Translation by Isabella Davis, University of Oklahoma
Whereupon Michelangelo reasoning with Vasari once jokingly said: “Giorgio, if I have anything good in my mind, it came from being born in the thinness of the air of your town of Arezzo; […] Giorgio Vasari , The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Florence, 1568. It was 1856 when the Alinaris, still at the beginning of their activity, under the guidance of the founder Leopoldo, revived the Chiusa delle Chiane in a grandiose amphitheater vision.
It is the first act of a work on the territory that will involve many generations of operators of the Florentine plant, well into the first half of the twentieth century.
Alinari and Brogi, photographer-editors, as they called themselves, engaged in a monumental work of documentation of the Italian cultural heritage, will take up the lands of Arezzo through the themes of art, landscape and work. And it was precisely, starting from Arezzo that Vittorio Alinari undertook, in 1908, a photographic journey along the course of the Arno: a poetic testimony of his personal artistic research, updated on the avant-garde photographic currents in Europe, parallel to the enlightened activity of entrepreneur at the helm of Fratelli Alinari. During the twentieth century, the amateur photography of Aurelio Monteverde, the artistic research of Vincenzo Balocchi, the extraordinary value of the documentation work of the Valdarno lignite mines, lead us to the discovery of other ways of vision.
The exhibition, drawing from the deposit of visual memories that are today, the Alinari Archives, opens a window of one hundred years of history of the area, from 1856 to 1954.
What emerges is a natural context characterized by a grandiose landscape discontinuity and, well beyond the intentions of the individual photographers, a focus of its social landscape: a system of valleys delimited by hilly arches and high mountains, punctuated by a great wealth of medieval art; an economy mainly based on agriculture which however sees the launch of important industrial initiatives. In short, a land of farmers, laundresses, shepherds, monks, men and women of ingenious industriousness.
If compared to today, these images inevitably confront us with the ‘transformative’ nature of time, bringing out elements of continuity and relevant landscape and social changes. And if however every land, like a face, has identity characteristics that remain over time, the breadth of the variegated horizons and the vivid traces of a long history of industrious creativity can be summarized in that ‘subtlety of the air’ to which Michelangelo, jokingly with Vasari, he attributed his own ingenuity.
At the end of the 1950s the archives of the Brogi and Anderson photographic establishments merged into Alinari. Since then, the three great “photographers and editors” of the 19th century have been gathered together in the Alinari Archives. Carlo Brogi, referring to his activity and that of his friends/competitors Alinari and Anderson, had supported the recognition of this new category, different from that of professional photographers and even more so from amateur photographers. With their shooting of monuments, of the works conserved in the main museums and of the views, the “photographers-editors” published and made the Italian artistic and landscape heritage accessible throughout the world. A definition which therefore has a very high cultural impact and which is part of the long process of building a national identity. In a newly made Italy, still marked by profound economic and territorial differences and to a large extent unknown to itself, the photographer editors, and in particular the Alinaris, will carry out the first major visual census of Italian art and landscape, handing down a monumental ‘civic’ work of our heritage.
Leopoldo Alinari (1832-1865) with his brothers Giuseppe (1836-1890) and Romualdo (1830-1890), had set up a small photographic laboratory in Florence in 1852 with the copperplate maker Luigi Bardi. It will be Bardi who publishes the first catalog of subjects available for sale in 1856, a Collection de vues monumentales de la Toscane en Photographie, par le Frères Alinari: about a hundred photographs among which we find the first subject attributable to the Arezzo area, the ” Lock of the Chiane”. In this grandiose view of the amphitheater, Leopoldo has already given life to the Alinari “style”, the style to which subsequent generations of operators will follow: a construction of the image inspired by compositional criteria of symmetry, axiality and perspective order under a diffused light which makes the smallest detail legible. An entirely Alinari way of ‘ordering’ reality that will be applied to the most diverse subjects (works of art, views, zoology and botany, industry and handicrafts). In 1865, upon Leopoldo’s death, the management passed to the brothers Giuseppe and Romualdo (1865-1890). The magnificent “Swiss bull” photographed in Pratovecchio, on the estate of the former Grand Duke of Tuscany, can be referred to this period. Among others, the view of Piazza Santa Maria della Pieve dates back to the subsequent management (1890-1920) of Vittorio Alinari (1859-1932), son of Leopoldo. The compositional criteria persist over time and we find them in the images of the Buitoni factory in Sansepolcro from 1929. In the sales catalogs of the photographs, the subjects relating to the Arezzo area see a progressive increase starting from 1876, and show a significant work of reconnaissance of the main places of medieval art, Piero della Francesca’s masterpieces, as well as contemporary art, such as the monument to Francesco Petrarca inaugurated in 1928. For this exhibition, among the extensive documentation of Piero della Francesca’s works, we have chosen a photograph from 1964 relating to the frescoes of the “Legend of the True Cross”: a horse’s head bearing the signature of an egocentric visitor (?) of the eighteenth century, to bear witness to the unexpected traces of history that photography can give us back.
The Brogi photographic establishment
Like the Alinari brothers, the Florentine Giacomo Brogi (1822-1881) also began his career as a photographer around the 1850s after various experiences in the profession of engraver and retoucher, most recently at the chalcography of Luigi Bardi. After setting up the Giacomo Brogi Photographer company in the 1960s, he would try his hand at shooting art, landscape and costume in Tuscany and Italy, supported by a refined production of portraits, so much so that in 1878 he was appointed Photographer of His Majesty King Umberto I. In 1881 , on Giacomo’s death, the management of the company passed to his son Carlo (1850-1925), who consolidated its industrial dimension. Brilliant
businessman and fine connoisseur of the Italian photographic panorama, Carlo will be strongly committed to the protection and legal recognition in Italy of photography as a work of genius, publishing in 1885 the volume On the subject of the legal protection of photography.
The selection on display favors landscape and architectural photographs, two categories for which the Brogi firm had already won first prize at the 1880-81 “Melbourne International Exhibition”. Images of a rural territory, shaped by the work of the women and men of these places. Here Brogi was able to grasp that poetic harmony between nature, works, men and animals of which we find frequent traces in his work but which above all represents a distinctive character of these lands.
Brilliant, cultured, technically very competent, Vittorio Alinari (1859-1932) in 1890, on the death of his uncles Giuseppe and Romualdo, took over the management of the company founded by his father Leopoldo. He will be an enlightened entrepreneur who will bring the family business to a real industrial dimension, able to respond to the needs of art and travel publishing at an international level. His lively personality made him the promoter of important artistic competitions and led him to explore first-hand the photographic currents emerging at the turn of the century.
The images presented here are a wonderful testimony of his personal research. In fact, in 1909 the work L’Arno by Vittorio Alinari and Antonio Beltramelli was published in Florence by Fratelli Alinari, with a preface by Isidoro del Lungo. Vittorio personally takes the photographs, following the itinerary of the river from its source to its mouth. A passionate work in which clear references to contemporary pictorial photography emerge, as well as to atmospheres and compositions directly borrowed from Tuscan painting and Macchiaioli.
The first photograph, which marks the beginning of the journey, adopts a composition inspired by pictorial examples. Here the human figure is inserted to highlight the point where the otherwise illegible source is located. And yet the last of the images exhibited in this section, “The Arno near Montevarchi”, can refer to the placid atmospheres of Odoardo Borrani’s painting.
Each shot and composition is different, just as the light is different: the diffused light of the view from above of the “Arno a Giovi” has a descriptive rendering so distant from the twilight effect of the photograph “Ponte a Buriano”.
The printing process is also fundamental, which in this work involves different formats, manual interventions, colors obtained with toning that plays with the shades of brown, gray and sepia, in search of an extremely soft effect, with soft edges, full of suggestions, in the wake of the pictorialist instances established in Italy between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the following century.
Vittorio here abandons the rigorous lesson of the ‘fathers’, which he continues to adopt with conviction at a company level, to explore new approaches which, during the twentieth century, will lead to the full affirmation of photography as a subjective gaze on the world.
Speeding cars, rayon socks, elegant cloche hats. At the beginning of the century, the nascent consumer society spread together with cabarets, can-cans and entertainment venues. The glamorous poses of the young ladies and the satisfied young men tell the story of the new hedonistic delight of the 1920s: free time. A more comfortable lifestyle allows middle-class young people from good families to devote themselves carefree to shopping, evenings at the cinema and pastimes such as photography. In this climate, Aurelio’s passion for amateur photography was born.
Aurelio Monteverde (1872-1934) is the son of the esteemed sculptor Giulio Monteverde. Until 1915 he lived in Catania, director of the Belgian Tramway Company, probably to take care of the electrification of the tramway line. His daughter Maria Cecilia Monteverde Cammarata follows in her grandfather’s footsteps by becoming a painter and engraver and marries Francesco (Franco) Cammarata. Precisely thanks to the Cammarata donation, in 1991 the Monteverde archive will become part of the Alinari collections.
Passionate about cars, Aurelio already in 1910 had obtained from the Prefect of the Province of Catania the authorization to drive cars with internal combustion engines. After moving to the villa “Il Mulino” in Rovezzano in Florence, he installed a darkroom in the house and organized long four-wheeled trips along the roads of Tuscany.
The liveliness of this light-hearted group fills the shots: childish jokes in the snow, playful poses. His are memories of carefree, joyful and lively. The photographs express all the exuberant spontaneity of the days spent together with young travel companions. Photographic notes of car trips to La Verna and casual young people posing among the battlements of the castle of Poppi as if on a stage. Or who for fun snatch a smile for the camera from the reluctant monks of Camaldoli.
Locals appear in the photos as part of the landscape, a little amazed and amused by the novelty of these eccentric visitors. Little boys in shorts, women with scarves tightened on their heads, villagers with a peasant step, with hunched shoulders and bowler hats: nothing to do with long gloves, fashionable shoes and the exuberance of young women of the wealthy classes who savor the indispensable first courses signs of women’s empowerment.
The Florentine Vincenzo Balocchi (1892-1975) returned to his hometown after graduating in mechanical engineering in 1921 in Turin. The same year, it appears in the shareholder register of Alinari IDEA spa.
Director of the photomechanical department, the minutes of the company Board of Directors report that the engineer Balocchi resigned at the end of August 1926.
After the experience with the Alinari company, in 1928 he founded his own graphic establishment, the Istituto Fotocromo Italiano and continued to take photographs himself.
His passion for photography will make him a protagonist of the Italian photographic-artistic panorama, in the early Thirties as co-founder of the Florentine Photographic Group, then with La Bussola, which he will join in 1948. La Bussola’s goal was to guide photography in the territory of art, outside of strictly documentary intent, and the lyricism of Balocchi, his experiments in abstraction and graphics, are perfectly in line with the aims expressed by the movement.
Until the 1960s he participated in many important exhibitions and reviews and published his images in magazines and yearbooks, including Luci ed Ombre, the yearbooks of Italian artistic photography 1923- 1934. And, together with other amateur photographers, he assiduously collaborates with the magazine l’Illustrazione Toscana, founded by Enrico Barfucci in 1923. Official organ of the E.A.T., Organization for Tuscan Activities, it aims to promote and disseminate an idea of Tuscany that can take hold on the general public and can be used as tourist communication.
Balocchi’s images, calm and silent, are outside the documentary intent, rather they enhance the evocative and artistic value of architectures and landscapes. Shapes and gazes intertwine in a poetic narrative that lingers in the tourist vocation of a varied and emblematic territory.
More than showing, Balocchi loves to tell about Tuscany, people, objects, with poetic charm and minute “Mediterranean” sensibility. Lyrical and experimenter, he creates the image with few signs: landscapes and monuments become two-dimensional geometric shapes. The objects lose consistency and are transformed into graphic lines, thanks to the unusual framing – as in the images of the towers – or even to the unusual point of view, often from above. Or again the shades of light and shadow, for example in the arches of light reflected on the water with which the laundresses rinse the clothes, express a subtle aesthetic even if only in a humble gesture. The Balocchi archive became part of the Alinari Archives in 1989.
The album containing the photographs on display, dated 1917, was created on the occasion of the visit of the Hon. Roberto de Vito at the Miniere Lignifere Riunite and the Valdarno Mining and Electricity Company. By November 1917, as many as 20 mines were active. The protagonist of this story is lignite, a fossil fuel. Around it are miners, pickaxes, tunnels and rails. Men who have dug and burned the subsoil for years. Like an anthill in ferment, the mining industry has transformed the landscape, and also its people. Since the end of the 19th century, the Valdarno has learned to coexist with quarries. At first the farms began to be leased to the mine operators. From open-air excavation we soon moved on to tunnels. Lignite was used for the first power plant, for the briquettes factories (lignite briquettes) and as an energy source for the San Giovanni Valdarno ironworks which went into operation in 1873. In 1905 the Valdarno Mining and Electricity Company (SMEV) was born which, in addition to industrial installations, would control 273 hectares of land and railways, and will produce 90% of the electricity needs of the area, including Florence, Arezzo and Siena . Two years later, a few kilometers from Castelnuovo dei Sabbioni, the power station was built to exploit the enormous deposits of chaff, the lignite waste. It was blown up in 1944 and now there is no trace of it.
Soon the farmers of the valley replaced the hoe with the pickaxe and became miners. For the cultivation of lignite the manpower was never enough and the workers migrated from the neighboring provinces. And meanwhile the production grew together with the workers.
War brings jobs, because lignite is strategic for the war industry, so the miners, although militarized, were exempt from the front. Even the Austro-Hungarian prisoners, the Italian draft dodgers, refugees from Trentino and displaced persons were given a pickaxe in their hands.
With the end of the war, the demand for lignite also declined. But meanwhile the landscape had changed. The countryside had given way to the extractive industry, with its chimneys, sheds, cableways and railways; and also the Valdarno society would never be the same again.
The narrative relies on memory, and memory on photography. It remains to be clarified who the authors of these photographs are. This will be the object of research and verification in the Alinari Archives, also with the precious collaboration of Paola Bertoncini, director of the MINE Museum.
The album Miniere di lignite del Valdarno is part of the Reteuna collection acquired by the Alinari Archives on 02/17/2020, album size 25x34x3.