Gianni Berengo Gardin – Venice, 1960

Top 10 Italy in 10 iconic images

© Gianni Berengo Gardin – Venice, 1960

During the 1st Century BC, the peninsula of Italy was the leading cultural, political and religious center of Western civilization, with an influence so widespread that it has left its mark in republican governments and the Latin script.

─── by Edward Clay, June 6, 2019
  • Updated Jan 2024

    The influence of Italy over the world is so large that it’s difficult to convey succinctly, but one thing that can be said for sure is that the Italians really do live ‘La Dolce Vita.’

    NB: This article contains images that may be distressing to some readers.
    March on Rome, Italy, 28 October 1922 Unknown photographer
    © Unknown photographer

    1. March on Rome, Italy, 28 October 1922

    This incredibly famous image depicts Benito Mussolini as he seized power in an insurrection in Italy in October 1922. The March on Rome marked the beginning of fascist rule and the downfall of parliamentary socialist and liberal regimes.

    Born out of widespread social discontent and aggravated by the middle-class fear of a socialist revolution, an atmosphere favorable for Mussolini’s rise to power loomed over Italy. On 24th October 1922, Mussolini marched into Rome with fascist armed squads known as ‘Blackshirts’ and strategically seized control over the city. The events that ensued in the following days led Mussolini to gain full parliamentary control over the nation.

    Black and white photo by Gianni Berengo Gardin, Venice, 1960
    © Gianni Berengo Gardin

    2. Gianni Berengo Gardin – Venice, 1960

    Though throughout his long career he has traveled extensively across Europe, the US, and beyond, it’s for his deeply absorbing monochrome portrayals of his homeland, that Italian photographer Gianni Berengo Gardin is most renowned.

    Born in Santa Margherita, in northwestern Italy in 1930, his family relocated to Venice after World War II, and it was here, during the ensuing two decades (he relocated to Milan in 1965) he created some of his most celebrated works. Poetic yet honest, and profoundly captivating, these images collectively capture the intricacies of everyday life, exemplified no more beautifully than in his depiction of Venice’s iconic gondolas, which displays the profound skill and artistry that engendered the moniker, ‘The Cartier-Bresson of Italy.’

    Black and White Photography by Herbert List - Park of the Palazzo Orsini, Bomarzo, 1952
    © Herbert List / Magnum Photos - Used with permission of the Herbert List Estate

    3. Herbert List – Mostro in the Garden of Pier Francesco Orsini, Bomarzo 1952

    Once the photographer is dead, only their photos remain- what lies outside the frame dies with them. Though this image has a dreamlike quality, conveying a feeling of magic and solitude, as viewers, we cannot tell more about the boy and his circumstances. On the rare occasion that the subject comes forward to talk about an image, it opens new readings and can give us a true insight into the personality of the photographer themselves.

    This image of a young shepherd in Bomarzo is such an example. After the book was published, the young boy in the photo was recognized and came forward to talk about his experience being shot by Herbert List. Despite being taken 40 years earlier, when he was only 12, the boy (an orphan from Southern Italy) said he remembered List very well. He said that List had been the first adult to listen and genuinely take interest in the sad stories of his childhood.

    color travel photo of man on boat in venice by Mauro De Bettio

    4. Mauro De Bettio – “A life attached to the oar”. Venice

    Mauro De Bettio‘s image captures Rudi Vignotto, the reigning champion of the Venice Historical Regatta for the past 17 years. This annual event, held on the first Sunday of September, serves as a celebration of the ancient glory of the Serenissima—the Venetian Republic, which stood for nearly a millennium.

    The photograph captures Vignotto’s pride as he stands aboard his boat wearing a traditional canotier hat, set against the iconic Venetian cityscape. A captivating image that is distinctly Venetian and a potent symbol of Italy’s rich cultural heritage.

    Black and White Photography by Paolo Pedrizzetti - Milan, May 14, 1977
    © Paolo Pedrizzetti

    5. Paolo Pedrizzetti – Milan, May 14, 1977

    “Remember this image, it will become exemplary of our century.” – Umberto Eco

    The conflicts of 1977 began with a student occupation at the University of Rome to protest education reforms. This quickly escalated into a fully-fledged guerrilla battle with the police on the streets of Rome. The conflicts spread to other Italian university towns and trade unions and political parties were also dragged into the conflict. After a student was killed during a demonstration in May, riots broke out.

    This photo was taken by Paolo Pedrizzetti in Milan during the riots. It depicts a young man in a ski mask who was a member of a far-left organization who turned their guns against the police, killing officer Antonio Custra on May 14th ‘77. The image became synonymous with The Years of Lead and spoke of the culmination of years of struggle between neo-fascists and the radical left to control the political future of the Italian Republic.

    colorful summer street scene on the seafront of Boccadasse, Italy by Pierluigi Mesolella

    6. “Summer scene” – Pierluigi Mesolella

    Pierluigi Mesolella captures the charm of Boccadasse, a quaint fishing hamlet on the outskirts of Genoa. Like blending an Italian Renaissance painting with a Martin Parr photograph, the image is teeming with details: a multitude of figures sprawl over colorful towels and sun loungers, or stand chatting in the midday sun, against the backdrop of pastel-hued facades. It’s a wonderful composition that captures the atmosphere of the moment and makes one dream of Italian summer getaways.

    Color Photography by Luigi Ghirri Centrale Elettrica (Power Plant), Ostiglia, Italy 1987
    © Luigi Ghirri

    7. Luigi Ghirri – Centrale Elettrica (Power Plant), Ostiglia, 1987

    Luigi Ghirri spent his life in Emilia-Romagna, a region in northern Italy where he produced one of the most important works of minimalist photographic works in the medium’s modern history.

    A photographer of the urban landscape, his work draws parallels with the quiet landscapes of Stephen Shore and William Eggleston. Working extensively with Kodachrome, Ghirri’s pastel-colored Italy is a calm and sun-drenched terrain that almost presents the nation as a series of tropes. Ghirri posthumously received numerous awards after his death in 1992 and his work has been acclaimed and exhibited internationally.

    Black and White Photography Letizia Battaglia - The triple murder of a prostitute and her clients, Palermo, 1982
    © Letizia Battaglia

    8. Letizia Battaglia – The triple murder of a prostitute and her clients, Palermo, 1982

    During the height of the ‘Anni di piombo’ (“the years of flying lead”), Italy was a lawless state, whose only form of ‘governance’ was enacted the brutal Corleonesi mafia clan, who claimed the lives of countless politicians, senior policemen, other mafia families and anyone who showed any opposition towards them.

    Letizia Battaglia, who has now become famous for her depiction of the mafias ferocious reign in those years of terror, was always on call. “Before you’d even dealt with the desperation and suffering of one murder, you were already on the way to another. More blood, more violence”, Battaglia explains. Battaglia’s photos are urgent and grainy, not pretty, but meant for a purpose- not just a job, but her duty as an Italian citizen.

    Black and White Photography Ruth Orkin - American Girl in Italy, Florence, 1951
    © Ruth Orkin / Used with special permission of the Ruth Orkin Photo Archive

    9. Ruth Orkin – American Girl in Italy, Florence, 1951

    In Florence, photographer Ruth Orkin had met Ninalee “Jinx” Allen Craig, an art student and fellow American who became the model for a series Orkin originally titled, Don’t Be Afraid to Travel Alone. Based on their joint experience as women traveling unaccompanied in Europe in the 1950s, the photo essay provided some cautionary words but mainly served as a guide for young women with dreams of conquering the world.

    This candid shot portrays Allen Craig, the lone woman in a sea of jeering men, and speaks volumes about the culture of the time. Craig said of the experience: “I clutched my shawl to me because that sheaths the body, it was my protection, my shield.” Orkin’s decision to publish this photo in a series meant to inspire young women to travel is an interesting one. It serves as a message that women should not allow men to stop them from seeing the world and speaks to the intrepidity of both Allen Craig and Orkin (both of whom were in their twenties at the time).

    Black and White Photography Paolo Pasolini at the grave of Antonio Gramsci, Rome, 1954
    © Unknown Photographer

    10. Paolo Pasolini at the grave of Antonio Gramsci, Rome, 1954

    Pasolini was a champion of the damned of postwar Italy, a defiant Marxist and provocative artist who polarized the nation- his novels, films, and poems focussed on forgotten voices and the disinherited as well as meditating on themes such as politics, religion, and sexuality. He mingled his fierce Catholicism with an intellectual leftism and in doing so opened up the discourse between religion and Marxism.

    In this image, Pasolini visits the grave of Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, a former leader of the Communist Party of Italy imprisoned by Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Gramsci wrote more than 3,000 pages of history and analysis during his imprisonment and his Prison Notebooks are considered a highly original contribution to 20th-century political theory.

    All images © their respective owners