Italians at the table 1860-1960, a beautiful photography exhibition in Venice
by Alberto Manodori Sagredo
Finally, the Italian people could sit and eat at one table. But in the first hundred years after the country’s Unification, when did they eat and how did they behave? There were everyday lunches and dinners, as well as special meals prepared to celebrate traditional, religious, or public holidays. There were anniversaries and family reunions, moments of parental pride – weddings, christenings, first communions – and funerals. There was street food and freshly picked fruit in the countryside, meals at home, at the ‘trattoria’, and at the restaurant, in barracks and in schools.
Even before Unity, food had always been an important part of people’s social habits, leaving its mark on traditions, gestures, common sayings, and perhaps even thoughts. A ritual of intense meaning took place around the table, requiring behaviors, attitudes, and words that came from a shared past. The legacy of that world lasted for a long time, inheriting obsolete formulas, cheers and smiles, congratulations and silences. The, the Second World War and a new, mostly unknown level of affluence changed everything, including Italians’ customs and traditions regarding food – slowly, subtly, gradually, and unavoidably.
Modern technological commodities, new work schedules that blocked out the entire day, growing distances between home and the office – to be covered in traffic –, so-called “free time”, the crumbling farmer, patriarchal, extended family, the seductive models suggested by advertisement and cinema… all of this, and much more, influenced the ways Italian people sat down to eat, not to mention recipes, menus and etiquette.
In memory of this long, and yet always too short, history of food, various authors have written pages and pages; but there are also menus printed for a myriad of different occasions, handwritten recipe books that once belonged to our grandmothers, articles published on newspapers and magazines… and of course there are photographs, and even footage thanks to 20th-century cinema (and to today’s TV and ubiquitous phone cameras). The history of Italian people at the table has been immortalized in millions of images; a few were created by famous authors, but the overwhelming majority was taken at home by amateurs, with obvious mistakes… yet they provide a real, authentic, and therefore perfect mirror of people’s cultural identity. Are these family photos less real than professional ones? Or perhaps are they more honest, more genuine, although less planned and relatively symbolic?
Family photographs – including some by notable authors who were able to effectively represent the synthesis of a cultural reality – portray infinite family stories, and in their amateur simplicity fully express the will to leave a legacy of facts and episodes, even though they may seem anonymous and far from historic. In fact, these common people’s photographs bear authentic testimony to their lives, and become even more powerful when placed side by side and organized so they can reveal a collective history of unknown characters, who made the famous names and great facts in history possible.
This is the premise and final goal of the “photographic history” represented by “Italians at the table”, an exhibition that recently opened in the monumental, exquisite Villa Pisani in Stra, in the province of Venice. I had the honor of curating the exhibition, which is organized by Munus and promoted by the Department of Architectural and Landscape Heritage of the provinces of Venice, Padua, Treviso and Belluno.
The event showcases some two hundred photographs, representing the cultural identity and historical face of the Italian people at the table, and their relationship with the food industry (production, supply, distribution) in the period between 1860 and 1960 approximately. A century that saw the birth of modern Italy, a dictatorship, two World Wars, a brief but unforgivable attempt at colonialism, and finally the rise of democracy.
One of the main themes in the exhibition is obviously cooking: kitchens, recipes handed down from one generation to the next, usually from mother to daughter, allowing certain dishes to travel across time… and space: husbands often discovered the flavors of different regions thanks to the typical dishes their wives had learned from their grandmothers, especially once Italian families started to move around the country more.
Here is the image of a kitchen: perhaps modest but certainly authentic, with a pot on the wood and charcoal burner, and the unfailing presence of children (photo 21).
Then, the portrait of a family banquet held for a baptism, with two ‘panettoni’ on the table, bottles of wine and a carafe that perhaps contained the classic ‘rosolio’. Sitting at the same table means recognizing we belong to a family or circle, with the joy of welcoming a newborn in the happiness of a special lunch. In the century explored by “Italians at the table”, lunch was a convivial moment for family and friends more often than dinner, both because it allowed time to digest an abundant meal and because it could be held in full daylight, in a time when candles and oil lamps were so expensive only the aristocracy and rich people could afford to light them in the evenings.
With the 20th century, banquets also become a social and political moment. In fot.7 we see dozens of elegant ladies participate in a luncheon held to talk about women’s (then little known) rights.
Lunch was also a time of rest during the day, as soldiers at war knew well: hearing the trumpet announce soup was a welcome signal of respite from the risk of dying in battle (ph. 13).
Photographs like the one portraying the members of Roma Nostra – an association of people passionate about the Eternal City’s traditions – (ph.18) prove the huge number and variety of opportunities we have taken to go out for lunch or dinner, with family and friends, at the humble ‘trattoria’ or fine restaurant.
But there are also photographs that remind us that eating together was not always just for “special occasions”: here we see the meager table of some farmers who owned nothing but a small slice of land, and daily sat in front of their plate of pasta and sauce, holding their children on their laps (ph. 19).
There were romantic, candle-lit dinners between lovers, who just like today saw sharing a meal like a symbolic, unbreakable pact of love (ph. 11).
You could party at a birthday buffet and blow out the candles, like a young girl surrounded by her friends (ph. 80-9), or partake in the weekly celebration the bourgeois conformed to every Sunday morning: attending mass, and then bringing a tray of pastries home from the shop, as if you were going to a First Communion or Confirmation (ph. 10). Italians have often seen themselves represented in the characters played by the country’s favorite actors, like Vittorio De Sica and Sophia Loren. Here, we see the two stars in a beautiful picture by Ezio Vitale, welcoming a most famous Italian dish: pizza (ph. 8)!
There seems not to be a single instant since 1839, when photography was invented, that has not left a trace behind. There are so many recognized masterpieces in this art, and yet so many more have been shot by millions of improvised photographers, especially since the 20th century, when cameras became more nimble, easy to use, and convenient.
For example, at the beginning of the so-called “short” century, someone took this photo of a young man tackling the new fashion of cigarettes – smoking at the time was seen as a sign of virility – sitting at a table outside a café. Cafes opening in various Italian cities were the sign of a new urban culture, and the way the man is sitting and dressed speaks volumes about his time! (ph. 14). Having coffee ‘al fresco’ was about to become the social ritual by excellence. Here is a less youthful gentleman admiring the swift, confident stride of a young lady, perhaps more humble but not less charming than Dante’s Beatrice (ph. 5).
Streets obviously became a place for eating, albeit typically “poor” and simple food such as the ‘maccheroni’ these two ‘scugnizzi’ in Naples are eating directly with their hands (ph. 1).
In fact, Italian street food has a long history based on typical, regional dishes and their infinite local variations. Tourism, with its taste for homologation, allowed people from the entire world to taste the same specialties in the 20th and now 21st century, but eating “on the go” was a trend even before the Second World War, when these two young ladies happened to be in Piazza San Marco in Venice (ph. 3).
Streets in Italy have always been a main stage for food, featuring women coming and going from the bakeries where they could cook their own homemade bread (ph. 6). The cobblestones echoed with the sound of passing trucks and carts – like the Sicilian one in this photo, with iron-reinforced wooden wheels and sides decorated with scenes from the “Teatro dei Pupi” (ph. 7).
And if streets is where the “food history” of the country traveled, markets were the place where it often made a stop. Here we see a man selling fish from two boxes on one of Venice’s narrow canal-side sidewalks (ph. 4).
Last but not least, there are improvised photographs that give us glimpses of a larger, more official, and sometimes more dramatic history. For example, the one in which we see a stand set up for the Grapes Festival supported by the Fascist party to promote Italian winemakers (ph. 20), or the grim views of the “black market” that flourished in all Italian cities from the beginning of the German occupation to the early years of the new Republic (ph. 22-24).
“Italians at the table, 1860 – 1960. A photographic history of how people eat, of what they eat and of where they eat it in Italy” opened on March 28, 2015 at the National museum’s Villa Pisani in Stra (Ve), (via Doge Pisani, 7), and will be on until October 31 from 9am to 8pm until September 30; from 9am to 5pm from October 1 to 31. Closed on Mondays.