Posts Tagged ‘Italy’
In December 1934, a border dispute between Abyssinia and the Italian Somaliland led to a small war. Haile Selassie, the emperor of Abyssinia, sought the help from the League of Nations. The League — dominated by European powers — responded by banning arms sales to both Italy and Abyssinia, a move which harmed the latter greatly.
Instead, the League, an international body founded after the First World War to arbitrate international disputes, reverted back into settling disputes a la Concert of Europe: Britain and France, both worn out by war and depression, secretly agreed to give Abyssinia to Italy.
Emboldened, Italy sent a 400,000-strong army into Abyssinia even as the League re-elected the Italian Marquis Alberto Theodoli, as chairman of the Permanent Mandates Commission, an important League body. That winter, however, the opinion turned as the Italians bombarded villages, used poison gas and attacked Red Cross hospitals.
While it was a conflict fought mostly out of the world’s eyes, photography played a significant part. The uneven terms of the conflict were made clear in the photos of Alfred Eisenstadt, working for Berliner Illustriete Zeitung, who saw the poor benighted country before the Italian army arrived. Meanwhile, Mussolini’s Italy attempted to use Abyssinia’s own poverty as a justification for an invasion. Reprinted were postcards and photos of nude locals, to lend credence to the narrative that Italy was “intervening only to bring law and order to a backwards, warlord-ridden, and slave trading land,” as Susan Pedersen notes in The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire, her excellent account of diplomacy in the interwar years.
Eisenstadt’s pictures proved more powerful. His picture of the bare feet of an Abyssinian soldier was reprinted around the world but censored in Italy. In fact, the worldwide sales of his photo enabled Jewish Eisenstadt to emigrate from Germany. Although later to be often miscaptioned as the feet of a slain soldier, mud-caked feet wrapped in dirty WWI-era puttees belonged to a soldier participating in a rifle practice.
Public opinion did turn against Italy, but it was too late: the Italian conquest was nearly complete. The League voted for economic sanctions onto Italy in May 1936 but by this time, Italy had already walked out of the League Council. Following Japan and Germany, which withdrew from the League in 1933 rather than to submit to its decisions, Italy left the League in 1937. Fascist Italy was now inexorably allied with Germany and Japan and contours of a global conflict were slowly settling.
(continued from a previous post)
As the Italian state unraveled in ever-widening gyre of political choas, that other threat to law and order was again resurgent in the south. In Sicily, the Commission — a central organization of mafiosos — was resurrected. Several competing factions were now preparing to fight and claim territories for protection rackets.
At the center of this was Letizia Battaglia, a journalist and photographer for L’Ora newspaper in Palermo. For eighteen years, she documented mafia murders of judges, politicians, police, and members of rival families. She would find herself at the scene of four or five different murders in a single day. Here, she remembers taking the photo above (link)
They murdered Nerina, a young prostitute who had started drug-dealing independently from the mafia cartel, and her two male friends. Allegedly, she had disobeyed the mafia’s code of honour. Naturally, the killers were never found.
It was 1982, and I entered this little room in Palermo against the will of the police. They did not want me – a photographer and a woman – at the crime scene. When I realised there was a woman among the victims, I started shaking. More than usual, I mean. I was overcome by nausea and could hardly stand. I only had a few seconds to take a couple of pictures: there were men shouting at me to work fast.
It isn’t easy to be a good photographer when you’re faced with the corpses of people who were alive and kicking only minutes before. In those situations, I would often get all the technical things wrong. But I did my job, I photographed, trying to keep the image in focus and the exposure correct.
Since Nerina, who is slumped in the armchair, had been the main target, I found myself thinking about her. In that small room, her still body was at everybody’s mercy, more objectified than ever. My contact with her lasted only a few moments and was filtered through the lens of a cheap camera. But I saw her alone, lost in an eternity of silence. In that short time, I started to love her. I find women beautiful and courageous, and I love photographing them. They hold so many dreams inside themselves.
It was just one of 600,000 photos she took of mafia crimes; throughout her career, Battaglia received many death threats, but continued on. Her “Archive of Blood”, as she called it, grew and grew as the mafia activity spread. Judge Cesare Terranova, a member of the Anti-Mafia Parliamentary Commission, was killed in an ambush in 1979. Battaglia remembers: “This was one of the most important men in Sicilian politics. When he was killed, I said nothing worse could happen. Nothing. It was not true.” [Photo below, graphic].
The Italian state, which had unscrupulous connections with the mafia, was slow and reluctant to respond, even when the mafia detonated a half-ton of explosives under the highway in May 1992 to assassinate a judge (who was a close friend of Battaglia). The next year, Giulio Andreotti, who had been prime minister of Italy seven times, was indicted for corruption.He had flatly denied ever meeting or having any dealings with the mafia, but among Battaglia’s archives were photographs of Andreotti and other Christian Democrat party leaders with Nino Salvo, a powerful Mafia figures who was believed to have been a principal link between the Mafia and Andreotti.
Battaglia has recently published a book “Anthology” which recounts these haunting years. (Amazon).
During the last days of the Second World War in Italy, Benito Mussolini attempted to escape the advancing Allied Army by hiding in a German convoy headed toward the Alps. Partisans stopped and searched the convoy at a small village on Lake Como; in the back of a truck, they found a private suspiciously wearing a general’s pants under his overcoat. It was, of course, Mussolini.
The partisans took him prisoner and he was later joined by his mistress, Clara Petacci. The council of partisan leaders, lead by the Communists, secretly decided to execute Mussolini and 15 leading Fascists. They were executed on April 29, 1945, and their bodies were brought back to Milan, where the fascist dictator’s meteoric rise to power began two decades ago; the bodies were hung from an Esso gas station in the Piazzale Loreto, the scene where Mussolini’s own fascists executed fifteen partisans (the so-called Martyrs of Piazzale Loreto) the previous year.
The photos of Mussolini’s gruesome demise was widely reproduced and sold to many Allied soldiers. Meanwhile in Berlin, Hitler heard how Mussolini was executed and vowed he would not let this happen to him. The end was near and Gotterdammerung was about to begin. (See an extremely gruesome picture of Mussolini’s defaced (literally) body here).
Mussolini’s body was buried in a secret grave, but fascists found the body and removed it a year later. A small trunk containing the remains moved from a local convent to a monastery to a police constabulary until it was finally returned to Mussolini’s widow in 1957, and was buried at Predappio, Il Duce’s birthplace.
Even today, Italy has one of the least free presses in Western world. Although press-censorships were not created with the Fascist state Benito Mussolini forged, Mussolini’s Ministry of Popular Culture — which administrates everything that appeared in newspapers, radio, printed works, theatre, cinema or any form of art — did cast a long shadow. In a move worthy of today’s language bastions, it banned usage of non-Italian words; the ministry’s lackeys were posted to publishing houses to immediately oversee what is being printed, and there were public bonfires of forbidden books. However, noting Italian efficiency, all actions were more Kafkaesque than Orwellian.
In a hierarchical system where the government appointed directors and editors and distributed printing paper, self-censorship was easily accomplished by individuals currying favor with the regime. Although many international publications, writers and photographers were left untouched by censors before the war, the beginning of the WWII changed the landscape.
Working for Time and Life magazines, Carl Mydans arrived in Rome in May 1940. Tensions were high; Mussolini was thought to be on the brink of declaring war on the Allies (although in reality he delayed another month). At the public events, Mydans was repeatedly prevented from taking pictures by Blackshirts who blocked his cameras. He remembers the events that happened next: “On May 9, Mussolini appeared at the Victor Emmanuel II monument to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the founding of the Italian Empire. A circle of security men barred me from the ceremony. But as Mussolini was departing, he strutted right past me. The security men were compelled to applaud as he went by, and I was able to make one quick frame between their shoulders. The picture appeared across a page of LIFE several weeks later with the caption, “The Elderly Butcher Boy of Fascism”. The photo, which appeared in LIFE on June 24th, caused the responsible staffers of TIME and LIFE being immediately expelled from Italy. Rather than sending a new bureau staff, they closed down the Rome Bureau, writing “In the face of wartime censorship there was no chance in Italy for TIME’s kind of reporting.”