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Chaos, Calm, and Creation of The Good Earth

The neorealist aesthetics of post-war Italy, as seen by Mario Giacomelli

by Ylenia Crocco
Mario Giacomelli

Mario Giacomelli - Metamorphosis of the Land - 1955-1968

The Italy depicted in this collection of photographs by Mario Giacomelli, exhibited at the Keith De Lillis Gallery, in New York, is not the glossy Grand-tour Italy. "The Good Earth", is a visual story of common day, rural Italy after the second Wold War, where the human presence is secondary

In the past two months, Keith De Lillis Gallery, located in the Upper East Side, was home to the striking post-war photographs by Mario Giacomelli and his contemporaries in an exhibition entitled The Good Earth. As a whole, the forty-nine-piece series presented a visual story of common day, rural Italy after the second World War. It was a unique glimpse into parts of Italy’s less celebrated, perhaps less romantic spots. According to the curators at Keith De Lillis, “The amateur photography world was rife with experimentation and the Italians became entrenched in finding their own vision amongst similar trends in other European art photography styles and movements. Giacomelli is truly a masterful photographer who set the bar high for his fellow Italian photographers.” Among them, the selection at the Kieth De Lillis included images by Romeo Casadei, Eros Fiametti, Giuseppe Goffis, Santo Piano, Umberto Vittori, Enzo Passaretti, Ferruccio Ferroni, Tino Carretto, Piero Todo, Enzio Quiresi, Arturo Crescini, Valentino Bassanini, Carlo Monari, Gianni Berengo-Gardin, Ulisse Bezzi, Augusto Cantamessa and Piero Vistali. All of these artists looked at the Italian landscape for its simplicity and extrapolated poetry out of it in unique ways.

Giacomelli’s personal story intersects with this “neo-realist” artistic choice in many ways. Born in 1925 in Senigallia Italy, a small town off the  Adriatic coast, he had quite a humble beginning as the son of a poor washer woman. At 13, Giacomelli began to work as a typesetter, which sparked his interest in visual organization and then the arts. He taught himself photography. Inspired by the films of Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, he became sensitive to the neorealist aesthetics. Landscape portraits taken from hilltops or helicopters were of particular interest to him since he saw them as a new kind of subject allowing distant views to prevail over detail. As a result, Giacomelli was able to create canvases which reflected his passion for abstract painting. He foraged for visual materials throughout the coastal countryside along the Adriatic, where he produced moving images as seen in The Good Earth.

Mario Giacomelli Romeo Casadei

Romeo Casadei, La terra chiede aiuto, c. 1970

The Italy depicted in this collection of photographs is not the glossy, postcard-like, Grand-tour Italy we are so very accustomed to viewing. The country’s image presented by The Good Earth provided an aesthetics defined by a new perspective, based on patterns and contrasts, where the human presence is secondary. Instead of luxurious panoramas of coastlines and of ancient monuments, these photographs depict a realistic Italy during the 1950s-1970s, a time of regeneration and industrialization after the second World War. These artists have created a connection between an eternal and yet changing reality and an existential reflection on the role of nature through images that work as a new social document.  Romeo Casadei’s remarkable photograph, La terra chiede aiuto, encompasses this concept.  The eye is first fixated on the cracked barren land in the foreground, then slowly moves up to a completely opposite image: an active factory. Indubitably, this shot of Italy is far from the pleasing touristy shot. The raw images of The Good Earth are not meant to “sell” Italy. They are intruiguingly mysterious and revealing at once.

Giacomelli and his contemporaries were engaged with the theme of life and death. In an interview published by the New York Times in 2000, Giacomelli once described his overall philosophy though a rhetorical question “Why does nature die and then always springs to life again, and man does not do so?’’ Here, Giacomelli bridges culture and humanity with nature, arguing that they should indeed function similarly. In this context, the title of the exhibition implies that as nature is self-rejuvenating, so should culture since everything ultimately stems from the earth, specifically “the good earth.”

Mario GIacomelli Piero Vistali

Piero Vistali, Fondovalle, c. 1960

The dichotomy of life and death resonates throughout the entire selection of photographs. Two by Giacomelli, if juxtaposed, are a paradigm of this theme. Paesaggio (not dated) shows a cemetery filled with grave posts of wooden crosses. This picture is particularly somber, as it acts as a personal memento mori. The high number of grave posts and the inexpensive material they are made of suggests that either these deaths occurred suddenly in large numbers or this graveyard belongs to a poor locale. Despite the fact that the gravestones are representive of darkness, the bright snow-like color of the overall image suggests a peaceful take on death. Opposite to this hangs A Man, A Woman, A Love 1960-1961. It depicts a lush field and includes on the bottom a nude man and woman caught in an intimate moment. The couple is a small portion of the image but lies closer to the viewers and speaks to them. The photographer toys with the theme of life and rejuvenation, bringing forth humans as part of nature. In making love, the couple is creating new life in an environment that flourishes with greenery. Combined, the two photos capture Giacomelli’s philosophy: although there is the inevitable death, as part of a natural cycle, life will again spring forth.

Mario Giacomelli, A Man, a Woman, a Love, 1960-1961

Mario Giacomelli, A Man, a Woman, a Love, 1960-1961

The Good Earth shows captivating images of Italy that while giving priority to the natural landscape make the environment into a work of art, mostly by highlighting the texture of the soil, whether it’s the dry cracked mud of Ferruccio Ferroni’s Vapori Cromatici (figure 4), or the sand of a beach in Dopo Le Piena by Enzio Quiresi (figure 5). The soil’s physical thickness makes it lose its natural quality to become an abstract pattern, or a material object like a patchwork quilt, as is the case for many of Giacomelli’s famous shots that this exhibit contextualizes for the American public, offering a sense of the artistic trends in photography during Giacomelli’s time.

The Kieth De Lillis Gallery’s website includes the full selection of images for those who were not able to visit it.


By:Ylenia Crocco, minor in Italian, Montclair State University (NJ).

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