A rare glimpse of post-war Italy through the lens of Paolo Di Paolo
The documentary-style images are part of a retrospective supported by Gucci
About 20 years ago, Silvia Di Paolo discovered a trunk containing 2,50,000 negatives, prints, and slides in her father’s cellar. Soon after, she discovered that her father, Paolo Di Paolo, had actually been a star photographer at Il Mondo, a popular Italian current affairs magazine in the ’50s and ’60s.
He worked there for 14 years and contributed over 573 photographs while reporting on Italy and the world. Di Paolo documented the country and the massive transformation it was witnessing, before putting his camera away and moving to philosophy. At that time, Italy was still reeling under the effects of a devastating war (World War II), but cities like Rome and Venice were flourishing as creative hubs for artists.
Encouraged by Il Mondo’s contemporary style of reportage, Di Paolo picked up his first-ever camera, a Leica III C (the same as the one used by Henri-Cartier Bresson) and began chronicling the lives of Italy’s nobility, celebrities, movie stars, and film directors. Now, a collection of over 250 of his photographs are on display as part of an exhibition titled Paolo Di Paolo: Lost World Photography 1954-1968 at MAXXI National Museum Of 21st Century Arts in Rome. Supported by Gucci’s Alessandro Michele (who chanced upon the photographer’s works at a local book store), the exhibition showcases some Di Paolo’s best works.
Born in 1925 in Larino, a small town in southern Italy, Di Paolo moved to Rome in 1939 to study literature. “I was supposed to finish my studies at the university and earn a degree. But I decided to step off that traditional path and try something new,” the 94-year-old Di Paolo tells us over email. His interest in photography was piqued by Il Mondo’s contemporary take on visual stories. “It [the magazine] published a completely new kind of narrative in photography that reflected a certain attention to form. I dove right in though I had absolutely no experience in the field,” he says.
Vittorio De Sica and Raquel Welch, Tivoli, 1967
Perhaps it was this lack of knowledge, devoid of any kind of conditioning and preconceived ideas, which helped Di Paolo create a body of work that offered a unique perspective. He approached his subjects with a certain casualness, which is unlike the paparazzi culture of today. “I think it stemmed from my lack of professionalism, which made the subjects open up to me. Basically, I had a great deal of fun doing my job, and I think it was contagious,” he says.
For instance, his portrait of actor Sophia Loren strips her off the glamour she was known for. Di Paolo achieved this by placing a young boy next to her, who looks on as Loren touches up her make-up. Or in the image where actor Monica Vitti and film director Michelangelo Antonioni stroll down a street reading newspapers, just like us regular folk. However, the most striking one (and one of Di Paolo’s favourites) is that of a modest woman at the funeral of the trailblazing Communist political figure Palmiro Togliatti.
50 years on, Di Paolo still talks about his work with the same nonchalance with which he approached his subjects. When asked on how he feels about finally showcasing his work, he says, “I feel like I am alive, but that I am witnessing my own autopsy.
All photos by Paolo Di Paolo, © Archivio Paolo Di Paolo