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Book Review: Italia O Italia


Book Review Italia O Italia By Frederico Clavarino Reviewed by Colin Pantall I went on holiday with my family to Crete this summer. We spent most of our time on the beach and in the sea, but the day before we left we visited the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. There are sections dedicated to Greek and Roman art but it’s the Minoan relics that are the real treasures.

Italia O Italia. By Frederico Clavarino.
Akina, 2014.
 
Italia O Italia
Reviewed by Colin Pantall

Italia O Italia
Photographs by Frederico Clavarino
Akina, 2014. 136 pp., 66 color illustrations, 7½x10".


I went on holiday with my family to Crete this summer. We spent most of our time on the beach and in the sea, but the day before we left we visited the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. There are sections dedicated to Greek and Roman art but it’s the Minoan relics that are the real treasures.

The Minoans ruled Crete before the Greeks and the Romans took over. They made amazing art. They put it on their walls, on their pots, on every little knick-knack you can imagine. It is glorious stuff and it stands the test of time. Look at their decorated plates and you see where Picasso got his ideas from. Check out the clay vases and suddenly the Constructivists don’t seem quite so bold. The variety and dynamism of their Leaping Bulls and wriggling squid are really a sight to behold.

So you go through all these rooms with all these treasures and then you go upstairs to where the Roman stuff is kept. Oh dear, what a disappointment, that’s where things go downhill. From elegance and grace and subtlety, suddenly we’re into bombastic patriarchy at its grandest. It’s row upon row of statues. Overblown, overfed and over here. It’s horrendous.

Italia O Italia. By Frederico Clavarino. Akina, 2014.

And that, in a way is what Italia O Italia by Frederico Clavarino is about; the bloated monstrosity of the Roman Empire in its contemporary form, the suspicion and guilt that comes from that bloatedness and Italy’s failure to live either in keeping with or go beyond the façade of the old.

It’s a book about Italy in other words, a book that’s critical of the fascism of Italy and uses the symbols of the Roman Empire to deconstruct it. The deconstruction starts with the cover; it shows a hand holding the innards of a broken watch. Time has stopped it seems. Open the book and more inertia is apparent in a picture of an archway that goes nowhere.

Italia O Italia. By Frederico Clavarino. Akina, 2014.

Bricked up windows follow the archway and then comes a colonnade half in shadow and half in sun. Everything seems dead and looks old but feels new. Roman references mix with Mussolini’s modernism and it all comes together seamlessly. It’s conceptual but political with allusions to what might be happening away from these deserted spaces, a lament to a country where things are done in the dark, where double-dealing and political intrigue lie beneath the superficial certainties of the Roman concrete past.

Italia O Italia. By Frederico Clavarino. Akina, 2014.

People do appear, shot from the back as though they’re hurrying away to some secret meeting, as though they’re afraid to be seen in open sunlight. And if they’re not shot from the back, then they stare at the camera, menacing and filled with foreboding.

There are hands as well, sticking out, reaching out, pointing; hands that are reminders of Italy’s fascist past, reminders of Italy’s rising fascist present. Much of the book is sparse, with the detritus of everyday life set against bare walls and windows, even if on occasions Clavarino cranks the symbolism up a bit too high.

Italia O Italia. By Frederico Clavarino. Akina, 2014.

The book ends with a way out; there are grapes and peaches and an open field that lies beyond the corner of a rural house. Escape from this claustrophobic environment is easy. Just head for the gap between the trees and everything will be fine. But that’s never going to happen, it’s too easy, things will never change.

Italia O Italia is a sophisticated book that combines the formal and the political in a quite unique manner. But it is also a deeply pessimistic book, one that uses the symbols of the past to relate the slow tragedy of a dying present. And in the end that isn’t just the story of Italy, it is the story of everywhere.—COLIN PANTALL

COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport. http://colinpantall.blogspot.com

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