We have learned one clear lesson so far on this trip – photographing churches in Italy is a completely different experience than photographing them in France. In France, most of the time we enter, set up and spend the next three hours shooting to our hearts’ content. If anyone approaches us, it is usually to ask a friendly question, point out something that we might otherwise miss, or just look at what we are doing.
In Italy, when we are approached, we have learned that the invariable response is Vietato! La fotographia esta vietato! Usually this is the greeting from an officious petit fonctionaire, but sometimes just another visitor to the church who is anxious to convey to us that photography with tripods is not permitted without permission. At the Abbazia di San Silvestro di Nonantola which was being heavily restored during our visit, a man associated with the company restoring the church tried to stop us from photographing. I pretended to desperately understand his Italian, and my failure to do so annoyed him. I told him that I spoke French and he went off with his cell phone to call someone who could tell me to stop working in French. Whoever he talked to refused to help him so he just glared at me every time he walked past.
We will be very glad to get permission in the future, but the key question is “Permission from whom?” Sometimes it is a government figure if the church is considered a monument, but if the church is an active place of worship, it is different. Sometimes it is the senior religious figure at the church, the head priest, for example. We were told in the magnificent Cattedrale metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta e San Geminiano in Modena that we had to write in advance to this eminent person and that they would give us permission if they felt it was appropriate. But we were not even allowed to hand-hold in the cathedral because our cameras were troppo professionale – “too professional”.
At the Abbazia di San Silvestro di Nonantola we were informed that we needed to contact the parish offices where someone (nobody could tell us who) would respond to our request. We are a bit suspicious of this since we wrote to the relevant authorities in Milan and Ravenna six weeks before our departure and never heard back, not even when we followed up with a second letter. Perhaps the Italian that we used to convey our request was not good enough to give the authorities confidence that we were not barbarians.
We were perhaps misled by our experience at the wonderful Abbazia di San Godenzo, where we had two hours of solitude to photograph. Nobody bothered us or told us that it was vietato. Perhaps that was because the church was completely empty during the entire time we worked.
We are enthralled by the wonderful churches that we have seen in Italy and will be back to photograph. But the preparation will be much more difficult and I am convinced that we will need help from higher authorities who can help us communicate with both metropolitan and church officials. Until then, we are so glad to be back in France where we can go in, look, study, and then photograph to exhaustion!