“There is something majestic in the bad taste of Italy.”
E. M. Forster
A bundle of 50 Italian postcards landed in my lap. All of them are in mint condition, 15x10cm, making them larger than standard, beautifully printed, more so than we would expect from any publisher these days (if postcards are still being produced) and show scenes of Rome, Florence, Bologna and Pompeii. They were published by Fotocelere, active between 1915 and 1942; a company that appears to have held a tight grip on the industry, covering every subject from topographical to celebrity portraits and surreal novelty cards, not to mention the Christmas and Easter side of things. It isn’t exactly clear what their relationship with the photographers was, whether they commissioned work or simply bought it. There is a definable quality to the postcards, a clarity and an attention to detail, though admittedly, when we compare them against some French companies like Yvon, or Valentines’ in Britain, we see a general agreement in style.
The big difference was that from 1922 Italy was under the thumb of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. While postcard photographers would have found no shortage of scenes showing the glories of Italy’s past, and no doubt focused on them, their point of view has to be filtered through this detail. We can see it in the way that in some of the sets the postcards came in, views of the Foro Mussolini sit alongside others of the Coliseum and the Forum, suggesting not just that these were sites tourists should visit but that the modern was a logical extension of classical Rome.
Interesting that the Foro Mussolini remains more or less intact, known now as the Foro Italico, and that specific monuments to Mussolini on the site remain, including the monolith and the fountain. Tyrants generally have theirs pulled down as soon as they are ousted. One reason Mussolini’s are still standing may be that for a lot of architects the Foro Mussolini has always been an impressive example of pre-War European modernism. Watch Robert Hughes describe it in episode 2 of his 1980 series The Shock of the New and sense his thinly disguised regret that if only Il Duce had moderated his politics while keeping his aesthetics intact, this could have been a great humanist statement, except of course for Mussolini, the politics and the aesthetics were symbiotic.
The Fountain of the Four Rivers, designed by Bernini in 1651, was considered revolutionary in its day, though it is understandable how someone overwhelmed by the prolificacy of fountains and statues in the city might not appreciate that. There’s a gothic quality to this scene that reminds us the photographer, Enrico Verdesi, followed a specific style that required more than just point and shoot. It appears he was a prolific photographer, his photos turning up in dozens of books on the city’s architecture and others aimed at tourists. Not a genius, perhaps, but someone who knew his craft and what the times required.
Leaving Rome and heading south to Pompeii, a more vivid reminder of the Empire’s wealth than Rome itself. It seems that every website to do with Pompeii has copied this sentence as it stands: ‘William Abbott explains, "At the time of the eruption, Pompeii had reached its high point in society as many Romans frequently visited Pompeii on vacations."’ I don’t know who William Abbott is, or was, but clearly, since nothing existed of the city post eruption, the statement is meaningless. Who’s to say it wouldn’t have gone on to better things? The photographer in this case was Vicenzo Carcavallo, another who has escaped the discriminating eye of history. This scene of the public bath house is interesting, by which I mean it is and most tourists would be happy if they had had taken it, though anyone wandering through ancient ruins has little trouble finding a photogenic view.
A case in point is this photo of the Gate of Caligula, so called because of a statue of the emperor found nearby. The original name was likely to be something else. The striking detail of course is Vesuvius smouldering in the distance. There’s no date to this postcard though Carcavallo was working in the 1930s and Vesuvius erupted in 1929, so we can narrow it down to a couple of years either side. Just like the scene above, he shows he is capable of giving the customer what’s required. But we must always hedge out bets. Carvacallo’s postcards may have been commonplace, but if he was like a lot of commercial photographers in the 1930s, he had another portfolio that we may never see but was much more revealing. Besides, since this photo was taken Pompeii has suffered damage from poor maintenance, vandalism and theft. The site is now considered endangered. One day we may have to thank Mr Carvacallo for his photographic record.
To Florence, and the place most tourists would have entered the city through in the years before the war put that industry to sleep. The Santa Maria Novella train station was built in 1934 and is still considered one of the best examples of modernist architecture in Italy, despite its explicit fascist associations. We forget sometimes that in Italy fascism promoted itself through a modernist aesthetic; the futurists had a demented ideology but what they left us in painting and sculpture is still admired. The frieze on the right side, ‘Anno XIII’ no longer exists. It may relate back to 1922, when Mussolini assumed power.
Stendhal’s syndrome refers to a feeling of dizziness and lassitude that comes from being exposed to too much art and beauty in Florence. Frankly, Stendhal was a ponce. We can handle the beauty; it’s the expectation that we have to see every last bit of it that sends some of us to bed early. This and the following view are credited to Ugo Mugnaini, who once again eludes us in the search for facts. We can say he was by no means the first nor the last photographer to exploit the sharp perspective leading to the Palazzo Vecchio from the Piazzale degli Uffizi, but let’s not forget; there has always been something of a pun in the cliché. Florence was considered the birthplace of perspective in painting so there’s a nod to that in the view from the alley that runs alongside the Uffizi Museum. If you were in the postcard trade, scenes like this were guaranteed crowd pleasers. And this, I might add, is an excellent study of perspective, with proportions balanced by light and shade.
The Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens behind would mark a high point in Hitler’s 1938 tour of Florence, pieces de résistance in the display of Florence’s (read Italy’s) cultural power. Observers at the time would remark that while the world’s best known failed artist found the works in the galleries worth a comment, Mussolini looked increasingly bored and irritated as the day dragged on. Museums weren’t his thing. We can see by the long shadows that this view of the Palace was taken in the late afternoon, which explains the general emptiness. The focus is razor sharp. We can also see the tracks where someone has sped across the car park. The building is portrayed to represent power. We always have to wonder; is that how Mugnaini saw it, or was it how he felt obliged to? By 1934, about the time this was taken, photographers were well aware that their images of Italy had to emphasize its grandeur. To suggest anything else was asking for trouble.
While we’re at it, compare this photo to the one of the train station. It shows what a lot of these photos hint at: how for Italian fascism modernism was a continuation of classicism.
A view of Piazza Vittorio Emanuele that at first glance is nothing special, but on close inspection tells us a lot. The first thing to note is the banner under the arch. It reads, "Concorso Ippico Internazionale", or ‘International Horse Show’, which a quick search on Google tells us was held between the 12th and the 20th of May, 1934. Near the centre we see a man standing on a raised rectangle of concrete or brickwork. This is all that remains of the statue of Vittorio Emanuele II, which was moved in 1932. If we took a photo from this same angle today, on the right side we’d have the Column of Abundance, relocated to this area in 1956 and marking the centre of the city. It’s a pity the cars are too far away to identify them better. The one with the extended bonnet, furthest from the camera, could almost be a Mercedes, possibly an Isola Fraschini, one of the few Italian companies prior to World War 2 still making luxury vehicles. Knowing what they were could also tell us whether or not they are Government vehicles. This Fotocelere postcard bears the name “Virdux” on the back, and like the one of the train station above, has a backstamp showing the S.A.F bus company logo. Information on Virdux is sparse so let’s consider instead what has changed in this scene today. Very little as it turns out. Apart from the details already mentioned, the portal and the adjacent building are much as they appear here. The big difference of course is that today we couldn’t take a photo at midday without thousands of tourists filling the frame.
To Bologna, and again we are observing the modernist aesthetic in the service of authority. Everything is sharp, clear, and consciously composed to show how the Asinelli Tower rises above the city. It was built in 1109 yet here and from this distance it looks at though it could have rivalled the New York skyscrapers in contemporary design and dominance. The photograph is credited to Beretta and Giacomoni. They were active in the city from at least the early 1920s. Obviously some investigation of the various photographers or studios mentioned in this post is needed. Were they merely commercial operators, churning out images like drones, or were they their own people, with their own ideas and fully aware of current ideas in photography? In other words, how much did they see themselves as artists?
Let’s head back to Rome, stopping by the Forum first to take in a view of the Temple of Saturn with the Church of Luce e Martina behind. Here we get the two eras of Roman power together, the Empire and the Renaissance, in a scene that is so transparently about Rome’s power. We can imagine an American tourist in a crumpled linen suit looking across this vista, C1934, and marvelling at the city’s glorious past. "Wow, you guys were great!" His guide murmurss the expected response; “and soon we will be again”, or words to that effect. The road, with the horse drawn cart, another pushed by a man and another man reading a newspaper as he strolls along the sidewalk, has vanished. What’s more, recent photos suggest there has been no attempt to restore it. That would be for the best. The modern traffic passing through would soon turn the Forum to dust.
Finally, to a photo of a place everyone recognizes, everyone has seen thousands of images of, yet I ask; do you really need better than this? It tells you everything you want to know about the Coliseum, the building that is, not what went on inside. To ask for more is to say you don’t get it, but that’s your problem, not Enrico Verdesi’s. If anything, it’s too successful. It is so limpid and isolated from setting that the structure look like a scale model. One thing that intrigues me about tourist photos like this is how the photographers managed to have no people or cars in the scene. Getting up very early helped, but more than that, good photographers made themselves familiar with the scene. They studied it carefully and knew the best time for photographing it.