CHIAVARI, Italy – Before I moved back to Liguria, Tatiana brought me a catalog from an exhibit of photographs her father, Uliano Lucas, had in Bari a couple of years ago. Uliano Lucus is a well known Italian photojournalist who made his name working as a free lance photographer back in the years the Italians call, the years of lead, gli anni di piombo. The collection of black and white photos in the exhibit were part of his collection of photos taken in Puglia over the past 30 years.
We have that connection, Tatiana and I. She knows I love photographs, especially black and white photographs, and the first time she came to my apartment she was both delighted and surprised to see black and white photos hanging on my walls.
“Oh, it’s just like in all the American films,” she said. It should be noted I am the first American she and her husband Andrea ever met, and she wasn’t quite sure what she was going to find in the apartment of the ‘Americana’. Italians watch so many American movies their brains are full of American images they have never seen in person, so it’s always a surprise when they come face to face with the real deal and have that flash of recognition.
Italians don’t hang photographs on their walls, not unless they are photographs of their parents or their wedding or their children and grandchildren. Even then those photographs are usually confined to the bedrooms, hallways or entryways. In their living rooms they prefer paintings. Landscapes are good but big portraits of relatives are better. And the more the merrier. Of everything.
The first time I saw my apartment in Milan, the previous tenants were still living there. There was so much big heavy furniture and so many paintings and portraits of men with beards hanging on the walls I was visually overwhelmed. It wasn’t until I moved in that I realized the woodwork and doors had all been painted lavender, and there were in fact, two bathrooms.
I understand that my decorating style is a bit too sparse for the Italians. Too minimalistic. And horrors of horrors, I don’t have heavy drapes and curtains on my living room or dining room windows, or on any of my windows or balcony doors for that matter. I don’t even pull the tapperelle down at night – the tapperelle being those heavy, shutters that pull down over windows and doors much like a garage door does. They block out every smidgeon of light and air and it’s obvious they were originally designed for a torture chamber. The Italians are very polite about my lack of caution, but I can tell they think I’m a bit daft. Is it possible I don’t know the gypsies are watching - and waiting - for just the right moment to scale the building and rob me blind? Apparently not.
After Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini spent a few years in Washington, DC he wrote about his experiences in a book called ‘An Italian in America’. He talks about not being able to relax in the living room of his rented house in Georgetown because there were no tapperelle on the windows to pull down. Actually there were no blinds or shutters even worthy of the name, and the curtains, all sheer and gossamer, served no purpose other than decoration. He was completely horrified at the thought of people walking by, being able to look in the windows and see him sitting on his sofa watching TV.
Roba da matti, as they say. It was just crazy. Not that he ever saw anyone actually looking in his windows but, well you know, it’s the idea of the thing. And as for being able to sleep without the total black out and prison-like atmosphere those horizontal slats of the tapperelle on the windows provide, well he never did adjust to that. Apparently he didn’t get a good night’s sleep until he got back to Italy.
There are always adjustments to be made when you live in a foreign country, but truth be known after twenty plus years of living in Italy my list is shrinking. Nonetheless Tatiana made me promise that her father’s photographs would not end up on my walls, torn from the catalog and hung in some springtime redecorating frenzy. It’s proving to be a lot harder a promise to keep than it was to make. But I am trying.
The Puglia photographs are particularly interesting to me. I’ve only been to Puglia once, to Bari and Lecce, and I loved everything about it. Maybe because what I found and what I thought I was going to find, were so completely different - much like Tatiana's first reaction to an encounter with a real, in the flesh American.
My ideas of Puglia, much like Tatiana's ideas of America, were formed long before I ever saw it, back when I still lived in Philadelphia. They came from my first Italian teacher, a nice woman from Bari who always talked about her city as if it was a mile and half from hell. For years I carried around the idea that Bari was dirty and dangerous, and a place to avoid at all costs. And then, much to my chagrin, I was sent there to work on a project for the Italian Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
As it turned out, Bari was nothing at all like the city she had described. In fact it was exactly the opposite. When I mentioned how nice the city was to a taxi driver, she just smiled and said, “yes it is, isn’t it.” And as for Lecce, what I found was a city of such extraordinary architecture and beauty that I was completely blown away.
Even though the photos of Puglia in Uliano Lucas’ catalog are gritty and raw, and taken long before I moved to Italy, they still bring back memories of my experience there. And that’s exactly what photographs should do: grab a moment and hold it still so we can go back and experience it time and time again. So while it is difficult not to frame those Puglia pictures and look at them every day, a promise is a promise. And I promised.
Photos: Uliano Lucas