The bigger picture: a reconsideration of Giulia Niccolai's Il grande angolo.
This article looks at Niccolai's use of photography in Il grande angolo in two main ways. First, it considers how technical aspects of photography influence Niccolai's writing style, showing how she responds to and complements the literary experimentalism of the late 1960s by making use of vocabulary and effects taken from her first profession. I then go on to consider the broader thematic and theoretical questions raised by the protagonist's constant engagement with photographic and other visual technologies, focusing on the questions of photography's connection to loss and death and its epistemological limits. These in turn are tied to what Niccolai has called her ongoing attempt--in photography, in writing, and ultimately in her practice as a Buddhist nun--to come to terms with the epistemological and existential question of "come si perdono le cose" (Hill, Interview). (2)
All Niccolai's writings reveal connections to her photographic work, such as attentive observation, an aesthetic of fragmentation and an interest in fleeting yet revelatory moments. They can be seen in her visual poetry of the 1970s, the word play of her later poetry, and the delight in tracing continuities in the apparent discontinuities and coincidences of life in her 2001 book of prose writings, Esoterico biliardo. (3) These connections are never clearer, however, than in Il grande angolo, which bridges the gap between her work as a photographer and her experience as one of very few women to have been connected directly with the Gruppo '63. (4) By closely analyzing the ways in which Niccolai evaluates and questions photography's power as a means of representation in Il grande angolo, it is possible to see how she develops a new model of literary representation and a new approach to language that draw creatively on the procedures and techniques of photography with which she was so familiar.
II grande angolo recounts the story of a young photojournalist, Ita, who sees herself and her surroundings as if through a camera lens. Ita is in almost constant movement, and her story jumps back and forward from one country to another, as well as backwards and forwards in time. Yet this uninterrupted movement is fixed by a series of still images, linked by a particular attention to details and fragments. Despite its structural fragmentation, the novel gains cohesion through the thematic importance given to points of reference and their absence, numerical calculations, and questions of navigation and framing, particularly as they relate to epistemological issues raised by photographic representation. The protagonist sees the world through a series of lenses and filters, and framed in innumerable ways, so that photography comes to symbolize the fragmentation of her world and her inability to gain access to any more than partial truths. Nevertheless, the fragments and details that make up the novel come together to tell the story of Ita's meeting with another photographer, Dominguez, on an assignment to photograph the lands that were to be flooded by the construction of the Aswan Dam in Egypt in the early 1960s. It describes their subsequent relationship, Dominguez's unexplained suicide, and Ita's ensuing mental breakdown and hospitalization, interspersed with memories from Ita's childhood and professional life.
Ita's loss of Dominguez is literally and figuratively the central event of the novel, but the theme of loss ties together all the disparate sections. It is also constantly linked to the theme of photography. Since photography preserves the appearance of presence even of those who are absent, it has long been recognized as having a special relation to loss and death. (5) In Niccolai's novel, it represents the main means by which the protagonist seeks to understand the appearances and disappearances with which she is faced. Ultimately, it is also the means by which she comes to recognize the contingency of all forms of knowledge.
As the novel opens, Ita is on a boat en route to Egypt. From these scenes on, there is a photographic emphasis on detail, a use of photographic similes and metaphors, and a pronounced attention to technologies of vision. To look at the ship's radar, the captain pulls across a black curtain like that of a darkroom, revealing how "le onde elettromagnetiche sotto vetro incontrando un ostacolo si riflettono e tornano parzialmente alla sorgente, poi vanno a infrangersi contro il metallo in cui sta incassato l'apparecchio" (10). The use of technology to visualize what cannot otherwise be seen is a reminder of one of the key roles photography has played since its inception and of its difference from "natural" vision: its ability to show us what we cannot see, as well as what we can; what Walter Benjamin famously called "unconscious optics" (237). (6) Ita pays close attention to all the various technologies of navigation employed by the crew, from the relatively low-tech magnetic needle of the compass and the parallel rule and pencil used with the nautical charts, to the radar and the echo sounder. Throughout the book, her gaze is almost always channeled through instruments, frames, windows, gaps, glass, and, most importantly, the lens of her camera. Technologies of perception and mediated forms of vision are emphasized. So, too, are verbs of perception and sight (guardare, osservare, and vedere recur with almost obsessive frequency), and there are constant references to light, refraction and reflection.
One example of the representation of mediated sight occurs in the meticulous description of Ita's view of a child through the keyhole of the gate of a castle she visited with Dominguez. Here Niccolai explicitly compares that perspective to the limited viewpoint offered by the viewfinder of a camera (77-78):
Rimango con l'occhio incollato e da in fondo vedo che viene verso il portone, per aprirci, una bambina. Man mano che si avvicina la osservo: ha calze di lana scure tenute da un elastico sopra il ginocchio, si vede un pezzo di gamba nuda sotto il grembiule corto con una grossa tasca a marsupio dove affonda le mani chiuse a pugno (le nocche premono contro il tessuto a quadrettini blu), la testa e le spalle sono tagliate via nella visuale limitata della serratura [...], come quella di un mirino ...
The keyhole viewfinder breaks the child up into photographic details, enabling Ira to focus on certain elements, such as the knuckles pressing into the fabric of the apron, with extraordinary clarity, even as it denies her the ability to see the whole child. Here, as so often in Il grande angolo, the author hints at the insights and blind spots that result from this kind of "photographic" seeing.
Niccolai also employs a specifically photographic vocabulary to make metaphorical reference to photographic effects. For example, as Ita waits for Dominguez in the bar at the UN, she drinks: "un dry martini gelato in un bicchiere leggero triangolare come la punta di un diamante capovolto su uno stelo sottile. Il liquido fa da lente, ingrandisce l'oliva nel fondo e diminuendo lascia delle vaghe tracce oleose sul vetro" (118). The oily traces on the martini glass recall the use of light-sensitive photographic plates in early photography, and the use of terms like lens, enlargement and trace shows how Ita constantly interprets her environment according to photographic criteria of the play of light on surface and the ways in which events leave their mark in the form of traces left behind.
In the episodes that take place in New York before Dominguez's death, Niccolai emphasizes the artificiality of the urban environment and the ways in which it isolates and frames its inhabitants. Glass, plastic and other translucent or reflective surfaces become ever more prevalent. Even the sky seems like a giant mirror, as Ita tells Dominguez: "E come se queste nuvole in movimento riescano a riflettere, a rispecchiare lo spazio, la grandezza del paese" (119). Sitting with him in a restaurant off 10th Avenue, Ira examines the cubes of ice melting in her glass of whiskey, and he tells her (somewhat implausibly) that New York has "il ghiaccio piu puro del mondo ... E come cristallo. Senza imperfezioni, trasparente" (94). The two of them are seated at the bar, where their faces are reflected in two mirrored pieces behind the upside-down bottles behind the counter. The waiters emerge from the kitchen through two hinged plastic doors with glass sections inserted into the top. The doors are described in great detail, as are the plastic and glass objects on the table at which the couple sits down. When they leave, the wood-framed glass of the restaurant's revolving door encloses them. They are surrounded by transparent or reflective surfaces, but the overall impression is one of impenetrability equivalent to that of their dimly-lit hotel room, whose one window looks out on a brick wall, and from which Ita can see neither sky nor earth (104).
The urban environment is entirely defined by effects of light on surface, as it is clear when Ita sets out for a photo assignment at the UN, noting every detail and effect of light and shadow along her route (108). Stopping at a diner for toast and coffee, Ita examines everything and everyone inside in minute detail, from the other clients, to the drops of melted butter used to fry eggs on the grill, and the whole process of food preparation. Once again, Ita's relationship to the space is defined in terms of the objects it contains and the play of light and surface, as she compares the thin blade of yellow sunlight on the floor to the harsh neon lighting above her (110). Arriving at UN Plaza, the glare of light on hard surfaces and the shock of bright colors continue for Ira as she descends into the white and windy expanse in front of the General Assembly and the green glass of the skyscraper reflecting the buildings and the blue water of the river (112). Looking around at the other people scattered across the space, Ita attempts to:
figurarsi dettagliatamente questa scena con il movimento delle persone nei cappotti scuri sulle lastre bianche, la catena blu di poliziotti sotto i pennoni, le bandiere colorate dei paesi che sventolano, la ringhiera, la fila di alberi giovani verso il fiume, come se la vedesse dali'alto, da una delle finestre dei saloni e dei corridoi (114-150).
The blue of the police uniforms and the multiple hues of the flags bring color into the black and white world of dark coats on white slabs, as though color were suddenly introduced into a black and white photograph.
This "photographic" attention to the play of color, light and shadow as they change from moment to moment is echoed by the language Niccolai employs. It is characterized by freshness and immediacy, for example in the rhythmic variation of long and short sentences, and the occasional omission of conjunctions and commas. The novel is told almost exclusively in the present tense. The immediacy that this produces, combined with the deliberate chronological confusion and the consequent creation of unusual associations, again creates an effect similar to that of a series of randomly arranged photographs. This is further echoed by the novel's many elliptical constructions and sudden shifts from one scene to another, linked by associations and oblique references.
These effects are complemented by the descriptions of the things or people Ita photographs, but it is crucial to note that these photographs are never described. Instead, Niccolai provides lists of the objects, people and moments photographed. Roland Barthes describes how photography can be considered from three points of view: that of the photographer, that of the photographic subject and that of the viewer (Camera Lucida 9-10). But here this triangle is interrupted, leaving the viewer to imagine these purely fictive images from the clues offered by descriptions of moments of time that may or may not also have been photographs. This reverses the normal relation to photographs by which they serve as a means of imaginatively reconstructing moments of past time and instead focuses the attention on the process of photography rather than its end product.
Niccolai wrote Il grande angolo in a period in which the question of whether or not photography could be thought of a system of signs similar to verbal language was hotly debated. Her use of descriptions of what is photographed, rather than "ekphrastic" descriptions of photographs, seems to anticipate the much later work of scholars of photographic theory like Claudio Marra. He argues forcefully for an approach to photography based above all on the processes by which photographic images are made and used, rather than seeking a prescriptive definition of photography. Niccolai's similar attention to the process of photography rather than to its end result means that Ita's photography can perhaps best be interpreted as an effort to understand fundamental questions concerning how people see themselves and the world in which they live, and what separates or unites them. The fact that these are ultimately unanswerable questions is emphasized by the absence of photographs (and "photographic proof"), while the emphasis on the process of photographing seems to imply that there is still a value in asking them.
This emphasis on the process rather than the products of photography is evident as Ita travels up the Nile to visit the areas to be submerged. She does not photograph the temples and the tombs of the kings that the other passengers go ashore to see. Instead she concentrates on what interested Niccolai herself as a photographer: "la retroscena della vita" (Hill). Spending her days on deck, she uses a telephoto lens to take pictures of the people who live along the riverbank. The reader is given a lengthy list of the images left "impressi sulla pellicola": peasants drawing water, villages made of mud and camel dung, building facades painted with images of all the varied means of transportation by which their owners went on pilgrimage to Mecca, women dressed in black carrying water, palm trees, eucalypts, sugar canes, and the sails of the feluccas (12). This list of photographs is followed shortly afterwards by a list of Arabic words she writes down in a notebook, next to their Italian translations (13). Phrases like "cold" "hot" "go slowly" "may I take a photo?" "here" "wait a moment" are jumbled together, creating coincidental associations and unexpected combinations. This kind of listing was to be an important element of Niccolai's poetry, and it appears again regularly in the novel. But comparing the list of descriptions of photographs and the list of words, there is a strong contrast between the wealth of detail and narrative content the visual medium apparently provides and the relative parsimony of language. The lists of photographs give at least the illusion of access to a culture that is almost entirely unavailable on a purely linguistic level to the visitor who does not speak the language.
Nevertheless, it is important to reiterate that Niccolai provides her reader with descriptions not of Ita's photographs, but of what she photographs. This means that the photographs are twice removed from the reader: what they show is described through language, but they themselves are never "shown" to the reader. As such, the imagined photographic image can only be accessed through language. This emphasizes the way in which photographs are always inserted into a narrative context, which shapes how they are viewed and thus what they mean. Niccolai has said that one of the frustrations of journalistic photography for her was that she was not in control of the narrative context into which her photographs were placed (Hill). In Il grande angolo, her protagonist's photographs are entirely a function of the story Niccolai tells, yet by refusing to describe the photographs themselves, she allows them to escape a controlling narrative. At the same time, with its gaps, leaps and fragmentations, the narrative itself echoes both the literary experimentalism of the late 1960s and a peculiarly photographic aesthetic that refutes the notion of a single, coherent "grand narrative."
The sometimes-troubled interplay of language, culture, and vision is emphasized on the second evening of the journey up the Nile, when the boat stops so that the passengers from third class can buy supplies for the rest of the journey. Once again, there is a strong contrast between the visual and verbal, as Ita, Dominguez and another Westerner, Karlheinz, stare down at the exchanges taking place below them, from which they are cut off both physically and linguistically (21-22). As the three look down at the figures on the raft below them, lit up by flashes of greenish light from the swinging kerosene lamps, trying to understand what they might be saying, they begin to hear something that sounds like "Ita, Ita." Later we read that Ira was deeply upset by this incomprehensible repetition of her name, and that Dominguez had to reassure her that the men on the dock must have heard him or Karlheinz calling out to her, and repeated it, calling out to her just for a joke (68). These kinds of communicative breakdowns and varying degrees of incomprehensibility are the subject of much of the novel, and indeed of many of Niccolai's subsequent works, and it is in this context that Niccolai addresses the usefulness or otherwise of both photography and language as interpretative and epistemological tools.
The journalists refrain from photographing the people traveling on rafts attached to the boat that carries them up the river, although Ita observes them closely. These people's expressions do not change when the Westerners smile at them, and they seem to feel their gazes upon them. The photographers instead focus their telephoto lenses on the distant bank and the villages reflected in the water, as though embarrassed by the proximity of those near them and the return of their gaze. The use of telephoto lenses throughout the novel suggests the difficulty of bridging the distance between photographer and subject--the object of his or her gaze--and of the ethics of a gaze that "spies" on its object from afar, with the violence this implies. (7) A few years after Niccolai's novel was published, Susan Sontag's would insist on the inherently aggressive and sexual nature of photography. Sontag argued in 1973 that photographers were often profoundly alienated from their subjects and that as a result they may "feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter." She asserted that "There is an aggression implicit in every use of a camera," that "To photograph people is to violate them," and even that "To photograph someone is a sublimated murder" (On Photography 7, 14-15). While Sontag was to re-evaluate her assertions about photography in the light of the apparently even more pernicious effects of other media such as television, the uncomfortable ethical issues she raised in On Photography resonate strongly in Niccolai's novel, which repeatedly acknowledges photography's potential for violence and violation. (8)
For example, later in Il grande angolo, on an assignment at the UN in New York, Ita gets her camera ready along with a group of other photographers: "Avvicina l'occhio al mirino, con la sinistra prova la messa a fuoco, con la destra stretta sull'impugnatura di una leva imprime un movimento girevole verso l'alto e verso il basso ..." (114). Like snipers, the photographers take their positions in the darkened booths, from which emerge their "teleobbiettivi puntati" (115). Once the meeting begins, Ita keeps her telephoto lens aimed at the hands of the president of one of the countries represented, who is said to have been tortured. She looks in vain for traces of what he suffered (115-16):
Nel vetro smerigliato del reflex le mani sono bianche e ben curate. Le unghie strappate forse ricrescono perfettamente senza lasciare cicatrici, la tortura dei fiammiferi, le bruciature all'estremita di ogni dito ... Se e vero non sono rimasti segni, o a questa distanza la lente non e sufficiente per... [ellipsis original]
While a photograph is always in some sense a trace of an event, and can function as a record of "the pain of others," to use a term coined by Sontag, the point here is that the camera is not "sufficient" to the task of revealing those forms of suffering that leave no visible trace (Regarding). Yet other forms of suffering do leave a kind of quasi-photographic mark. Niccolai makes this clear immediately after the episode at the UN. The scene shifts to the seaside, where Ita and Dominguez walk along the snowy beach, watching the gulls wheeling above them. They meet a man feeding the birds, who tells them that he was born in the Balkans, and that there the water freezes solid in winter: "a volte cosi subitaneamente che le onde sono bloccate in rilievo con le creste come in un calco, come in un grigio fondale fotografico dove il maresia stato fissato nel suo movimento" (117). As he reaches out his arm to mime the shape of the waves, they see a number tattooed upon it. The connection is made between the pseudophotographic fixing of the wave, as though time has been suspended, and the concentration camp tattoo fixed upon the man's moving arm, a preserved but living trace of prior suffering. (9)
These associations between photography and the threat or memory of suffering hint at photography's latent capacity to be used for voyeuristic or violent ends. When Ita has her photographic equipment searched by the police officers at the UN, the sight of her 70 cm telephoto lens in their hands makes her think of the nose-cone of a missile. Later there is a long description of Ita's visit to a facility near the Blue Ridge Mountains where missiles and spacecrafts are tested. The spacecraft testing center represents the latest technology: "memorie accessibili ad alta velocita e di grande capacita, i migliori dispositivi per l'elaborazione a distanza, capacita di elaborare informazioni di tipo scientifico contenute in campi di lunghezza sia fissa che variabile" (121). When the testing program is interrupted for any reason, the alarm signal is a recording of a newborn's cry. As with the descriptions of the places and people who would be affected by the construction of the Aswan Dam, here there is a tension between the desire for technologies--like photography itself--that may offer opportunities to improve life and the knowledge of it and doubts about what is lost or obscured as a result of such technologies, something that is expressed in the choice of a crying baby as the alarm signal.
At the same time, according to Niccolai, the novel ultimately accepts that technology is an inevitable and necessary part of our lives. A lengthy episode where Ita and Dominguez try and fail to take photographs of the women in the prison opposite their apartment, even going so far as to build their own telephoto lens to do so, reflects this ongoing and at times frustrating encounter with technology. Yet doubts remain about what it in fact enables Ita and Dominguez to see, and particularly about the extent to which it can help them understand anything. The difficulties the two photographers encounter in trying to photograph something as apparently simple as the inhabitants of a nearby building throw light on the epistemological limits of photography and the shortcomings of photographic ways of seeing.
What, then, lies behind the urge to photograph the world? Il grande angolo suggests that it is part of the ancient human desire to preserve what must be lost. In one of the temples that stand in the area to be submerged, Ita, Karlheinz and Dominguez observe the carvings of a king on his throne surrounded by his officials, his carriage and bodyguard in armor, battlefields, wild horses, soldiers busying themselves to set up camp, the troops departing, the cavalry in action, and many other scenes. As they look at the figures, Ita slowly traces their outlines with the beam of her flashlight: "Nel polso la pila le diventa uno scalpello" (23). This allows Ita to carry out a metaphorical photography--a scratching or chiseling with light--of the ancient images that she and her colleagues have come to register more enduringly on film. According to the film theorist Andre Bazin, an urge to counter time's erosive effects lies behind every human act of image production. As such, a "mummy complex" is at the origin of all the plastic arts (237). In Bazin's terms, there is an implicit parallel between the ancient stone carver's work, Ita's gesture of tracing it with the flashlight, and the photographs she and Dominguez will take as records of places that are soon to vanish underwater. In the latter two cases, however, it is light that functions as a tool, a means of drawing out an already-present form from matter that recalls the work of the sculptors Ita will later encounter in Massa Carrara, and their most famous predecessor, Michelangelo. (10)
These attempts to stave off loss are echoed in the episode in which Ita and her companions are taken to meet the Honda, a local leader who lives near the site of the Aswan dam. After building up a series of images that create an affectionate portrait of this man, Niccolai explicitly links the destruction of his lands to his death, and his loss to the loss of a father:
Forse il suo parco e gia stato devastato dalle onde, o imputridisce nell'acqua che si alza e avanza adagio. Tutte le sue terre, forse, sono gia sommerse. Le sue mogli e i suoi figli forse lo hanno gia ... Nella morte su una branda la sua pelle scura forse ... nella luce di una lampada a petrolio la linea sottile dei baffi bianchi la barba corta sul mento il naso ancora piu affilato e aquilino le rughe piu profonde gli occhi grigi le dita lunghe e nodose... Che nel ricordo l'Honda e come il Padre. [ellipses original]
This imagined funerary portrait of the Honda, like an early photographic portrait of the dead, is tied to Ita's attempt to preserve in photographs the lands that will be flooded, and once again recalls Bazin's arguments about photography's status as a fetishistic response to the "mummy complex."
This in turn is echoed in writing that seeks to preserve memories against the losses of time, while the discontinuities and omissions of photographs are echoed by the aposiopetic omission of what is too distressing to be said. (11) The knowledge that what Ita and her companions see will all too soon disappear underwater lends a pathos to everything they look at that is similar to the pathos that often invests photographs. The anticipatory nostalgia for places that have not yet disappeared melds with the nostalgia for past rimes. The sight of men playing back-gammon reminds Ita of the villa where she spent time as a child during World War II, and episodes from this period are interspersed with the events of Ita's trip with Dominguez and Karlheinz. She tells the two men that she has experienced the moments they have spent together "come se appartenessero al passato ... questi giorni, questi posti hanno l'intensita, la malinconia della memoria, dei ricordi d'infanzia" (39). Like Barthes's description of the experience of looking at the photograph of a man condemned to die, Ita's experience of the journey through lands condemned to drown takes place in a state of premonitory nostalgia that is closely connected to her photographic work, which seeks to preserve at least the image of the places she visits (Camera Lucida 96).
The fragmentary vision of the sculptural reliefs on the temple and the elliptical descriptions of the imagined scenes of the destruction of the Honda's world are echoed in the description of the sculptural fragments at the workshop Ita visits in Massa Carrara where the sculptors reproduce "cosce di angeli, mani nobili benedicenti, teste incoronate di alloro" from plaster models (84). The connection between these sculptors and the ancient Egyptian sculptors whose work Ita traced with her flashlight is made explicit as she walks among the blocks of marble still to be worked. She tells Rocco, the sculptor whose work she has come to photograph, that she feels as though she is walking "tra le rovine di un tempio." Together they run their hands over the stone, "seguendone la vena, la direzione del taglio," and pointing out to one another "le forme minute dei licheni e dei fossili impressi" (88). This attention to the traces that allow one to reconstruct the past is emphasized again later in the same section when Ita and Rocco go up to the quarry: "In terra vedevano i solchi profondi e tratteggiati che avevano lasciato i copertoni, seguendo le tracce potevano ricostruire il percorso che avevano fatto i camion per salire, caricare, girare e ridiscendere" (91). Ina novel so concerned with the question of photography's relation to reality and the question of the kind of knowledge it can provide, these indexical marks bear a special weight. They also suggest a link to Niccolai's later work with concrete and visual poetry, where the notion of the trace is also centrally important. (12)
The debate over the extent to which photography can be thought of as an indexical trace of reality and a tool for establishing at least the former existence of its object provides an important context for Niccolai's novel, with its careful attention to traces of all kinds, and to the limitations of our ability to read and interpret them. (13) This implies concurrence with writers like Sontag, who have argued that the specificity of the photographic trace lies not so much in the question of its resemblance to its object but in the way it can be considered as a literal translation of an event. (14)
This notion becomes crucially important in the long account of the evening that Ita discovered Dominguez's body. In the extremely detailed description of this event, Ita's photographer's eye focuses on the details that enable her to reconstruct all of his actions with great precision (66):
Sono entrata in camera. Ho visto subito il letto. Le lenzuola. Sul risvolto delle lenzuola dalla parte dove dormiva fui c'erano due disegni identici rossi, quasi marrone simmetrici. Con i polsi aperti deve essersi messo a fare dei movimenti circolari sempre piu larghi e ha disegnato due grosse spirali come due grossi gusci di lumaca. Deve essere stato sdraiato quando li ha fatti, poi si deve essere messo in ginocchio e ha sbattuto i polsi dietro la testata del letto, poi in piedi su un altro muro della stanza. Quando il sangue non zampillava piu ma uscivano solo gocce deve essere tornato al letto perche sul cuscino e sul lenzuolo dalla parte dove dormivo io c'erano due righe parallele di tratti rossi, di gocce rosse, un altro disegno come due file di formiche che alla fine si allargavano e formavano due altre spirali ma cominciate queste dal cerchio piu largo per poi diventare piu piccole. Lui era in terra tra il letto e il muro dalla mia parte. In faccia era grigio. Ho visto le ferite ai polsi. Avevano i bordi bianchi e alti un paio di millimetri (era il grasso e la pelle), si aprivano a forma di mandorla, dentro erano marrone.
There is a striking contrast between the almost forensic noting of details and reconstruction of events, and the implicit emotion of what could only be a profoundly traumatic discovery. Many writers on photography have touched on the disjuncture between photography's apparently objective description of appearances and the pain and violence it often shows. Such writers note that one of the potential problems with the medium is its indiscriminate representation of horrors and holidays, advertising images and scenes of misery. (15)
In one of the very few recent critical pieces to consider Il grande angolo, Franco Tagliafierro argues that both Dominguez's suicide and Ita's breakdown are the result of their confrontation with "una realta inautentica e di conseguenza antiumana" (62). While they seek to use photography to come to terms with this reality, it in fact only compounds the problem. This is made clear in the scenes following Ita's breakdown, where she undergoes a transition from active photographer-subject to passive "photographic object." The distance between the photographer and the photographed breaks down completely, as Ita metaphorically moves around to the other side of the camera lens. In these episodes, set in the institution where Ita goes to recover, it becomes increasingly clear that Ita's obsessive concentration on the surface of things is both her key coping mechanism and a symptom of her breakdown. As a result, the question of artificiality versus authenticity in photography becomes all-important.
Photography, so often regarded as having a privileged relation to reality, also represents a potential means of escapism. Francesca Alinovi points out that the posed visiting cards that were such a phenomenon of the late nineteenth century represented an opportunity for their subjects to assume another identity, rather than their own, posing with objects and costumes that reflected above all how they wanted to be seen, rather than what they necessarily were. She points out that while photography was recognized almost from its origins as an ideal tool for determining and fixing identity, it quickly also became a way to escape from one's identity and humdrum reality (324). Even without particular props, the conventions of photographic representation mean that people almost inevitably assume particular attitudes when they are knowingly photographed, attempting to present a particular version of themselves (and this is the case even if they deliberately seek to resist photographic conventions) in a process that makes photographer and photographed object collaborators in the construction of an image.
Marshall McLuhan, whose influential work on media began to be published during the period in which Niccolai worked as a photographer, argued in 1964 that photography had influenced not only external behaviors and attitudes, but had also had important effects on the psyche, making the claim that the development of psychoanalysis and that of photography were connected. These arguments are particularly relevant to the ways in which Niccolai characterizes photography and its effects on her protagonist in her novel. The sensorial and psychological transformation that McLuhan describes corresponds perfectly to Ita's way of seeing, both in terms of how she views the world, and in terms of how she comes to view herself, both literally and metaphorically. Barthes also comments on the psychological implications of the technologies by which we see ourselves. As he puts it, "You are the only one who can never see yourself except as an image; you never see your eyes unless they are dulled by the gaze they rest upon the mirror or the lens ... even and especially for your own body, you are condemned to the repertoire of its images" (1977 31). This repertoire of images also allows for the possibility of meconnaissances with other images, something in which photography is deeply implicated, in Barthes's view. (16)
Il grande angolo reflects a similar concern with questions of seeing and being. Looking at herself reflected in the glass of her hospital room window, Ita reacts as though the glass surface were that of a camera lens and poses like a model from a magazine advertisement for beauty products. In so doing, she becomes simultaneously photographer, photographic subject, and spectator. Trying to get the appearance exactly right, she then undresses and looks at herself in the wardrobe mirror, wearing only a belt with an ivory letter-opener thrust into it, then wets her hair. Throughout the novel, mirrors are strongly associated with Dominguez and his death. Earlier in the novel, Ita intently watches Dominguez's reflection as he shaved (45). Niccolai describes the movements of his razor and the symmetrical patterns they form in great detail, one of the many premonitions of the manner of his death that occur in the first half of the novel. As a result, when Ita gazes into the hospital mirror, wearing only her ivory knife, and flicks her wet hair back, splashing the mirror and the black-tiled wall with water while "le gocce le cadono sulle spalle e giu per la schiena," the reader is uncomfortably reminded of Dominguez's blood splashing onto the bedroom walls and the drops of blood that marked the sheets.
Still looking at herself in the mirror, Ita makes up her eyes. Going back to the window, she again sees herself reflected there (74-75):
Appare di profilo nel vetro, vede la coscia e il ginocchio piegato. Appoggia la guancia ai ginocchio e imita l'espressione di una modella con i capelli bagnati nella fotografia pubblicitaria di una casa di prodotti di bellezza. Guardandosi dice : "Dominguez, non ricordo la tua faccia ...
Ita poses and makes herself up to look like the model as though trying on a new identity like the nineteenth-century posers Alinovi discusses. At the same time, in staring at her own changed face in the glass, she also and above all confronts the loss represented by her inability to remember the face of Dominguez. There is a complex operation that takes place here in terms of the interplay of real and metaphorical gazes. Ita's makeup and pose recall a model who represents what Laura Mulvey famously characterized in the context of cinema as a particular kind of fetishized object whose meaning lies in her "to-be-looked-at-ness" (418). Ita is the object of her own gaze, not of anyone else's, but she is within the confines of the hospital, with its systems of examination and inspection. Here both "mirror and camera are tools of self-reflection and surveillance. Each creates a double of the self, a second figure who can be examined more closely than the original--a double that can also be alienated from the self, taken away, as a photograph can be, to another place" (Lutz and Collins 365). Ita's reflection in the glass functions in these terms as an alienated version of herself, a character she assumes. The photographic allusions evoked by her reflection recall Barthes's description of photography as "a kind of primitive theater, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead" (Camera Lucida 32). Ultimately, Ita's reflected image in the mirror-like surface of the window represents a substitute object for what her gaze really and vainly desires: the image and hence the "proof" of the former existence (the "ca ete," as Barthes would have it) of her dead lover. Yet it also reflects her inability to know herself and the world around her. As Tagliafierro argues, the novel turns on Ita's vain search for both identity and meaning. This fruitless quest makes her, rather than Dominguez, "il vero personaggio tragico del libro" (62).
Ita's emulation of the model is also linked to the account a little later of a news story about the demand for art directors in Hollywood. They are apparently employed not to work in the movie industry, but to make hotels and bars look just like the famous hotels and bars shown on TV and in the movies, "posing" as the virtual, idealized versions of themselves (77). The realization of a fake reality recalls Claudio Marra's characterization of photography as a form of proto-virtual reality. He argues that the invention of new forms of virtual reality has enabled us to see that relating to a "fake" reality as though it were real (for example by kissing the photograph of a loved one, or tearing up the photograph of someone despised) is not an absurd act of ingenuousness, but rather an aesthetic act that reflects "la stimolazione, consapevole e pregnante, della sensorialita" (271). This kind of stimulation takes place repeatedly in II grande angolo, and as an aesthetic act, it challenges Barthes's notion that "From a phenomenological viewpoint, in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation." Niccolai's novel continually undermines the idea that photography necessarily possesses "an evidential force" (Camera Lucida 89).
The focus on deceptive appearances and the interplay of reflective surfaces and the tricks and deceptions of memory continue as Ita imagines herself describing to her doctor a series of incidents from her childhood in which the threat or reality of violence is present, interspersed with the description of what turns out to be her unfounded fear of sexual violence in an incident in Egypt (81-2). This unfulfilled threat of sexual violence is connected to an episode in which, as a child, she and two friends took a pair of scissors and a little box lined with pink cotton and took a little boy they knew off with them. They try to persuade him that he needs to urinate, pushing and tugging at him until he panics and runs away, at which point they panic too, throwing the box and scissors into the bushes (82). Finally, she recounts that during the war her mother was wounded in an air attack, and that when Ita went to find her in the former restaurant of a hotel that had been converted into a temporary hospital, she saw a series of grisly sights: "a uno stavano amputando una gamba con un coltello ... per terra era pieno di fogli macchiati di sangue ... una si teneva la mascella nella mano ... era attaccata alla faccia solo da una parte, con un pezzo di pelle della guancia" (83). The description of the threatened castration and the grisly image of the amputated leg and severed jaw bone that follow immediately on Ita's staging of the advertising photograph link the latter to the theme of loss and to Dominguez's grisly suicide. Although without the same horrifying effect, the fragments of marble heads and limbs laid out on the stone-cutters' work benches at Massa Carrara and the description of the little girl seen through the keyhole also echo the images of dismemberment, and suggest the fetishization of the fragment that has often been associated with photography.
Christian Metz argued that what was cut off by the photographic frame became the absent object that created a compensatory fetish: "The off-frame effect in photography results from a singular and definitive cutting off which figures castration and is figured by the 'click' of the shutter. It marks a place of irreversible absence, a place from which the look has been averted forever" (143). This notion of a literal and figurative "cutting off" is figured in the novel through Ita's gaze, which continually frames its objects as though for a photograph, and which cannot overcome the "irreversible absence" brought about by Dominguez's death.
After Ita's gruesome description of childhood and wartime horrors, she immediately recants the whole thing: "Dottore, non ho mai assistito a un'amputazione nell'ufficio grafico della Snia Viscosa, sono inattendibile, mi lasci dormire e la smetta di interrogarmi come in un film di spie" (83). The role of the camera as objective eyewitness is belied by this account of the photographer as unreliable narrator, just as the absence of descriptions of the photographs she supposedly takes undermines their status as documents of proof within the narrative economy of the novel. This throws the emphasis on both photography and narrative as processes rather than products. Niccolai's "unreliable narrator" might be thought of as a close relative of other unreliable narrators of twentieth-century Italian literature, like Italo Svevo's Zeno, or the narrator of Luigi Malerba's Il serpente, but, in Ita's case, her job as a photographer makes the disjuncture between the evidence of the eyes, the camera, and memory particularly powerful. The fact that the descriptions of these episodes and their subsequent recanting come immediately after the description of Ita posing in the window of her room and its reference to the fictions and fetishizing of advertising photography confirms the novel's questioning of notions of any kind of objectivity, photographic or otherwise.
Above all, Niccolai's novel makes use of photography not as a means in itself but rather as a process that is an integral part of the protagonist's attempts to think about and understand the world around her and the appearances and disappearances that haunt her. It is also the primary means by which she both tries and fails to find an identity for herself. Photography and a "photographic" gaze capture the surfaces of the world she inhabits and of her own body, bur fail to allow her to understand her own or anyone else's motivations or fears. She finds that stilling the world around her through photographing it cannot stop the flow of time, nor preserve her and those she loves from the threat and the reality of death. The protagonist's simultaneous fascination and frustration with photography seems to echo Niccolai's own response to the medium in the late 1960s, even as her use of photographically inflected language and themes reveals its influence on her writing. These uses of photography suggest important links between Il grande angolo and the ways in which the visual plays an unquestionably significant role in all of Niccolai's subsequent work. Studying her only novel through the lens of photography can provide important insights into a crucial and under-investigated aspect of this fascinating writer's work.
Alinovi, Francesca. "La fotografia: l'illusione della realta." Le idee della fotografia. La riflessione teorica dagli anni sessanta a oggi. Ed. Claudio Marra. Milan: Mondadori, 2001. 322-326.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
--. Roland Barthes. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1975. Trans. Richard Howard. 1st American ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.
--. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980. Trans. Linda Coverdale. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
Bazin, Andre. "The Ontology of the Photographic Image." Berkeley: University of California, 1967. Trans. Hugh Gray. Classic Essays on Photography. Ed. Alan Trachtenberg. New Haven, Conn.: Leete's Island Books, 1980. 237-44.
Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Illuminations. 1955. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1985. 217-251.
Christian Metz, "From the Imaginary Signifier." Fihn Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Ed. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. 782-302.
Creekmur, Corey K. "Lost Objects: Photography, Fiction, and Mourning." Photo-Textualities. Ed. Marsha Bryant. Newark and London: University of Delaware Press; Associated University Presses, 1996.73-82.
Eco, Umberto. "Critique of the Image." Thinking Photography. Ed. Victor Burgin. London: Macmillan Education, 1988.
Fedida, Pierre. "The Relic and the Work of Mourning." Journal of Visual Culture 2.1 (2003): 62-68.
Gilardi, Ando. Wanted! Storia, tecnica ed estetica della fotografia criminale, segnaletica e giudiziaria. Milan: Mondadori, 2003.
Goodman, Nelson. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1976.
Hill, Sarah Patricia. Unpublished Interview with Giulia Niccolai. Milan, June 2002.
--. "A Life in Translation: Giulia Niccolai." Literary Translation in New Zealand. Ed. Jean Anderson. Wellington, N.Z.: School of Asian and European Languages and Culture, 2006.
Jay, Bill. "The Photographer as Aggressor." Observations: Essays on Documentary Photography. Ed. David Featherstone. Carmel, CA: The Friends of Photography, 1984.7-23.
Krauss, Rosalind. The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985.
Lutz, Catherine and Jane Collins. "The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: The Example of National Geographic." The Photography Reader. Ed. Liz Wells. London and New York: Routledge, 1994. 354-74.
Marra, Claudio. Le idee della fotografia. La riflessione teorica dagli anni sessanta a oggi. Milan: Mondadori, 2001.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill, 1964.
Metz, Christian. "Photography and Fetish." The Photography Reader. Ed. Liz Wells. London and New York: Routledge, 2003. 138-145. (Originally published in October, 34, Fall 1985).
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Niccolai, Giulia. Il grande angolo. Milan: Feltrinelli, 1966.
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Ruby, Jay. Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995.
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Shelly Armitage, and William E. Tydeman. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1982.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. 1973. London and New York: Penguin Books, 1979.
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SARAH PATRICIA HILL
Victoria University of Wellington
(1) For a contemporary analysis and several reproductions of Niccolai's photographic work, see Turroni 64. The only other reproductions of photographs by Niccolai that I have been able to find are in the three volumes of her Borghi e citta d'Italia (Milan: Amilcare Pizzi, 1962), a delightful photographic account of some of the lesser-known Italian cities and towns with brief written sketches also by Niccolai. All Niccolai's original prints and negatives, which had been in the house she shared with Andrea Spatola, have been lost.
(2) Niccolai embraced Buddhism, eventually becoming a nun, after a serious illness in 1985.
(3) Niccolai's poetic work focuses on linguistic invention, word-play, nonsensical constructions, and surreal imagery. Much of her recent poetry takes the form of what she calls "frisbees': surprising or stimulating comments launched at the reader with the expectation that he or she seizes the words and sends them back. Although written in verse form, they do not follow precise metrical or rhythmic formulae, rather they resemble notes taken on the spot, or snapshots of moments of reality, fragments of every-day revelations. See Niccolai, Frisbees.
(4) On Niccolai's connection to the Gruppo '63 see Niccolai "Secondo incontro" and West 303. On the scarce presence of women in the neoavanguardia, see Re.
(5) On the connections between photography and loss, see for example Barthes, Roland Barthes, Barthes, Camera Lucida, Creekmur, Fedida, Rabate, and Ruby.
(6) "The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses." On the troubled question of photography's relation to "what we see", see Snyder and Allen. On the influence of photographic technology, see Rosenblum, especially Chapter 6, "New Technology, New Vision, New Users 1875-1925" (224-295) and the section "New Ways of Seeing: Images in Aid of Science" (608-615).
(7) For a detailed analysis of the implications of the variety of gazes involved in the making of Westerners' photographs of non-Westerners in "exotic" settings, see for example Lutz and Collins.
(8) This is partly related to photography's potential to distance the viewer from those photographed by turning the latter into two-dimensional objects. For more on this, see for example Metz.
(9) This connection also serves as a reminder of photography's long history as an instrument of classification and criminalization. See, for example, Gilardi.
(10) "Non ha l'ottimo artista alcun concetto / c'un marmo solo in se non circonscriva / col suo superchio, e solo a quello arriva / la manche ubbidisce all'intelletto" (Michelangelo Buonarroti, Rime 151).
(11) This recurs when Ita tells Karlheinz of Dominguez's suicide on p. 65, which is also how the reader learns of it: "Ma lo sai tu come si e suicidato Dominguez? Si e... e si e... e si e... e alla tine ha sbattuto i polsi svenati su tutti i muri della casa dipingendoli di fosso." These omissions recall Niccolai's recent move beyond the notion of writing as a form of memory or means of saving something, and emphasize the ambiguous relation of photography to the objects it ostensibly saves. See Niccolai, "Perche scrivi poesie?" 69.
(12) See for example her work on The End of the Game, a poetry performance and exhibition held in 1978 at the Louver Gallery in Venice and the University of California at Berkeley Niccolai developed with Adriano Spatola and Paul Vangelisti, part of which is reproduced in Vangelisti's Another You (1980).
(13) See for example Eco, Goodman, Krauss (especially "Notes on the Index: Part 2," 210-219), and Tagg.
(14) See Marra 278 and Sontag, On Photography.
(15) See, for example, Sontag, Regarding. This work also retracts or modifies many of the opinions she voiced in On Photography.
(16) On the question of the image repertoire, see also the 1975 interview "Twenty Key Words for Roland Barthes," in Barthes, The Grain, especially p. 209.
(17) See for example the concrete poetry of Humpty Dumpty (1969), the visual poems of Poema e oggetto (1974), the conceptual photography of Facsimile (1976) and the collaborative photographic, graphic and poetic exhibition Niccolai carried out with Paul Vangelisti and Adriano Spatola, The End of the Game (1978).
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|Author:||Hill, Sarah Patricia|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2010|
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