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PABLO VOLTA

22-05-2007

Sardinia as the Odyssey

Sovraccoperta Pablo Volta inglese

Pablo Volta

Sardinia as the Odyssey


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Translation into English Susan Scott Coordination Salvatore Novellu Graphics Ilisso Edizioni Cover graphic design Aurelio Candido Printed in Italy by Fotolito Longo

The publishers wish to express their gratitude to Ornella Volta for her invaluable contribution and assistance.

Š 2007 ILISSO EDIZIONI - Nuoro www.ilisso.it ISBN 978-88-6202-001-5


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Index

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Pablo Volta, Sardinia and Italian photojournalism of the 1950s and 1960s Tatiana Agliani, Uliano Lucas

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143

Photographs

Biographical Notes


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Pablo Volta, Sardinia and Italian photojournalism of the 1950s and 1960s Tatiana Agliani, Uliano Lucas

“A New Culture:” Photography and Neorealism after World War II In December 1954, a young photographer named Pablo Volta goes to Sardinia. He is alone and has no commissions; he has read La Sardegna Nuragica by Zervos and some writings by Maria Giacobbe, Salvatore Satta and Emilio Lussu published in Il Mondo during that period, and has been struck above all by Franco Cagnetta’s “Report on Orgosolo” published in Nuovi Argomenti the preceding fall.1 Spurred on, probably, also by the intense debate on the Southern question raging at the time, he decides to venture into the interior. During that weeklong stay, and in many others in the three years between 1954 and 1957, he photographs the life of some Sardinian towns in Barbagia, Desulo, and the infamous Orgosolo, which—he recalls—presented itself to him as “one of the pastoral communities of the Mediterranean that one encounters reading the Odyssey”. 2 He takes pictures of nights spent in the sheepfolds during the grazing season, of the moments of communal gathering, of the fairs and feast days like that of Our Lady of the Snow and an unknown Carnival that would later become one of Sardinia’s leading tourist attractions, the Carnival of the Mamuthones,3 producing several hundred photos that today evoke with extraordinary intensity the tangled web of topics, aesthetics, turmoil and utopias out of which one of the most exciting periods in Italian culture in the second half of the twentieth century was born, besides, of course, giving us a picture of a Sardinia that no longer exists.4 The general context is well known, even if often squeezed into the too-generic category of neorealism. This was the watershed in Italian culture determined by the experience of the war and the Resistance, which brought intellectuals for the first time outside the ivory tower of art for art’s sake—the dominant trend in the art world of the early twentieth century—and forced them to redefine totally an art that lives in direct relationship with society, morally and often also politically involved in the process of rebuilding the country. In 1945, Elio Vittorini, writing in Il Politecnico, pinpointed the limitation of the culture of the past in the fact that “it did not identify with society, did not govern with society, did not lead armies for society”, 5 coining the programmatic statement of a new culture that, albeit in the heterogeneity of its production, shared the common desire to be a voice of its time. Thus the topics changed, and style changed too, becoming more prosaic and engaging the entire intelligentsia of literature, cinema, and the visual arts in working out languages with a greater capacity for communication, more suited to serving as a vehicle

for the new contents of the art works. And with these, as Bruno Falcetto rightly notes in an interesting essay on literary neorealism, the means of the dissemination of knowledge changed too, adapting to the nascent mass society to which they were addressed.6 Whether because of the difficulty of bringing about a rebirth of book publishing right after the war, or because they were perceived to be a more popular vehicle, newspapers became the chosen terrain for cultural debate. Dozens of new periodicals emerged, from current events weeklies like Tempo or L’Europeo to more in-depth magazines like Società, Nuovi Argomenti, Sud, and Cronache Meridionali, to leftist publishing experiments such as Il Politecnico, Rinascita, and Mondo Operaio which carried narrative and sociological essays, all printing impassioned political editorials and investigative reporting such as is not seen today. And photography took on a new function in this sphere. Urged on by the theoretical reflections on cinema produced by intellectuals like Guido Aristarco, Umberto Barbaro and Luigi Chiarini in Bianco e Nero and Cinema as early as the 1930s, intellectuals like Leo Longanesi and Vittorini discovered in photography a valuable visual counterpoint to their writings and a new means of communication that enriched the already rich and varied offering of information provided by their periodicals.7 Others, animated by a stronger sense of the journalistic image, used photo-reporting as an efficacious tool for exposing the conditions of Italy after Liberation. Tempo experimented with the language of reporting in “photo essays” by Federico Patellani, Lamberti Sorrentino and Romolo Marcellini, who recounted to readers the manifold faces of Italy as it was being rebuilt, from the reprisal of industrial production in the North to the atavistic backwardness of the South. Alongside literary texts that provided a catharsis in their review of the sufferings, cowardice, and heroism of the Italian people in the face of the war and stories and investigative reporting which initiated a reflection on the contradictions of the burgeoning consumer society, photography unveiled the miseries of the current day. And, just as in literature and in art, it did this with a total revolution of style. Photography clubs like ‘La gondola’ worked at formulating a new aesthetics of photography that would replace the play with form of the 1930s photography of research and the pictorial approach that dominated the history of the analogical image in the early twentieth century with narrative keys better suited to a means that chose reality as its protagonist. In 1951, Piero Donzelli of the Unione Fotografica di Milano brought European photography to Italy with a big show at the Brera, right in the same period when a major retrospective on Picasso 7


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The “blousons noirs” at Pigalle, Paris, 1957

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like Mario Pannunzio who opened up his weekly magazine, Il Mondo, to an intense debate on the Southern question, seen as evidence of the inefficiency and corruption of the Christian Democratic governments.12 They played a parallel role to that performed in the field of cinema by neorealist films,13 and with their realism contradicted the picture of the South offered by the popular press, which with its fairy-tale stories about Salvatore Giuliano or the bandit Mesina reiterated the iconography of a South populated by brigands or the stereotype of the beautiful peasant landscape typical of the Italian press since Unification. To them thus goes the merit of introducing into Italy the teaching on modern photo-journalism of photographers like Capa, Smith, Bischof, and of fulfilling the fundamental function of information that the Italian press had forgotten for twenty years and continued to forget in its most recent tendencies toward a journalism intended only as entertainment.14 With their Leicas they told stories, offered documents in the best tradition of the time, and let reality speak for itself, imposing a narrative style which tried to liberate the image from the author’s shadow in order to leave all the space to the subject. They concentrated mainly on one aspect of the South, its degradation, opening major vistas onto the questions of agrarian reform, unsteady day labor, and the social and economic redemption of the peasants, rightly leaving to others the task of carrying out a more

in-depth or variegated investigation of the South. But some, especially in pictures by the small agencies of the leftist newspapers,15 fell into the populist rhetoric of a mythicizing of the rural world and work in the fields, even of its style of life, in a vision of the South closer to the agrarian glorification of Salvemini than to that of Nitti or Colajanni, or conversely into a denunciation of its “superstitions” and cultural backwardness that was not exempt from the same stereotyped view. Alongside this iconography there was that of a great number of professional and amateur photographers who set out in those years on their own personal journey through the South, seen as the land of memory, of a past that the Italy of reconstruction was, for good or ill, leaving behind. These are the narratives recounted in a 6 x 6 format, playing with the strong lights and colors of the South, by authors like Alfredo Camisa, Pietro Donzelli, Fulvio Roiter, Mario De Biasi, and Fosco Maraini, who created powerful images, veritable icons of the peasant world and its architectural and natural landscapes, offering, albeit in different styles, the portrait of the immobile South, the naturalistic idyll of painting tradition or the photographic vedutismo of the Alinari brothers, which pervades so much of the collective imagination about the South in Italian culture and did not spare even leading foreign photographers like David Seymour, who visited the Lucania area toward the end of the 1940s with Carlo Levi, or Henri Cartier-Bresson, who went to Basilicata and Scanno in the Abruzzi in 1951, guided by “Southern” intents, and to Sardinia in 1962; while stylistically they distinguish themselves from the preceding photographers, they embraced the myth of a South that may indeed have been poor, but was not lacking in solidarity and conviviality. Finally, further enriching and investigating more deeply the representation of the many “Souths” of Italy is the photography that offers itself as a support to the research on the South carried out by the nascent discipline of Italian ethnography, which opened up a whole new terrain for reflection on the Southern question. Post-World War II culture’s greater attention to the human being, to the quotidian, to reality, and the consequent at least partial or nominal abandonment of Crocian idealism, led to the fall of prejudice against the social sciences, which in this period emerged as a valuable tool for research into the definition of methods for a fruitful intervention in society. Between the late 1940s and the 1950s, Società and other leftist periodicals published debated essays by Ernest De Martino such as “Il folklore progressivo” [Progressive Folklore] and “Intorno a una storia del mondo popolare subalterno” [Concerning a History of the Subordinate World of the People], which sum up the new course of anthropological research in Italy,16 later ratified by the foundation of the Centro Etnologico Italiano in 1954 by De Martino, Cagnetta, and Diego Carpitella. Anthropological fact-finding campaigns were initiated in the countryside which, in their attention to social behavior, made ample use of photography and led it to work out new narrative forms. To be sure, it would not be until the 1960s


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with the change of direction taken by Lello Mazzacane and structural anthropology that photography would fill an autonomous function of interpretation and not just of documentation in this research, but already in this period it was bursting onto the scene and imposing a new way of recounting the South. The first example comes from an experience that could be seen as negligible if considered solely from the point of view of quantity: 150 shots made in two days at Tricarico in 1952 by a very young Arturo Zavattini, which the scholar Francesco Faeta rightly sees as the first case of community investigation. With this Zavattini, albeit mediated through the filter of neorealist film, applied the lesson that his father Cesare had experimented only a year earlier with Paul Strand in his documentation of the town of Luzzara:17 the iconic Farm Security photo that, through the perfect geometry of the frame, the sharpness of 6x6 or the optical bench, records the constitutive traits of a rural community, with a documentary intent capable of transcending the mere desire to expose and inform to become an instrument of investigation and anthropological narrative.18 We find this same narrative mode, albeit with a different depth due to the capacity for diachronic analysis proper to the written word, in the essays by Franco Cagnetta, with their meticulous study of the forms of social organization and the social and ideological system of a community, in his in-depth reports on the slums of Rome and the prostitutes of Mandrione, in which he involved photographers like Franco Pinna, William Klein, and Sheldon M. Machlin, and in the very personal experience of an artist like Ernesto Treccani who, in preparatory photos for his paintings of the city of Melissa, recorded all the topical moments of life from a point of view strongly conditioned by the political driving force of his research.19 Thus these researches add to the exposé of the problems of the South an attempt to delineate analytically their causes through the study and targeted recording of the ways of living in that part of the country, at the same time opening the way to an investigation of southern culture that would be carried forward, with a crucial change of methodology, by the second phase of De Martino’s research in Apulia, raising the problem of the value of the cultural heritage of agrarian or pastoral societies at a time when Italy was proceeding toward a profound transformation of its social and cultural fabric. It is from these various strategies of outlook or gaze, to use a term (sguardo) dear to Faeta, that Volta’s story of Sardinia was born. Without a sponsor—whether journalistic or anthropological—and trained in the school of reporting as social exposé, but led by cultural background and personal sensibility to feel the charm of archaic cultures, Volta chose as his field of investigation a hitherto ignored situation like that of Sardinia, offering a picture of it that combines, perhaps unconsciously but with a highly effective result, the various choices of theme and narrative schematically outlined above. He concentrated on the different moments of community life, offering the articulate and analytical representation of it typical of anthropological photography, dwelling on the spaces,

“14 juillet”, Paris, 1958 The “24 Hours” at Le Mans, 1958 The Académiciens de France under La Coupole, Paris, 1962

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Happening at BoulogneBillancourt, 1963 The occupation of the Sorbonne, Paris, May 1968 A student demonstration, Paris, May 1968

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customs, and forms of secular and religious aggregation, but did this in a style that is journalistic to a large degree.20 In so doing, he achieved a synthesis in the dialectic between documentation and representation that we have seen characterizes the iconography of the South in the years between 1945 and 1955, offering a narrative that united the symbolic and evocative capacity of the language of the 6 x 6 format and ethnographic photography with the descriptive, realistic idiom of reportage. He built up a conceptual story without losing sight of the quotidian dimension, without freezing everyday life into an icon; he dwelled on the identity of the Sardinian community without proceeding to mythologize it, as in the photos of the street bookseller (photo 44) or of the three men playing a game of morra (photo 62), which demonstrate a marked capacity for symbolization but at the same time give an individual history, revealing the specific personality of the person portrayed. He succeeds in doing this, we believe, not only because of the choice of his themes, but above all by using a 6 x 6 double-lens Rolleiflex as though it were a 35 mm camera, forcing a camera conceived for producing strongly iconic images tied to a vision that centers the subject in a finished, still composition to “speak” a photographic language closer to that of the snapshot, the image “a la sauvette,” more Robert Frank than Cartier-Bresson.21 Thus, alongside photos reflecting a more traditional framing, like some landscapes or urban shots, we find oblique viewpoints, capturing the subjects from behind or in motion, at the edges of the frame: the sheep dog snapped barking in the foreground, diagonally, playing on the slope of the hill, in a framing that foreshadows the deformed perspectives obtained using wide-angle lens from the 1960s on (photo 21); or the two children bursting, one in the foreground and the other in the back, into the picture of a street conversation that, in a more classic composition, would be the only subject of the picture (photo 19).22 And he uses the photographic sequence in his shots of horse races, town games, cooking a lamb, or Carnival in Mamoiada: portraits of the same subject from various angles, which follow the progress of the action in its various moments and protagonists, showing also what happens on the margins of the main scene, outside the frame traditionally used by photographers to picture an event, such as the shot in which the young people eating with their hands tied are shown not frontally but in profile so as to capture also the cheering encouragement of the spectators (photo 46), or the ball game photographed from the bleachers, shown in the background behind the silhouettes of the spectators (photo 50). It is enough to compare these pictures with the photos made by Mario De Biasi in Sardinia in 1951 or with the entire tradition of views and local customs of the Alinari brothers to realize the difference in key: this is not a portrait, highly stylized, fully finished, in which every sign has a precise, often pre-established semantic value, but one in which the extemporaneous or chance element bursts in, charging the image-symbol with a narrative content of which it is unaware.


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15. Orgosolo, December 1954

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18. Orgosolo, summer 1956

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19. Orgosolo, summer 1956

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Now Tandeddu lies, yet unburied, in the little cemetery next to the church of the Assumption. He was a man of very small stature, with exceptionally agile limbs and a round, fairly common face. Now, finally, we can know what the man was like who according to general opinion was the head and organizer of crime in Sardinia; the man whom police sought for years without knowing his face; the man on whom a huge reward was pending; the man whom, for years, nobody could claim to have met. Maybe he had walked in the midst of the people and maybe he had sat in dives and on buses next to the ones who were looking for him. But nobody knew that it was he, that that face was his. Some twenty or so armed policemen stand guard at the gate, almost as if the bandit, even in death, has never stopped being dangerous. All around, groups of curious onlookers coming from Nuoro, and then hundreds and hundreds of women. All the women of Orgosolo. Seated in silent groups on the slopes, in the courtyards, on the terraces, all the way up to the town’s summit, like on the steps of an arena. Mute and unmoving, their gaze fixed on the railing of the little morgue. Rosary beads run through their hands, and this is the only sign of life. What is hidden behind their stony faces? Relief, fear, pity, pardon? Maybe all these feelings together, maybe just one brief thought: “Today you, and tomorrow?� (M. Giacobbe, 1957)


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20. Orgosolo, summer 1956

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A basic job is milking. This takes place in Orgosolo, in a different way from the usual: the shepherd, his legs spread wide with a pail between them, has the mother sheep pass over him one by one, and grabbing them by the legs for the time required, he milks them, then lets them go. This is milking as Homer described it. (F. Cagnetta, 1954)


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23. Orgosolo, Supramonte, December 1954


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24. Orgosolo, Supramonte, December 1954


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25. Orgosolo, Supramonte, December 1954


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28. Orgosolo, Supramonte, December 1954


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29. Orgosolo, summer 1956

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33. Orgosolo, Feast of the Assumption, August 1956


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34. Orgosolo, Feast of the Assumption, August 1956


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The fact that the inhabitants of Orgosolo were probably hunters and warriors can be highlighted indirectly by the skill and exceptional fame they had in the past, and still have today, as horsemen. Those who see them seated on a horse for the first time cannot avoid a gasp of admiration. It is enough to see them with their nervous, thin legs wrapped tightly around the horse’s paunch, without saddle or stirrups, thrust forward with the mane in their hands, in the midst of a swirl of skins or cloth, among crags, cliffs, precipices, to understand that they are the best horsemen in Sardinia. (F. Cagnetta, 1954)


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90. Mamoiada, Carnival 1957

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91. Mamoiada, Carnival 1957

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92. Mamoiada, Carnival 1957

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93. Mamoiada, Carnival 1957

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Last night, 16 January, the cheery bonfire burned in the square for all. Today, the 17th, as every year and since the time of our fathers, Carnival came again. It came with the mute prisoners: old mute prisoners, old villains dressed backwards, with their belts of bells and their necklaces of harness bells. Hard, of hard wood or cork, is their mask of mourning. They walk at an ox’s pace yoked and weighed down, shaking with heaving shoulders their harness bells, now this one, now that: and the sound is one alone. The bells say: “It’s over, it’s over.” Hard young guards surround them, only every so often snaring their beloved or their friends who watch by the side of the road the sad herd as it passes. (S. Cambosu, 1954)

96-97. Mamoiada, Carnival 1957


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98-99. Mamoiada, Carnival 1957

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