What the Apennines have to tell us today

In the photos of Simone Donati's latest book, an Italy of the inland areas that seemed to have been seen before, and yet always turns out to be unseen.

«There is nothing here. This is a sentence I heard thousands of times, as if I had contacted a voicemail instead of actual people.»

It is perhaps in this passage from the writer Franco Armino’s “Vocabolario Appenninico” (Apennine Vocabulary) that the ultimate meaning of Simone Donati’s new work is concealed. Donati is a Tuscan photographer known above all for being one of the founders of the TerraProject collective, which has been stubbornly active for years in Italy and around the world with projects of wide–ranging and welcome depth.

If the vocabulary compiled by Armino traces a poetic path with which Donati weaves a constant visual dialogue, it is precisely on this phrase, “there is nothing here”, that texts and photographs converge, because this is the exact same phrase that Donati himself heard most often during the realisation of this project.

The subjects of his photographs, be they people, landscapes or interiors, are those he encountered through a slow and serene campaign of documentation along the southern Apennine ridge that, through Basilicata, Campania and Molise, runs from Calabria to the border with Abruzzo. An Italy that is constitutionally central and yet conceptually always on the margins, a geographical line that unites points that are very distant from each other and yet so close in terms of experience, poetry and emotional impact.

Simone Donati, Varco Appennino (Witty Books, 2021)

It is an Italy, that of Varco Appennino (designed by Fiorenza Pinna and published by Witty Books in 2021), which represents the other side of the coin with respect to the one portrayed in Hotel Immagine, Donat’'s previous book: the national–popular and fiercely contemporary practice of ostentation—that imprinted in the stereotyped image that Italy offers of itself—linked to the rites of sacred and profane devotion, is contrasted here with a silent interior dignity that becomes, thanks to Donati’s affectionate and participating eye, weighed and conscious exterior dignity.

There is nothing here, then. A phrase that seems resigned, and which has something involuntarily self–ironic about it. Because it is a nothing that says a lot, a nothing that perhaps contains answers to questions that we are only today timidly beginning to ask ourselves. Return to the land, rediscovery of the province, revaluation of the inland areas, and now local tourism: first the economic crisis, and then the pandemic crisis, have resulted in an identity crisis that these places, with their innate ability to preserve identity, now seem to be able to resolve, perhaps and unfortunately in a way that is already all too easily exploited by those who have always looked the other way.

The comparison with the answering machine proposed by Armino, who has said a lot about places that apparently have little to say, and has done so for a long time, is therefore fundamental. It is precisely against the mechanical stolidity of a telephone answering machine—that is, of an Italy that does not answer and denies itself—that Donati's stubborn gaze is set. A gentle but resolute gaze, which does not aim to smooth out the corners of an Apennine that is at times angular but which, by making itself evident, available and accessible, brings to light realities that could have always been there for all to see.

With Varco Appennino Simone Donati will be, together with Roselena Ramistella, Mario Spada, Massimo Di Nonno, Carlotta Cardana, Jacob Balzani Lööv, Marina Lalović, Matteo Tacconi, Giorgio Bianchi and Emanuele Confortin, among the guests of the first edition of the Festival del Reportage, held in Ascoli Piceno from 23 to 25 July.

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