On Looking (at Old Photos)

I spent a lot of time the past few years looking at old family photos – a family I never knew (it would be more accurate to call them by the antiseptic term “ancestors”). While writing my memoir My Two Italies, I researched my family’s history through the material evidence of their lives in southern Italy, before they immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s. All of it was deeply affecting – my grandfather Carmine Crocce’s naturalization papers, my father’s war citation, my siblings’ Italian birth certificates, and my mom’s Italian identity card, which listed her profession as casalinga,” “housewife.” But nothing moved me like the photographs. The negatives have long since been lost, and I had to rely on multigenerational prints, some deeply faded. Yet the chance to look into the eyes of the people I was writing about brought them to life.

Before the book, my grandparents were only names. My maternal grandmother, Rosaria Crocco, had helped raise me as a child, but my father sent her back to Italy in a rage, claiming she was meddlesome, when I was too young to remember her. By the time I finished My Two Italies, I understood that my mother was truly her father Carmine’s child: the same warm expression, the same hint of nerves and anxiety in eyes that have seen too much suffering. I felt like I was meeting my grandfather – and my mother – for the first time.

There’s a picture from the “Old Country” that never made it into the book, a group portrait of some Calabrian villagers:

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Before seeing this photo, I had never heard of any of the people in it. Yet nothing reminds me more of the lost world of my parents – the one they abandoned for good so that we, their children, would have a better life in America – than this once-anonymous picture. It’s all there: the dirt roads, the roughhewn clothing, the choral nature of village life. Although the photo was from the 1950s, it may as well have been from the 1800s or even 1700s. My parents fled Calabria because they did not want to raise their children in an world they knew would change as little as this frozen snapshot.

I’ve since learned who the people are: on the far right, the shepherd Vincenzo Crocco, my grandfather Carmine’s brother; beside him, the giant Luigi, Carmine’s brother-in-law; in the center, his wife, Bomina, a housewife like all Calabrian matrons at the time; to her right, my grandfather’s friend the dapper Federico Olfello, a laborer; next to him, his wife, Anna. I asked my mother why the picture was taken, and she didn’t recall – perhaps they had just slaughtered a pig, she guessed, and all had joined for a celebratory feast. I knew none of them – but the faces of this group helped me write my book. I see my grandfather Carmine in his brother Vincenzo: the same small and delicate frame, proud bearing, and thoughtful look. Most of all, I see my parents in their first home, the friends and family they left behind and never returned to.

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), Walter Benjamin claimed that photographs lack “aura”: they are created by a mechanical process (the imprinting of light on a negative), rather than by an artist’s hand, making them infinitely reproducible. But he also claimed that a photo can provide something that a painting or sculpture never can: an index or record of the moment in space and time when the picture was taken. I felt the power of Benjamin’s observation as I stared at my long-lost relatives: they were indeed fixed at a point in the past, preserved forever in this now-vanished Calabrian universe.

But perhaps a photo can have an aura of its own. Though it was a mechanical process that recorded these Calabrian villagers – and though I only knew them in digital form – I could still smell the past, private and public. And I could only hear my people’s stories when I could look them in the eyes.

Paradise in Translation: On Ghiberti’s “Gates”

On September 8, 2012, Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance masterpiece “The Gates of Paradise” was once again available for public viewing after 27 years of restoration—but not its original home, Florence’s Baptistery. Instead, these two massive gilt doors, which depict ten scenes from the Old Testament, are now enclosed in a protective case in Florence’s Duomo Museum.

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Tourists at the Baptistery admiring a copy of the “Gates”

Art lovers around the world may wonder: Can the copy of a masterpiece move us like the original? Must we see it where its creator intended? No stranger to dislocation, Ghiberti’s “Gates” has elicited such questions for a long time. During World War II, the doors moved to safety, only to be damaged in peacetime during Florence’s great flood of 1966. Slower, equally corrosive enemies followed the Arno’s waters: pollution in Florence, which only recently banned unauthorized vehicles from its crowded center; fluctuations in humidity, which caused the interior bronze to damage the gold surface.

The transfer of Ghiberti’s “Gates” from its natural habitat to an artificial, protected one follows a general trend. In Florence and throughout Italy, masterpieces are often tucked away in museums, while their copies stand undefended and vulnerable in the original sites. The most celebrated sculpture in Florence if not all of Italy, Michelangelo’s David, stood in the Piazza Signoria from 1504 to 1873, when it was moved to the Accademia to save it from acts of vandalism (albeit unsuccessfully: in 1991, a deranged man attacked the David with a hammer, breaking off the left foot). Meanwhile, copies of the David occupy some of the most exquisite real estate in Florence: the original site of the statute at the entrance to city hall, and a perch across the Arno where tourists enjoy breathtaking views.

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Copy of Ghiberti’s “Gates” at Giotto’s Baptistery, Florence

The German philosopher Walter Benjamin developed the influential theory that original works of art contain an “aura” that even an exact replica forever lacks. This aura refers to the work’s existence as the product of a specific time and place. No reproduction, no matter how skilled or convincing, can capture that original moment and context of creation. Benjamin brilliantly intuited that, once we begin to reproduce works of art and display them as copies in new venues, we open the door to politicizing these works and manipulating their social impact. This question was hardly abstract: Benjamin wrote his essay on artistic reproduction in the 1930s, when extremist groups like the Fascists and Nazis used mass aesthetic spectacles to seduce the public.

Of course, Florentine officials moved Ghiberti’s “Gates” out of brutal necessity rather than any pernicious political motive. The museum that houses the fragile panels provide a controlled haven, while placing them alongside other artistic marvels. But something will be lost in this flight to safety. The word “aura” comes from the Latin for gold, and in this sense we can think of the original work as having a shine or brilliance that cannot be replicated. Part of the luster comes not just from the work itself but also from its relation to the outside world. When Ghiberti’s doors decorated the Baptistery, they separated the city streets, with their mix of nature and commerce, from the womb of a holy site and cultural shrine. Strolling past the newly sequestered “Gates” can never compare with gazing at them under the sun or rain, as part of a walk through living, breathing Florence, just after an espresso and a brioche at a local bar.

But then again, I only experienced this “natural encounter” too long ago to remember the details, when I first went to study art in Florence as an undergraduate in the late 1980s. Ghiberti’s doors were removed for restoration in 1990, so any sun or rain that accompanied my subsequent visits did so while I stood before a copy. Nonetheless, Ghiberti has continuously inspired me for over twenty years. If done correctly, the reproduction or relocation of a work of art signals not its defeat, but its translation, in its original meaning as “carrying something across,” an essential element in a work’s preservation and dissemination. The transfer of Ghiberti’s fragile “Gates” enables us to enjoy it for centuries ahead. Rather than lament the masterpiece’s relocation, better to embrace its new split identity, as a site-neutral original and a site-natural copy. These two new forms may lack the aura of Ghiberti’s original Baptistery doors, but they can suggest the paradise beyond them nonetheless.

You can learn more about the “Gates” here.