Fotographia Interruptus (Dennis Aubrey)

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.

Abbazia di San Silvestro, Nonantola (Emilia-Romagna)  Photo by PJ McKey
Abbazia di San Silvestro, Nonantola (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by PJ McKey

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”.

Nave, Cattedrale metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta e San Geminiano, Modena (Emilia)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Nave, Cattedrale metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta e San Geminiano, Modena (Emilia) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Abbazia di San Silvestro, Nonantola (Emilia-Romagna)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Abbazia di San Silvestro, Nonantola (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Cattedrale metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta e San Geminiano, Modena (Emilia)  Photo by PJ McKey
Cattedrale metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta e San Geminiano, Modena (Emilia) Photo by PJ McKey

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!

Crypt, Abbazia di San Silvestro, Nonantola (Emilia-Romagna)  Photo by PJ McKey
Crypt, Abbazia di San Silvestro, Nonantola (Emilia-Romagna) Photo by PJ McKey

15 thoughts on “Fotographia Interruptus (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Dennis – are you really surprised? Italy is full of “Jobsworths” who glory in exercising a little power – especially over non-Italians who don’t speak the language. And sometimes the ‘Jobsworth’s’ even contradict each-other. When I arranged a visit to L’Arsenale in Venice [using my persona as a Captain, MN, Rtd., and Marine Historian] – I had a most congenial interview with the very helpful R.Adm. in charge on my arrival, who then had his Secretary issue me with a Pass, which he signed, and a map showing me the location of my “objects of interest”. During the rest of my 7-hour visit I must have been stopped 7 or 8 times by officious underlings who either told me I couldn’t take photographs – or that I shouldn’t be in the Dockyard at all. They all “retired red-faced” when I showed them my Pass. I had a similar experience recording late-15th C. jewellery at the Villa Borghese, in Rome; – wrote to the Curator, got an interview on arrival, got permission to take pictures of the “target objects”, and did so – but not without being interrupted several times by Docents who tried to tell me that photography was forbidden, and were only silenced when the Curator assigned me an Assistant Secretary from his office to smooth matters along.

    1. This sounds about right. Although I feel like most places have ‘Jobsworths,’ I feel like Italians can come across as very self-important, especially since so many of them can’t speak a word of English, let alone French or Spanish!

  2. How sad that you have encountered so many problems with the “church” officials in Italy. Your wonderful photos are just enough to whet our appetites for more. Perhaps in time when you are ready to return to Italy you will be able to find just the right person to give you carte blanc to all the Italian Romanesque churches you want to visit. Meantime I look forward to more glorious photography from France.

  3. You should apply for a Guggenheim or a Mellon or Kress grant – your work is magnificent and deserves all encouragement. I would be happy to write on your behalf. – Colin Eisler

    1. Colin, we are finally back from Europe and I wanted to reply to this very kind suggestion. Is there are way we can contact you privately? We can be reached through our email contact.

  4. Did you talk to Surchamp about this? It would be interesting to know if/how things have changed. Also Jaca book was involved so perhaps they made arrangements.

    1. Janet, Surchamp travelled in the Benedictine circles for the most part and stayed with the local clergy. That gave him a different access. He had more problems in France! Of course, the anti-clerical bias of some of the French was the reason for that.

  5. Beautiful, eye-popping images, Dennis. How about engaging the US Embassy or Consulate or Italian Embassy/Consulate here ?

    1. Fred, so great to hear from you. We have worked with the French Consulate in the past, but the Italian consulate did not reply this year. We haven’t tried the US embassy, however!

  6. Hello, Dennis !
    That’s a well known problem with “troppo stupido Cerberus”…Remember your near escape fron “banishment” in the cathedrale d’Aix ! Some years ago, the curé of Saint Nectaire used to break some “forbidden” cameras…
    What a wonderful picture of the crypt.
    Amitiés à vous deux

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