Rome and Naples in spring 2020

Documentary photography during the lockdown


Introduction: Documentary photography during the lockdown – Johannes Röll

Those who have travelled off the beaten track through the Italian south in recent summers will know the empty piazzas at lunchtime, where dogs doze in the semi-shade of the cathedrals, two to three tourists roam the streets in search of art or food, and where, above all, everything is closed. Shutters, doors, restaurants, shops, churches. Instead, silence, flickering heat, the sun high in the sky, sharp contrasts. A bar in the city centre may be open, usually next to the main church or town hall, possibly also a small museum. At around 5 pm the torpor dissolves, urban life returns to the street, shutters open, shop blinds are pushed up, widows sparsely occupy the church benches.
Those who stayed in towns and cities in Italy in the spring of 2020 experienced this well-known lunchtime scene all day, everywhere. And now we came to know this emptiness differently, heard the silence in another way; the shops and bars were still closed, but it wasn’t the same. Even big city dwellers had experienced it: the quiet, the emptiness, the contrast to “before”. The Spanish Steps in Rome deserted, no more long queues in front of the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain in monumental silence. These images went around the world and met with similar content from other metropolises such as Paris, New York, or Madrid. The fascinating thing was feeling one was participating in this situation, contributing to it through absence, our virtual connection with a place and the thought that you could stand there in a very short time – as, for example, the direct proximity of the Bibliotheca Hertziana in the Palazzo Zuccari to the Spanish Steps would allow. The curfews involved us in the latest goings on in the city, without us actually and physically being allowed to be part of them.

For this exhibition, we have selected photographs taken in Rome and Naples in the spring of 2020 during the hard lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. For over three months, people in Italy were only allowed to leave their homes in a few exceptional cases with good reasons. Only essential activities could still be carried out outside one’s own four walls. The profession of photographer was one of them.
Enrico Fontolan, Marcello Leotta, and Luciano Pedicini and his sons Marco and Matteo photographed renowned and lesser-known monuments, residential streets and individual buildings, large panoramas and small details. Whatever seemed remarkable was recorded, and in these weeks this also meant the long-familiar, the thousand-times recalled, things that had been photographed and documented millions of times. It is not that the Trevi Fountain had suddenly become another monument, the Colosseum another ancient amphitheatre, but the process of photographic documentation was different. Not the object in front of the camera, but the person behind it had changed, and with them also the viewer of the photographs. With the semantic addition of “lockdown”, they have not only received a time stamp, but also a new quality – quite an emotional one – which distinguishes them from previous documentary photographs. Roland Barthes’ essay Rhétorique de l’image (Communications 4, 1964) analyses the mutual condition of concept and image by distinguishing between the non-coded (denoted) pictorial message, the coded (connoted) contextual pictorial message, and finally the linguistic message, which specifies the framework of the image’s possible interpretations via the accompanying text. Here, the term “lockdown” connotes and fixes the photographed view, as in the developer bath. “The viewer is in the picture” – rarely have individual photographs, let alone series of images, been bestowed with such an individual and collective level of meaning, one that goes far beyond what is physically visible.

The joy in the opportunities to take photos was not total, with the ideal conditions for documentary photography set against the context of unsettling news. One of the premises of art-historical documentary photography is to photograph buildings and monuments as far as possible without people, animals, vehicles, advertising, or street signs. All the photographers involved, as well as the staff of the Photographic Collection, have shifted pews, moved barriers, diverted passers-by or stopped trucks to allow for the most unobstructed shot possible. Although what was perceived as disturbing was frequently the thing that stood out in the photograph in many different ways, the pure monument without any visual distraction was always considered to be of higher value for research purposes. Millions of art-historical and archaeological photographs in photo libraries and publications have borne witness to this focussed purism since the early days of photography. If, for example, a photograph of the Arch of Constantine from the late 19th century is placed next to one from the spring of 2020, we see they both essentially have in common a concentration on the monument itself. Without knowing the circumstances in which each picture came about, however, one will not get beyond purely objective description. Only by analysing the information on a semantic level can we gain deeper insights and interpretation beyond comparing images, and thus embed the photos in their historical and social contexts.

We have therefore asked the photographers to contextualise their shots by describing their motivation and impressions of these photo campaigns in personal statements. Luciano, Marco, and Matteo Pedicini, who express their initial scepticism when photographing empty squares and streets (“beh, è quello che facciamo da sempre” – “well, but that’s how we’ve always done it”), reflect on the “quiete durante la tempesta”, the calm during the storm, and the experience that certain aspects of their hometown of Naples – rampant greenery taking possession of the buildings and visual disfigurement through advertising, street signs, building cladding – are now more prominent than ever. Marcello Leotta calls his impression of the city of Rome under lockdown “Roma nuda” – naked Rome. The rift between the uneasiness and the fascination of this extraordinary situation makes him reflect and at the same time encourages him to learn and to document analytically and by era. Enrico Fontolan ventured into this other Rome rather hesitantly and incredulously at first. He looked and marvelled at monuments like the Pantheon, which he never believed he would ever be able to photograph “deserto”, and draws a historical comparison with famous photographers who deliberately sought the same emptiness and silence that the pandemic had now inadvertently forced in the mild spring of 2020. With the distance of a few months after their creation, these photographs have gained semantic depth. The pandemic has become a global and long-lasting state of emergency. What seemed unique at first can now be relativised and quantified in chronological order; facts and associations, reality and fascination are in constant exchange. The medium of photography is there to depict the world, it is up to the viewer to describe and interpret the result.


Rome: One of the witnesses – Marcello Leotta

March 2020: The COVID-19 virus locks people in and opens up cities to unknown visions. In the days after the lockdown came into force, urban landscapes around the world changed profoundly and took on a form no one could ever have suspected or imagined. The peculiar social and anthropological state caused by the virus left the world’s metropolises without visible life. Everything seemed to be frozen as if in a frame. For those who observe and record the nuances of reality, for photographers, there was a unique opportunity to capture the unimaginable.
The day after the first government decree, which put the population under curfew, with exemptions for a few entitled persons, including photographers, I decided to start a reportage on Rome. My idea was to show the city in pictures highlighting the urban environment and historical monuments, while emphasizing the novelty of the context that had so dramatically emerged; to bear rigorous, almost austere witness to what the millennial stratification of Rome has left behind, taking advantage of the absence of social life. Photo reportage itself becomes a moment in the history of the city, a synthesis of an event that has never taken place before in such radical form.
Walking for hours through streets that are notoriously chaotic, but then suddenly almost completely free of noise and human presence, brought about conflicted feelings in me. On the one hand, the unease of a place without the physiologically pulsating life that enlivens it, but on the other, the extraordinary uniqueness, the history, and the urban context of the Eternal City, without being distracted by the myriad obstacles that normally stand between the viewer and reality. Every street, every palace, every monument, every church, and every single detail stood there to testify to its own presence, they were there to proclaim their liberation from constraints, finally freed from the material and conceptual restraints imposed on them by man, especially in the last century.
Naked Rome. Rome, imbued by its centuries-old charm, finally immersed in silence.
Between March and the end of April 2020, I took some two thousand photographs, of which I then selected 280, all of which were acquired by the Bibliotheca Hertziana’s Photographic Collection. The images, in RAW format, were taken with a 36 MP Nikon 810 camera and then developed and edited with Adobe Photoshop.

Naples: The calm in the storm – Luciano, Marco, and Matteo Pedicini

Photographing monuments completely absent of people usually requires a lot of patience and some compromises, but it is not impossible, so when the Bibliotheca Hertziana commissioned us during the lockdown, we all thought, “well, but that’s how we’ve always done it.” However, as we walked through the streets of Naples, we immediately realised that this time it was different, as if this absence we had always created in the photographs (as a means to an end, to lift the monuments out of time) had now taken possession of the whole city. No matter what time we went out, no matter what day of the week it was, there was desolation everywhere. Behind what, had it been Sunday, would have been called calm, we felt the silent storm in action.
A photograph is necessarily partial, selective: it cuts off a part of reality by drawing our attention to something and excluding the rest. Reducing the field of vision to the monument alone would not have reflected the extraordinariness of the moment and would have made it the same as our usual work of patience and compromise. So we started trying out wide-angle shots in which the historical architecture plays its part in the solitude of an abandoned square or street. More than once, we were mistaken for journalists in search of sensational stories and challenged by some solitary passers-by, apparently misled by some television reports trying to highlight Neapolitans’ alleged ill-discipline. However, our approach was very different, both in terms of our professional training and the discreet attitude the three of us shared.
What struck us was the visual pollution. Although free from the distracting traffic of cars and people, or perhaps precisely because of it, our gaze constantly stumbled across billboards, street signs and colourful litter bins scattered everywhere, banners used as wallpaper even on museums, and, pointing in vain into the sky, green nets to capture loose pieces of masonry that have become standard equipment on most urban buildings. In addition to nature (which has often been noted) it was above all the defenceless, scarred body of Naples that reclaimed its own space – even more so from our attention than from reality. By following the sun from one side of the gulf to the other, determining new shots and making notes for the next day, we tried to highlight the charm of a city that was far too often mistreated and that, despite its many years, could look better.

Rome: The witness’s eye. Minimal diary of a Roman photographer in the time of the lockdown – Enrico Fontolan

A stroll through the historic centre of Rome. At last. The streets empty, the cars still. As in the most beautiful dreams that a photographer can dream. But something doesn’t fit. And that something is called COVID-19, the virus that has brought the whole world to its knees, casting a dark shadow over the future of all of us and forcing us into a more than two-month-long quarantine, with queues in supermarkets and masks covering our smiles. And all this, while spring brought us blue skies and mild weather the likes of which we hadn’t seen in years. Almost making a mockery of us.
And yet someone has to tell the tale, to bear witness to what we all hope will never happen again: the empty streets, the cars left standing in the warmth of the Roman spring.
But not everything is so beautiful. As I walk through the streets of the historic centre with my Phase One XF, equipped with the Phase One IQ4 digital back, I realise that our city (because Rome belongs to everyone) is an open-air car park. Nothing is on the streets anymore, but barely have you entered a small square, an opening, a cobbled passageway, before you can count dozens of cars, stacked up and abandoned, waiting for everything to be over. This, too, is a kind of mockery. But I can’t turn back, I certainly haven’t brought more than 10 kg of equipment with for nothing. So I set stop, watch the light, put up the tripod, turn on the camera and release the shutter. The Schneider-Kreuznach Digaron 32 mm f/4 lens is mounted on a Cambo WRS-1600 and can thus be moved vertically (and horizontally) along the optical axis to eliminate so-called converging lines. In this way, the buildings are straight, perfect, as if they came from Canaletto’s brush. I feel like one of the Alinari brothers with his leather bellows view camera in front of the colonnade of St. Peter’s, or a new Ansel Adams in front of windswept trees with the stormy sea of Point Lobos in the background. And so places I never thought would be deserted follow in succession. The Colosseum, the Pantheon, The Trinita dei Monti, the facades of the churches: Il Gesù, Sant’Andrea della Valle, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, to Santa Maria in Cosmedin and San Giorgio al Velabro.
Everything is bathed in spring light, and I can also explore little-known places. And so I discover the architect Palpacelli’s water tower in Vigna Murata, just behind my house, as well as the Agricultural Institute, reminiscent of the rural and majestic spirit of the Rome of the Grand Tour. And then the EUR quarter with its marble sculpted in the light, without forgetting the more recent past: the Settimia Spizzichino bridge and the hidden gem of Casa Baldi, the first work of Paolo Portoghesi.
I enlarge the image on the screen of the 150 MP digital back. The details are incredible, right down to the smallest brick, the curling of the plaster, the veining of the marble. A feast for the eyes of the scholars who can use these images for their research. A joy for us photographers, witnesses of such beauty. In short, a dream. Unrepeatable.


Project Tatjana Bartsch, Johannes Röll

Photographs Enrico Fontolan, Marcello Leotta, Luciano, Marco, and Matteo Pedicini

Texts Enrico Fontolan, Marcello Leotta, Luciano Pedicini, Johannes Röll

Captions Regina Deckers, Enrico Fontolan, Maria Tafelmeier

Translations Tatjana Bartsch (to German), Camilla Fiore (to Italian), Richard Neal (to English)

Implementation Tatjana Bartsch

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Marcello Leotta
Associazione OCSA – Osservatorio Comunicazione Scienza Arte
Viale di Porta Ardeatina 57
00154 Roma | Italia
tel. +39 347 7174417

Archivio dell’arte | Pedicini fotografi
Via Luigi Settembrini, 26
80129 Napoli | Italia
tel. +39 081 444371

Enrico Fontolan
Bibliotheca Hertziana – Max-Planck-Institut für Kunstgeschichte
Via Gregoriana 28
00187 Roma | Italia
tel. +39 06 69993413

February 1, 2021

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