Conferences and presentations

The British School of Rome Conference 2013

9 October 2013

View videos taken at the conference

The first event of the British Academy-funded project was a conference entitled ‘How to think in images? Luigi Ghirri and photography’ / ‘Come pensare per immagini? Luigi Ghirri e la fotografia’, which was held at The British School at Rome on Wednesday 9 October 2013 (9.30-19.30). The conference and project are also supported by the School of Modern Languages, University of Leicester, and by the British School at Rome.

The conference in Rome was held under the patronage of the Society for Italian Studies, the Regional Government of Emilia Romagna, the Municipality of Reggio Emilia, the Panizzi Library in Reggio Emilia, and in collaboration with MAXXI, the Italian national museum of Twenty-First Century art in Rome. The conference was organised to coincide with the major retrospective of Ghirri’s work at MAXXI (24 April–27 Oct 2013).

The conference offered a novel appraisal of the multifaceted work of Luigi Ghirri (1943-1992). Bringing together several of the main Italian scholars, curators, and artists-photographers whose investigation and practice have long been in a dialogue with Ghirri’s photography, it contextualized his work within the debate on Italian photography, art and aesthetics, and beyond, and established new links between his work and that of his contemporaries in Italy and abroad. By adopting an interdisciplinary approach, the conference gave a significant contribution to assessing Ghirri’s role in redefining photography as part of contemporary artistic practice and visual culture, and his bringing to the fore issues of place and landscape in postmodern Italy.

Professor Christopher Smith, Director of The British School at Rome, opened the proceedings by underlining the interdisciplinary nature of Luigi Ghirri’s work and his attention to literature. The second inaugural address was given by Pippo Ciorra, Senior Curator of MAXXI Architettura, who welcomed the project and its first conference as a much-needed opportunity for scholarly discussion on Ghirri.

Landscape, architecture and the avant-garde

The first session, chaired by Jacopo Benci, opened with a paper by Francesca Fabiani (Curator of the Photography Collection, MAXXI Architettura) entitled ‘Lo sguardo che cancella l’abitudine: Luigi Ghirri e il paesaggio’ / ‘The gaze that erases habit: Luigi Ghirri and landscape’. As one of the curators of the MAXXI exhibition on Ghirri, Fabiani asserted the need to give Ghirri’s work the attention and recognition it deserves. Her paper offered an investigation of Ghirri’s photography of place and landscape from his early work to Viaggio in Italia and Esplorazioni sulla via Emilia, two seminal interdisciplinary projects for which he acted as a catalyst, bringing together many photographers, writers, artists, as well as architects, geographers and economers.

Giuliano Sergio, independent scholar and co-curator of the MAXXI exhibition, presented a paper on ‘Avanguardia e architettura: due radici di Luigi Ghirri’ / ‘Avant-garde and architecture: two roots of Luigi Ghirri’. Sergio offered a detailed analysis of the context and critical debate on art in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s, with which Ghirri was familiar through his collaboration with conceptual artists in Modena (including Cremaschi, Guerzoni, Vaccari, Della Casa, Parmiggiani) and through his knowledge of the works of artists such as Paolini, Kounellis, Mulas, Ruscha, with which his art established an original dialogue.

Curator, theorist, the sky and the sea

In the second session, chaired by Marina Spunta, Laura Gasparini – Curator of the ‘Fototeca Biblioteca Panizzi’ in Reggio Emilia and co-curator of the MAXXI exhibition – spoke about ‘Luigi Ghirri tra ricerca e attività curatoriale’ / ‘Luigi Ghirri between research and curatorial work’. Her paper examined Ghirri’s role as curator and theorist, and his ability to engage in dialogue and act as a catalyst for many artists, scholars and institutions in Emilia Romagna and beyond.

With a presentation entitled ‘Il cielo e il mare: Luigi Ghirri e Pino Pascali’ / ‘The sky and the sea: Luigi Ghirri and Pino Pascali’, critic Anna D’Elia (Academy of Fine Arts, Bari) drew a new parallel between the work of Ghirri and that of Pino Pascali (1936-1968), comparing Ghirri’s series Infinito / Infinite (1974), comprising 365 photographs of the sky, taken every day over a year, with Pascali’s 32 mq. di mare circa / Approx. 32 square meters of sea (1967), a series of 30 square containers full of water. D’Elia argued that with these works Ghirri and Pascali addressed the question of how to capture infinity and to render temporality, and that both sought to redress the role of the artist and the relations between different arts.

Infinity and and Ghirri's work as a project

The first session of the afternoon, chaired by Francesca Fabiani, opened with a contribution by Vittore Fossati, one of the photographers who worked with Ghirri in the 1980s and who has continued an investigation of place and landscape to-date; its title was ‘L’otto rovesciato. Appunti per un’idea di ‘infinito’ nell’opera di Luigi Ghirri’ / ‘The tipped 8. Notes for an idea of ‘infinity’ in Luigi Ghirri’s work’. By analyzing a few evocative images Fossati reflected on the importance of the notion and the symbol of the infinite in Ghirri’s work.

Curator Elena Re gave a paper entitled ‘Il progetto nell’opera di Luigi Ghirri’ / ‘The project in Luigi Ghirri’s work’. Her paper explored Luigi Ghirri’s work as an overall project that bridged the early conceptual period of the 1970s with the ‘landscape epoch’ of the 1980s. Re showed that Ghirri’s experimentation with photography was informed by a coherent thought that sought to put forward his vision of the world. His art drew on great dedication and craftmanship, which he saw as a means of accessing his subject matter more deeply. In her paper Elena Re argued that Ghirri was interested in the materiality of art and in the manual work that surrounds each creative process. He enjoyed making maquettes of his work and mounting his photographs on cards or in albums in order to create his own archive – a reservoir of images through which he constructed his series. Furthermore, his curiosity and love for things was such to drive him to collect a great number of objects, many of which then became part of his photographic work, giving rise to new projects.

Ghirri, Stephen Shore, and listening to the landscape

Photography historian and author of the book Mondi infiniti di Luigi Ghirri, Ennery Taramelli (Academy of Fine Arts, Rome) with her paper on ‘‘Luoghi non comuni’ di Luigi Ghirri e Stephen Shore’ / ‘Luigi Ghirri’s and Stephen Shore’s ‘Uncommon places’’ offered a contrastive analysis of a number of written and visual texts by Ghirri and Shore, focusing in particular on Kodachrome and on American Surfaces. Her presentation highlighted the innovative nature of Ghirri’s photography from the early 1970s, suggesting that it was in many ways consonant and parallel to the research on place and landscape carried out by Shore, and that both Ghirri and Shore were interested in the photography of conceptual artists such as Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ed Ruscha, Franco Vaccari and Franco Guerzoni.

The final session was chaired by Laura Gasparini. In ‘Luigi Ghirri, l’‘ascolto’ dei luoghi e il dialogo con gli scrittori’ / ‘Luigi Ghirri, listening to places in dialogue with the writers’ Marina Spunta explored the consonance between Ghirri’s work and that of a group of writers who worked with him in the 1980s, in particular Gianni Celati and Giorgio Messori. By focusing on the metaphor of ‘listening’ to the landscape, she argued that their individual and collaborative work contributed to recovering a broader approach to landscape that sought to establish an affective connection to places while preserving their vagueness, and to posit the aesthetic qualities of places what-so-ever, an approach recently embraced by aesthetic theories of landscape such as those of Paolo D’Angelo.

Iconology and conceptualism

In his paper, ‘Towards an iconology of Luigi Ghirri’, artist-photographer Jacopo Benci presented a detailed analysis of the iconology of Ghirri’s early works (circa 1972-1981) and examined how Ghirri reflected on, and borrowed elements from the works and theories of artists such as De Chirico, Magritte, Paolini, or authors like Frances Yates and Christian Norberg-Schulz.

Arturo Carlo Quintavalle, formerly professor of art history at the University of Parma, and for a long time Director of the CSAC (‘Centro Studi e Archivio della Comunicazione’), gave a paper entitled ‘Luigi Ghirri e la ricerca concettuale in Italia e negli Stati Uniti’ / ‘Luigi Ghirri and conceptualism in Italy and in the United States’. Quintavalle highlighted the breadth of Ghirri’s cultural references, from philosophy and phenomenology (in particular Merleau-Ponty) to contemporary art, and presented him as a complex protagonist of the artistic debate of the 1970s and 1980s. He argued that the roots of Ghirri’s work are to be found in the debate of Italian and American conceptualism and urged scholars to investigate in detail both Ghirri’s reading of literary and theoretical texts and his artistic interests, which spanned from Renaissance painters (such as Piero della Francesca, Sassetta, Beato Angelico) to modern and contemporary artists.

‘L’esperienza del luogo’: Italian photography, writing and landscape. Luigi Ghirri, his contemporaries, his legacy

University of Leicester, 19 – 21 September 2014

See videos from the conference

The conference was the culmination of the British Academy/Leverhulme-funded project 'Viewing and writing Italian landscape. Luigi Ghirri and his legacy in photography and literature.'

The project aimed to further the study of Ghirri’s photography by focusing on underexplored issues; to contextualise his work among that of his contemporaries, including photographers, artists, writers, geographers, architects; to explore Ghirri’s legacy in photography, literature and other artistic practices and disciplines. More broadly, the conference and project sought to examine the multiple intersections among photography, narrative writing and the investigation of space, place and landscape in Italy since the 1970s.

The conference included two keynote speakers, a selection of papers by scholars and practitioners, and discussion sessions aimed at engaging audiences across a number of subjects. All sessions were plenary (and not parallel) in order to enhance discussion among all participants.

A ‘virtual’ exhibition, as a looped programme on a screen, presented images by Italian photographers who have worked around ‘place’ and landscape, from Luigi Ghirri himself and Vittore Fossati, who were among the initiators of this approach at the beginning of the 1980s, to practitioners active from the 1980s onwards, such as Cesare Ballardini, Marcello Galvani, Sisto Giriodi, Luca Nostri, Paolo Simonazzi. The programme provided ten images for each artist, thus providing an informative overview of the so-called ‘Italian school of landscape’.

Keynote speakers:

  • Prof. Giulio Iacoli; Dipartimento di Lettere, Arti, Storia e Società, Università di Parma
  • Prof. Maria Antonella Pelizzari; Professor of Art History, Department of Art, Hunters College, New York

Scientific Committee

  • Marina Spunta (School of Modern Languages, University of Leicester)
  • Jacopo Benci (British School at Rome)

Project Assistant

  • Oliver Brett (School of Modern Languages, University of Leicester)

Sponsors and patronage:

  • The British Academy/Leverhulme Trust Small Research Grant
  • The University of Leicester
  • The British School at Rome
  • The Society for Italian Studies
  • The Italian Cultural Institute in London
  • Museo MAXXI, Roma
  • Regione Emilia-Romagna
  • Biblioteca Panizzi, Reggio Emilia
  • omune di Reggio Emilia
  • The British Italian Society

Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age

On 11 December 2014, Jacopo Benci gave a gallery presentation of Ghirri’s work included in the Barbican exhibition ‘Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age’ (25 September 2014–11 January 2015).

Luigi Ghirri installation images, Barbican Art Gallery, 25 Sept 2014 – 11 Jan 2015, © Chris Jackson / Getty Images

I gave a ‘gallery talk’ on Ghirri’s photographs of three projects by Aldo Rossi: the San Cataldo cemetery in Modena (1971–ongoing), the Elementary School in Fagnano Olona (1972–76) and the Secondary School in Broni (1979–81). It was a talk given to a group of 20 people, standing in front of the works, in the exhibition space.

I started by giving some context on who Rossi and Ghirri were, what backgrounds they came from. This was because I am aware that very few people in Britain – apart of course from those studying, or interested in, 20th century Italy – have a clear idea of the social, cultural, and political context of Italian arts.

In particular, I explained that Aldo Rossi (1931-97) was a student at the Milan Polytechnic from 1949 to 1959 and that in 1955 he was invited to join the editorial desk of Casabella Continuità by its editor in chief, architect Ernesto Nathan Rogers (one of the principal partners of the Italian modernist practice BBPR). Rogers’s reappraisal of tradition in the 1950s contributed to the shaping of Rossi’s particular vision, though this was mainly linked to his study of utopian eighteenth-century architect Etienne-Louis Boullée and early modernist architect Adolf Loos (other authors he saw as seminal were Raymond Roussel, Max Ernst, Georges Bataille).

To introduce Ghirri, I gave an overview of his training as a land surveyor rather than as a photographer or fine artist, and how as a practitioner and intellectual he was largely self-taught, though his encounters with the ‘Modena conceptualists’, and later with intellectuals such as Arturo Carlo Quintavalle, Cesare De Seta, and Vittorio Savi, certainly helped him in his intellectual and artistic progress. Then I discussed the photographs on exhibit while referring to Ghirri’s and Rossi’s writings, especially Rossi’s Note autobiografiche sulla formazione (1971), and Architetture padane, a joint project with Ghirri (Casa del Mantegna, Mantova, 1984), and statements by Ghirri on the San Cataldo cemetery project, in particular, and on Aldo Rossi, from 1985, 1987, 1990.

As Ghirri recalled in 1985, the offer to photograph Aldo Rossi’s Modena cemetery in 1983 ‘came from the magazine Lotus, but it was [Vittorio] Savi, who had written an essay on some of my series of photographs, to insist that the task was entrusted to me. I must say that the shift from anonymous architecture to cultured architecture was not difficult. My gaze was that of a participant observer.’ According to Ghirri, architectural photography as it had been practiced up to then was:

"a process that begins with the project design, passes through stages that we know well, and is resolved in the artefact. The artefact is then authenticated by photography. This path produces the stereotype of ‘architectural photography’, which I think is now really worn out. More than authenticating the ‘vision’ of the architect, my gaze and my approach would like to reveal hidden aspects and functions, and return an image of the lived experience of architecture."

For Ghirri, instead, architecture:

"lives, it lives of subtle and fascinating spatial and temporal changes, even in the weather. […] I am interested in working in sequences related to each minimal variation that makes architecture alive. So for example, I photograph at different times of day, to show how light can change and transform; to make comparisons between how architecture appears in the morning light, in the twilight, or in the dark of the night; or to verify how it is lived."

Luigi Ghirri, ‘Fotografare i luoghi, fotografare le architetture. Interview by M. Lupano’ [c. 1985], in P. Costantini, G. Chiaramonte (eds), Luigi Ghirri. Niente di antico sotto il sole, Turin: SEI, 1997, pp. 294-95 (my translation from the Italian).

In 1987, he described how he had approached Rossi’s edifices at San Cataldo:

"Living in Modena and happening to see the cemetery quite often, I always enjoyed the way the blue roof of the part already built became merged with the blue of the sky, observing how the colours changed according to the time of day. I was also taken with the red cube at the centre, which appeared, framed in my car’s side windows, as I drove down the road towards the Po. The process of taking the photographs was extremely interesting, not so much because of the results eventually obtained, but because, strangely, in the perfect solitude of the public holidays when I could not disturb ongoing work or be hampered by it, it seemed that the secret of an approach to architecture and to the means of representing it photographically revealed itself to me. Paradoxically, the further my work proceeded, […] I found myself with more work to do. There were always new angles to observe and frame, new points of view for each little movement in space. Scarcely were perspectives photographed when they reappeared minutes later in a new way; the light constantly changed the sense and appearance of the volumes and surfaces, colouring them differently. The little windows of the low wing produced framings analogous to those of the camera’s viewfinder. In their repeated square frames a succession of different things appeared, like an ever changing theatrical set […]. The rise to the ossuary confirmed this impression of mobility and flux. Immediately after climbing the first flight of stairs, where the exterior could be seen through cubical windows, I arrived at a point where two windows appeared simultaneously, one on the first and one on the second floor, with the green of a field visible through one, and the blue sky through the other. These two surfaces seemed to embody in a visible form, both organic and synthetic, the meaning of all this architecture, suggesting the idea of a balance between the internal and external."

And, reflecting on Rossi’s architecture as a whole, Ghirri added:

"Every time I have encountered Aldo Rossi’s work, whether as photographer or simply as observer, […] these buildings – whether stage set, cemetery, house, or school – amazed me […] because they were at once immediately familiar and yet mysterious: an extraordinary fusion of the rediscovered and the never before seen, of the known and the unknown. Perhaps Rossi’s works achieve this miraculous balance between what we already know and expect of architecture, and the sense of bewilderment that is provoked by the new."

Luigi Ghirri, ‘For Aldo Rossi’ (1987), in P. Costantini (ed.), Luigi Ghirri – Aldo Rossi. Things which are only themselves, Montréal/Milan: CCA/Electa, 1996, pp. 33-34 (translation modified).

Finally, in a video interview taped in 1990, Ghirri added:

"Beyond the architecture of Aldo Rossi, what struck me the most is his Scientific Autobiography [Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981], which I consider one of the most beautiful literary texts of the postwar period. It is a clear demonstration, even poetic in a way, of how architecture, photography, cinema, literature, are born from a crossing of desires, dreams, memories, intuitions and inventions. They never take shape as a static, designed, rigid thing, as an architecture or a photograph can be; they rather interpenetrate and find their privileged space within the existence of the author."

Luigi Ghirri, video interview by L. Buelli, Modena 1990; in M. Mussini (ed.), Luigi Ghirri, Milan: Federico Motta Editore, 2001, pp. 56-57 (my translation from the Italian).

An empathy undoubtedly developed between Ghirri and Rossi; as the latter wrote in his Scientific Autobiography, ‘each place is remembered to the extent that it becomes a place of affection’ – a statement that is very close to the way Ghirri related with landscape, urban and otherwise. In December 1995, Rossi wrote about the photographs of the San Cataldo cemetery:

"Luigi Ghirri was from Modena and took photographs at different times of day; the great unfinished work […] affected him, too, because it belonged to the vast Po plain, the lower valley of the Po. The lower Po plain is scattered with abandoned farmhouses, and cemeteries, opera houses and dikes, which are like a great rampart against the force of the river. […] Luigi Ghirri knew all this, but he also had a sense for things that move across time; as in opera, a sustained ‘feeling’ both prefigures the climactic moments and keeps them alive – this is why he shunned the ‘beautiful’ photograph."

Aldo Rossi, ‘For Luigi Ghirri (Ghiffa, 7 December 1995)’, in P. Costantini (ed.), Luigi Ghirri – Aldo Rossi. Things which are only themselves, Montréal/Milan: CCA/Electa, 1996, p. 75 (translation modified).