Pietro Donzelli

A Moment for Eternity

Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica – these are the major protagonists of Italian “Neorealismo” – and all opted for film to express their view of life. As a response to the Fascist propaganda of the 1940s, the directors highlighted human suffering under Mussolini as well as the consequences of the German occupation in the North and the allied occupation in the South. Their work focused firmly on the Italian people and how they were suppressed.

In his black-and-white photographs, Pietro Donzelli likewise concentrates on simple people. As a young soldier, he traveled the length of Italy in 1944, the last year of the War. His fellow countrymen and the world they lived in made an indelible impression on him, and after the War he decided to go back on the road and capture what he had experienced using a Rolleiflex. He then worked for decades as a documentary photographer for a major Italian electricity company; and during his vacations he visited and photographed provincial Italy and its inhabitants, traveling to Calabria, Sardinia, Sicily, not to mention big cities such as Milan and Naples. His photos from the 1950s and 1960s are a document to post-War Italy – and thus pin-point a country caught between tradition and the upheaval of Modernity. Pietro Donzelli’s images present pre-industrial life and work: people on ox-drawn carts, in fishermen’s boats, on haycarts. In his famous series of photographs from the plains of the Po he offers us the beauty of largely untouched nature and the arduous existence people eke out there. As a whole, his oeuvre constitutes a wide-ranging panorama of a country in which new ways of life were emerging – while older traditions fought to assert themselves.

Pietro Donzelli’s work remained closely allied to film. His black-and-white images seem to be stills culled from film scenes and whetting our appetite for more. Inspired by the poetic-realistic works of French filmmakers, and primarily by Jean Renoir, he explored photography’s potential for exploiting light. It is fair to say that he became a master in artistically contrasting brightness and darkness, while incorporating painterly gray tones. His images are as poetic as they are sensitive, attesting to Donzelli’s talent for capturing the right moment for all eternity. Even if a fixed image was his medium first and foremost, Pietro Donzelli manages to use it to tell an entire story.

Biographical information

1915

born in Monte Carlo

1918

his family moves to Milan

1931–1939

archivist at the national telephone company, organizer of the phototheque, attends a course in architecture at the Scuola degli Artefici di Brera, Milan

1946

becomes a member of the Circolo Fotografico Milanese

1947

founds the magazine Fotografia together with Ezio Croci and Piero Di Blasi, organizes important exhibitions of Italian and international photographers

1950

is one of the initial founders of the Unione Fotografica

1951

organizes the exhibition Mostra della Fotografia Europea 1951 at Palazzo di Brera, Milan

1954

publishes Fotografi Italiani together with Luigi Veronesi

1957–63

editor/co-director of Popular Photography in Italy

1998

dies near Milan