in Modena, and so I got very influenced by this lightness. And Cesare was a very good friend of mine, but I tend to think of him as a black and white photographer.” Vitali’s photographs are great washes of blanched rock, turquoise waters and faded swimwear.

People are almost beside the point in this landscape. These places have seen residents and workers come and go for centuries; the carmakers of Turin, the financiers of Milan, the sailors of Genoa, they have always ebbed and flowed through their piazzas and ports. “Landscape is not where nature ends and the artificial world begins, it is rather a passageway,” Ghirri noted.

When contemporary architecture is bereft of people, it’s like haute couture on the rack. But the avenues of Milan and lidos of Livorno seem ambivalent to the masses. They have survived invasions and allegiances, the fascists and the Red Brigades, depressions and economic miracles. What endures is the setting, the resilient loggias and churches, the cliffs and the mountain paths.

In recent years the forsaken has become fashionable: all those coffee-table books of crumbling Soviet institutions and Mitteleuropean mansions turned into beautiful tableaux of rubble and weeds. It’s the pornography of nostalgia. But that’s not what is happening in the photography of Colombo, Ghirri and Vitali. Rather, they confront the inevitability of change—what Vitali calls “the next normal”—and, invariably, acknowledge what remains.

Massimo Vitali in Tonfano, Tuscany, after lockdown, photographed by Nicola Gnesi

“Cesare Colombo: Photographs, 1952-2012” is published by Silvana Editoriale, £35. “Luigi Ghirri, The Map and the Territory” is published by Mack, £40. “Massimo Vitali: Short Stories” by Massimo Vitali is published by Steidl, £120

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