WAR IN THE EYES


Northern Italy 1943-45

Uncle and Niece: ROSANNA and ALBERTO ALBERTINI

HUMAN EYES AND THE EYE OF A CAMERA

A Panzer IV of the Waffen SS "Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler" division in Milan, Piazza del Duomo, immediately after the German occupation that followed the September 8, 1943 armistice

A Panzer IV of the Waffen SS “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” division in Milan, Piazza del Duomo, immediately after the German occupation that followed the September 8, 1943 armistice. (Wikipedia)

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Rosanna Albertini (niece) – I was born in the new days without war in an Italian village near Milano, and grew up with stories that nobody was able to forget so they were told over and over like an exorcism. For two years, before my living time began, the space between Milano and the Swiss border was a confused arena of bombing and killings. Large numbers of people were filling the streets, especially in Milan, manifesting collective feelings, raising their heads against military occupation and lack of jobs and food shortage.  To see the end of fascism in person was a way to become witnesses, to be sure there was an ending to bring home.

September 8, 1943, after the armistice, Milano was occupied by the German army.
April 25, 1944, under the directions of the partisan command of Northern Italy, Milan was liberated.
April 28,1945, Mussolini was arrested and killed. His collaborators had the same destiny.

I was an outcome of the war. By hope or by accident, I will never know. The doctor taking care of my mother’s pregnancy lived by the lake. Mother was eighteen. In no way our transportation could be safe: they still used horses and carts in December 1945: the horse was old, maybe the driver was drunk and the steep road toward the lake covered with ice. Despite the fact that details about the accident have been steadily hidden from me, I do know that I did do the first somersault of my life. I did not break from her body that day as the terrified members of my family expected. Christmas was approaching, I stayed warm where I was until the 28.

Alberto Albertini (my uncle) – In the early 1944, the dying regime tried to save little pockets of power. Placing blockades near the borders, for instance. Besano, our village, was four miles on a steep road up from Porto Ceresio, where the Swiss border starts, and the blockage was mid-way between the two villages. Because Besano’s city hall was in Porto Ceresio, to go to Porto we had to show a permit with identity photo. As I was the only one in the village doing photographs, I did portraits of everybody. I only saved a few of them. A curious thing: the blockage controllers were a special auxiliary police whose members, on April 25, merged into the partisan forces, as if such a decision were normal.
        The same happened with the customs officers. I was supposed to enlist with them exactly for this reason. I never did, the X hour struck. On the way home from Milan, I had to wait for the night to find a train. But I also wished for a lift from some truck. There was none. Not far from me, a bunch of young black shirts was hanging about. One of them was my age. I basically told him: ‘What a heck are you doing wearing a fascist uniform that is now against the law, when the war is lost and everything is falling apart? And the guy felt smart enough to tell me that his name was Felice Mascetti and he was happy (Felice) by name and by fact… when one has an idea! Comic and tragic facts followed. The guy was from Varese, he had tried to score with my girlfriend (I learned it when the news appeared) and died in a small fight against the partisans. The corps of fascism, already decayed, enlisted young and very young boys who might feel proud of themselves thanks to weapons and uniforms.

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Technological war-craft: making the camera for portraits.

For lack of money and tools Alberto adapted 35mm film to a 6×9 camera, borrowing parts from a cheap Ferrania.

  1. he added a plate adaptor, as if the 6×9 camera were a plate camera.
  2. made a 35mm drive in the Ferrania and a piece of wood pressing on the film to keep it in the right position.
  3. Then he made by hand a small, indented wooden spool connected to a spring, so that at every perforation he could hear a ‘tac’ while rolling the film.

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Post scriptum by RA

It is difficult to read those eyes. They drank the war darkness and maybe kept looking at the bottom of their glass. What do they bring to me, to us, in 2016? Do I see their pain because they are my tribe, from the village where I was born? Is this the same pain of all those who survived years of war? In Palestine, in Africa, in Afghanistan? Is ours a completely different time? There is a layer of photographic or filmic splendor in the war images we share  today. Even a video recently made by a Palestinian girl about life in her refugee camp in Jordan is just beautiful. Images versus reality? The homeless’ eyes around me in Los Angeles are not as desperate as my people’s. I don’t have an answer. A vague sense of real things in my guts tells me that the war eyes are still like the ones in the identity portraits made by Alberto. We don’t see them in the newspapers. Maybe we like better not to see them, to keep them out of our walls. More than ever we need artists, hands showing the real thing, creating a new visual grammar, and new words, tearing off the lies of illusions. 

The greenness of night lies on the page and goes
Down deeply in the empty glass. . .

Look, realist, not knowing what you expect.
The green falls on you as you look,

Falls on and makes and gives, even a speech.
And you think that that is what you expect,

That elemental parent, the green night,
Teaching a husky alphabet.

WALLACE STEVENS, Phosphor Reading by his Own Light – From: Parts of a World, 1942-1951
in Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, New York, Vintage Books, 1990.

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Alberto Albertini using the camera he had built for the identity portraits.