Visual Arts: The Italy where less is more

The photographer Luigi Ghirri found beauty not in Tuscany but in the austere simplicity of the Po valley
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For 300 years or more, the British have enjoyed conjuring up ideal visions of Italy. The 17th and 18th centuries liked to imagine a synthesis between Rome and Venice, antique statues and bas-reliefs on the one hand, opera, masked assignations and dancing till dawn on the other. For the Victorians, the axis shifted to Florence and Naples. After steeping yourself in the eternal verities of Giotto and Fra Angelico you could slip south to a land of irrepressibly festive peasants and fisherfolk in funny hats. Vesuvius offering a comfortable hint of danger in the background. To this, the early 20th century added Sicily and Capri, archetypal "sunny places for shady people" where the bronzed local ephebes, for a handful of lire, were compliant in more than just having a photograph taken.

As the era closes, the classic landscape has shifted to Tuscany, if not to the palace at the end of a cypress avenue obligingly vacated for the Blairs by some wine-making conte or marchese, then to the stone farmhouse under lichened pantiles, beside a swimming pool in an olive grove, with the towers of San Gimignano punctuating the distant heat haze.

Umbria, notwithstanding its slow recovery from the recent earthquake which wrought such havoc in towns such as Assisi, has now got in on the act. The result is a firmly established concept of the Italian scene as an untroubled villa holiday, overlooked by Medici fortresses, with a Piero della Francesca in every church, the trattoria and salumeria heaped with local delicacies, and everything in the prospect ( not to speak of everybody) easy on the eye.

However, there exists another Italy all together, an area without which these others would almost certainly not have prospered, since it has supported them all with its money, hard work and reserves of human ingenuity. It has no obvious charm, no hills, no cypress trees worth speaking of, and there is barely an olive in sight. The farmhouses, built of roughly stuccoed brick, are squat and ugly. The air is thick with the smell of pigs, whose various products - prosciutto, cotecchino, zampone and the rest - are a staple of the Italian diet, though there is no local wine of any repute save the fizzy Lambrusco, a notoriously poor traveller. The single internationally famous speciality, the balsamic vinegar of Modena, is mostly an expensive fraud based on soy sauce, sugar and other elements which are unconnected with the genuine article.

The climate here, apart from a few weeks in May and October, is generally uncompromising, or to put it simply, foul. In winter fogs thicker than any known in Britain freeze the bone marrow; in spring it rains with a humourless persistence for days on end; and the summer - well, that was torrid enough before the onset of global warming. Little exists in the way of shade except for the stands of poplar trees, whose verticals, in this most rigid of landscapes, offer the necessary linear contrast with the dead straight roads, the regimented orchards and maize plantations, and the flat grid of fields stretching unfenced save by irrigation ditches towards a vacant horizon.

I'm talking, as some will already have guessed, about the Bassa Padana, that great plain of lower Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and the southern Veneto, on either side of the river Po. It is the part of Italy you hurry through, taking the autostrada towards the Appennines and the wonders of photogenic Tuscany beyond, or the train along the classic line south from Milan which notches up those little brick cities, Piacenza, Parma, Reggio and Modena, where you never felt specially tempted to dawdle. Even the regional metropolis, Bologna, that most satisfying vindication of urbanism evolved over 3,000 years, is more nodded at respectfully than actually visited with real curiosity.

All the above rehearses, more or less, the orthodox view (shared by many Italians) of the Po valley as a yawning visual blank in a country where colour, form and display are moral imperatives, the birthright of every Italian native. Perhaps because part of my family has lived for 30 years in Modena and I consider myself an honorary Emilian to the last pig bristle and Lambrusco bubble, I can't agree. There is beauty here, in the region which produced Verdi, Caravaggio and Ariosto, but of a kind which isn't self-conscious or worn on the sleeve, deriving as it does from the way whereby the landscape's sheer unadorned openness forces us to concentrate on the abstract relationship between its planes of colour and the few shapes - a barn, a church, a poplar tree - which stand up against them.

The subtlest contemporary interpreter of this northern Italian scene, and of the life within its small towns and villages, was the photographer Luigi Ghirri, from Scandiano near Modena, who died of cancer, aged 49, in 1992. As somebody whose acknowledged influences included Brueghel, Bob Dylan and Fellini, Ghirri deliberately detached himself, at the start of his professional career, from the kind of soft-focus sentimental "heritage" pose cameras are inclined to adopt, almost like a surrender of visual intelligence, when faced with Italy at her most winningly and smugly picturesque. Grasping the essentially man-made quality of this environment, he sought the human within it. As a child he'd been fascinated by photographs in which, somewhere or other amid the landscape, there appeared the tiny figure of a man. "This little man," he wrote "lived in a state of perpetual contemplation of the world. He was not just a measure of the wonders depicted, but the unit of measurement through which I understood the world and its space."

Such figures punctuate certain of the photographs in Il profilo delle nuvole (The Profile of the Clouds), Ghirri's great photographic essay on the Po Valley, originally created for Olivetti and currently on show at the Italian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square, London.

It is human absence rather than presence, however, which provides the work's most haunting features. Nothing stirs late at night in the piazza at Brescello, with its gaunt, neoclassical church and shuttered farmacia, the chairs and table in the farmhouse at Campegine are as empty as the sunlit bedroom at Masone, where a briefcase and a pair of perfectly pressed white trousers await their owner. The beauty, says Ghirri's camera, is in the emptiness, whether of a snowbound road, the platform of a fishing hut, a bicycle repair shop in Parma festooned with pictures of Verdi, or an achingly lonely view of bald ploughland under the merciless clarity of a spring sky.

Again and again, Ghirri nudges us towards acknowledging the casual elegance and individuality within the landscape's unromantic, workaday ordinariness. Barns and farmhouses become like the "eyecatchers" in some 18th-century ornamental garden; a double bed in a small-town pensione achieves almost operatic grandeur; the red colour wash of a roadside trattoria with a group of little men in hats slumped outside heightens the purpleish menace of an approaching thunderstorm.

The photographer's genius lies in his awareness of these elements, a huddle of sheds in a field, a peeling, mottled wall under an old vine, an autostrada filling station or the goalposts in a riverside football ground, as somehow alive themselves, figures as vital and vocal as the youngsters playing on the open-air cinema stage, the farmer pruning mulberry trees or the man crouched at the foot of a village war memorial.

The language these things speak to each other is not one which most British Italophiles have either the time or the inclination to hear. Ghirri's Italy is the classic example of another country where they do things differently, the Italy we never bothered to know.

`Il Profilo delle Nuvole' at the Italian Cultural Institute, 39 Belgrave Square, London SW1 (0171-235 1461) until 27 August

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