by Luca Fiore
Fulvio Ventura was a master in the shadows of Italian photography. A compatriot of the more famous Ghirri, Guidi and Basilico, he participated, with the best of that generation, in the two pivotal projects “Viaggio in Italia” (1984) and “Archivio dello spazio” (1987-1997). Ventura, who died last year at the age of 79, was a man of culture and depth, with a sensitivity that expressed itself in photographs of high quality and charm, but also had what many would call a “bad temperament” — a sort of misanthropy that contributed to his not-so-generous critical and editorial fortune.
It seems impossible that only now, after nearly fifty years, is “Sagacity” seeing the light of day — a book the artist originally conceived in 1975 and returned to for the rest of his life. Initially the book was to be published in 1978 by Punto e Virgola, Ghirri and Chiaramonte’s publishing house, with the title “Souvenirs” and a text by Jean-Claude Lemagny, founder of the photography gallery at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. But because of Ventura’s stubborn dissatisfaction with the proofs — and then the bankruptcy of the imprint itself — the publication was indefinitely postponed.
The book now arriving in stores from the Californian publisher The Ice Plant is, in fact, Ventura’s first ever monograph. The graphic design is by famed New York photographer Jason Fulford. The pictures were edited by Giulia Zorzi, curator and founder of Micamera, the Milan bookshop and gallery — one of the few spaces in Italy truly devoted to international contemporary photography.
But the significance of “Sagacity” lies not just in its curious editorial story. It is a seminal book, comparable in importance to “Kodachrome” or “Milan: Portraits of factories” in the careers of Ghirri and Basilico. It holds, in embryonic form, the key to reading all of Ventura’s work, and helps clear up any misconception that, from the ’80s onward, he was merely the “photographer of gardens.”
The full title of the book, a sequence of 33 black and white images, is “Sagacity, Sunstar and Salamandra,” a phrase engraved on a brass plate discovered by Ventura, as a found object, in a printer’s shop window. They are the names of three horses: daughter, father and mother – related words that are a declaration of his poetics: intuition, light, and the alchemical symbol that connotes an ability to live in flames. The artist drew inspiration from a diversity of cultural sources, among them a spy film, seen late at night (the memory of the title has been lost), in which the protagonist, betrayed by his superiors and abandoned by his colleagues, begins a personal search for the truth. Then there is “Atalanta Fugiens,” a seventeenth century book compiling musical compositions, poems and engravings, through which – using the image of the woman, in Greek mythology, who outruns her suitors – the author tries to reveal the secrets of alchemy. Another influence is “Nadja,” the surrealist novel by André Breton, whose protagonist falls in love with the woman who gives the book its title, captivated by the charm of her vision of the world.
Ventura sees Atalanta/Nadja on the subway, or intent on pushing a baby carriage, or appearing in the form of a statue illuminated by a ray of light in the shrubbery. She sits at a coffee table. She escapes the gaze of a man in a raincoat searching for her in a dilapidated house. We meet her in the corridor of a train: she turns around and, staring into the lens, surprises the photographer who is following her. And there are hints of the spy story: the dialogues between informants and even the dead man.
Throughout the book, together with the author, we find ourselves on the trail of not only this woman but also, from a meta-photographic point of view, the revelatory nature of the image and, above all, the sense of things hidden in the folds of the visible.
“Sagacity” will be presented by Anna De Lorenzi, Giovanni Chiaramonte, Roberta Valtorta, Mike Slack and Giulia Zorzi, on Tuesday, October 20 at 6:30 p.m., at Galleria San Fedele in Milan.