Andrea Alessandrini, Piccola Russia

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Witty Books (here). Softcover, 11 x 19 cm, 96 pages, with 55 color reproductions. Includes a text by the artist and Gaia Vendettuoli (in English/Italian) and a short quote by Italo Calvino (in English/Italian). In an edition of 500 copies. Design by Antonio Xoubanova. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The success of photography projects focused on a single neighborhood is often tied to how well they understand, and take into account, the rich history of the place. For an outsider, a neighborhood is simply a series of novel surfaces; but for an insider, those same surfaces represent resonant aspects of family, memory, personal experience, and the gradual passing of time across generations. Only a local can know that today’s wall, or vacant lot, or falling down house was once something else, and then tie that knowledge into capturing the changing rhythms of life in that very specific location.

Andrea Alessandrini’s photobook Piccola Russia sets its roots in the neighborhood of Valle Aurelia, just west of Vatican City in Rome. Its ancient clay deposits once formed the basis of a thriving brick production district, with sooty kilns tempering what became the building blocks of the wider city. The kilns soon attracted a small workers’ village, which was later engulfed by the growth of Rome. In more modern times, those same blackened kilns closed up, and as the workers and their families drifted away, much of the old village was bulldozed to make room for apartment blocks; in recent years, the redevelopment has continued, with more bulldozers making room for a new commercial district, to be filled with shops, restaurants, and a supermarket. The unlikely nickname of the neighborhood (and Alessandrini’s book) comes from a speech by Lenin, who apparently once found the valley to be a model for communal life.

Many of Alessandrini’s photographs of contemporary Valle Aurelia allude to its past. Images of heaping piles of sandy soil, stacks of bricks, boarded up kilns, and aging brickwork covered with vines connect back to the old village’s primary industry, and other pictures of horses (both living and stone), dirt pathways, low tile-roofed houses, and the now dried-up public water fountain provide more visual clues to the old ways of life still visible amid the bustle of modernity.

Alessandrini actively uses shadow and light to tell his stories, particularly when making images of the residents of Valle Aurelia. The book opens with a series of four portraits of older residents, each caught by the brightness of the morning (or perhaps more metaphorically, the modern city), to the point that it makes them squint, cough, and shield their eyes. He goes on to veil a range of passersby in dark shadow – exposing just feet or legs, creating doubled silhouettes, and blocking their eyes with bands of darkness – and whether we see the locals as blindfolded, hidden, or stalked by their own history depends on just how metaphorical we allow the shadows to become. Other images reverse this effect, discovering unexpected triangles of light, areas of brightness, and flares of afternoon sun, seemingly pushing back against the encroachment of the darkness and setting up a visual battle for the soul of the neighborhood.

When Alessandrini turns his camera to the more modern details of life in Valle Aurelia, most of the time he finds hard surfaces, rough concrete walls, and severe angles that redirect the old rhythms. These stairways, walls, and building entrances are sleek and clean, but empty of life and energy; mostly, there are no people lingering around, and when people do show up in Alessandrini’s pictures of these kinds of places, they inevitably look bored, anxious, awkward, or vaguely out of place. The same might be said for the dome of St. Peters which peeks out above a parade of dull apartment blocks – this new world doesn’t have much patience for the old. And the book ends with a series of images of a man trying to scale a shiny steel security fence, his efforts in vain as he seems to slip off the edge of the page, grasping at air.

The design of Piccola Russia is particularly inspired. Its diminutive size (see the comparison image with my hand) forces the viewer into an intimate exchange, and the accompanying text is spread out across the bottom of the pages (with some of the words enlarged), pulling the narrative along from page turn to page turn, almost like a poem. Bold graphic elements on the cover, red page edges, and large page numbers unusually placed at the top the pages provide further visual interest, with an echo of Constructivist styling, and whole package feels like a well-integrated art object.

Piccola Russia ends with an evocation of fresh bread, the smell and taste of warm loaves just out of the ovens providing a consistent symbol of life in the village. Earlier in the book, Alessandrini had offered us an image of a flaking Christian statue, with the child’s open arms filled with a loaf of bread, so the final note feels comfortingly unchanging. Sadly, at least from Alessandrini’s perspective, the modern changes that continue to take place in the valley are akin to the staling of that traditional crusty bread, the city becoming “hard and inedible”. This strain of resigned pessimism runs throughout this well made photobook, asking us to observe more closely the tradeoffs between old and new.

Collector’s POV: Andrea Alessandrini does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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