Hovering in History

A March 2015 conference at the American Academy of Rome addresses the role of Photography in Italian Art History


In 1949, the French critic André Malraux made an observation that suggested art history has been bound with photography since the mid-19th century. As a recent conference at the American Academy in Rome shows, this is particularly true of Italy, which has provided a rich repository for scholars seeking to understand the history of art, as well as for artists and photographers responding to that history in new and different ways. In fact, Italy’s artistic patrimony has also offered photographers some of their most compelling subjects, from Robert MacPherson’s mid-19th century views of Rome’s ancient monuments, to the Alinari brothers’ photographs of Michelangelo’s sculptures, to Luigi Ghirri’s photographic renditions of paintings by the Bolognese modernist Giorgio Morandi.

Although longstanding and intimately intertwined, the prolific, if complex, relationship between art history and photography in Italy is just beginning to be explored, particularly over the last five years. This fragile relationship was the focus of a thought-provoking conference at the American Academy of Rome. Organized by Dr. Lindsay Harris, Andrew W. Mellon Professor-in-Charge of the School of Classical Studies at the Academy, it was the first international convening on this topic to take place in Italy. Photography and Art History in Italy, held on March 5th, provided a rich and much-needed exchange between six scholars hailing from Italy, the United States and United Kingdom.

The one-day conference, conducted in English and Italian, gathered leading scholars of art history and photographic history, along with contemporary artists, to consider several perspectives: how photography has shaped the evolution of art history; how the study of art has influenced photographers’ choice of subject, style, and technique; and, importantly, the highly unique role Italy has played in the process. By reevaluating the relationship between photography and art history from different points of view, the Academy, with the panel, sought to brainstorm new criteria through which to understand achievement and value in the visual arts.

Participants in Photography and Art History in Italy included Marco Andreani (Macula – Centro Internazionale di Cultura Fotografica), Maria Francesca Bonetti (Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica, Rome), Martina Caruso (Independent Art Historian, London and Rome), Monika Faber (Photoinstitüt Bonartes, Vienna), David Forgacs (New York University), Francesco Jodice (Artist, Milan), Maria Antonelli Pelizzari (Hunter College, Department of Art and Art History).

Dr. Andreani, presented a fascinating overview on the work of Mario Giacomelli, revealing the theoretical minefield in which discord reigns among Italian academics over post-war photography. Professor Forgacs’ address provoked an animated debate regarding the display of documentary photographs within the context of fine art. Dr. Harris, a New York University alumna, observed that the presentations, spanning from the Grand Tour to conceptual art, shared a striking number of common denominators, including shared notions of empire and power. Francesco Jodice, a contemporary artist who primarily works with lens-based media, lent a practitioner’s perspective to the proceedings, when he remarked on the powerful potential of photography to carry, or highlight, hidden narratives.

The impromptu conversations that started during coffee breaks, as well as the lively discussion at the dinner table that evening, indicates that Photography and Art History in Italy has sparked the beginning of an important dialogue on the relationship between Italian photography and it’s impact on art history.