Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni, Rhome

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by MASA/FUAM (here). Hardcover, 17.5×23 cm, 148 pages, with 128 black and white reproductions. Includes an essay by David Campany, a short poem (in English/Italian) by Sebastiano Vassalli, and two inserts (one reproduction art history book page and one map). In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Deciding to make a photographic portrait of a famous city like Rome requires a certain level of artistic confidence. Like New York, Paris, and other iconic places, Rome has a long and storied photographic history, with natives and tourists alike contributing to its classic visual aura. Stepping into that existing flow of imagery in search of something new is a daunting prospect, but this is exactly what Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni have done in their recent photobook Rhome.

For this particular project, Caimi and Piccinni (who work together as an artistic duo) sit in a unique place as both insiders and outsiders – Rome is their adopted home (thus the clever insertion of the H into the photobook’s title), but not their native city, so while they live and work there, their roots are elsewhere. This one-foot-in-one-foot-out position allows them to revel in the cliches of the city, while also getting underneath those obvious traps to uncover the visual rhythms and subcultures that only a local could access or understand. In particular, they have avoided the sun-baked light of the Roman afternoon, and instead burrowed into the shadows of the night, where the city’s rawer impulses reign.

Rhome is the second in a series of Camini and Piccinni photobooks dedicated to cities (the first was Forcella, which documented life in Naples), and if this thematic approach sounds familiar, it should. Anders Petersen followed a similar logic in his City Diary, making work in Stockholm, Tokyo, and St. Petersburg; he also spent time in Rome, which took form as a standalone photobook in 2014 (reviewed here). Of course, many photographers have bounced from city to city making pictures, seeing those places with their own distinct artistic eyes, so this is nothing new; Camini and Piccinni’s photographs also have some stylistic similarities with Petersen’s work and that of other observers of urban undercurrents, like Jacob Aue Sobol and Daido Moriyama. They all follow hidden paths of nocturnal eccentricity, and are more than willing to dig into the dark, the sultry, and the feral.

Part of what sets Rhome apart from the others is that it isn’t just another flash-lit taxonomy of sex, alcohol, and youthful rebellion; while it does skip across those motifs, Camini and Piccinni’s willingness to embrace the city’s rich history of arts and antiquities gives their project a deeper layer of cultural resonance. In a sense, they are unafraid of mixing it up with Rome’s landmarks – a washed out white silhouette poses like an electrified ghost in front of the Colosseum, dark shadows haunt the steps of the Museum of Roman Civilization, a young man is locked out of Il Vittoriano by an ornate gate, and images of various stone statues (both known and unknown) are sprinkled throughout the book, their constant presence enlivened by flares of light, the playful touch of a child, or an opportune stripe of darkness. One particularly apt sculptural juxtaposition places the looming figure of St. Paul with his broken sword behind the flash lit hood ornament of a Rolls Royce, mixing old and new Rome in one image. Add to this intermittent glances across paintings, gods, saints, shrines, and formal gardens, and the idea of ancient Rome coexisting within the modern metropolis comes through strongly.

Not surprisingly, the night brings out some of Rome’s more extreme characters, and Caimi and Piccinni’s portraits often get up close. Open mouths (in ecstasy, laughter, and vamping) are a repeated theme, starting with the endpapers of Rhome which place the pages of the book within a toothy void. For the older members of the crowd, Caimi and Piccinni’s high contrast black and white approach turns wrinkled or stubbled skin into rough craggy texture, while younger subjects stare with bulging eyes, hide their faces in their hands, look away with cool swagger, or revel in their leather, their piercings, and their spooky makeup. The Roman night seems to have room for all, including those who lick the fogged glass in a fur hat or peek from behind jungle leaves, and while the elder generation has seen it all before, they’re still enjoying the spectacle.

Erotic Rome also comes to life after dark, and there are plenty of nudes to be discovered in the pages of Rhome. Often these nudes take the form of hotel room encounters, where bodies are blurred or exposed, depending on the desires of the participants. Lingerie, costumes, and fetish garb allude to a range of tastes, but many couplings seem to follow the age old patterns of passion and haste. Caimi and Piccinni then use anatomical models and skeletons to bring a darker tone to the parade of bodies, and go on to amplify the sense of wildness with various images of animals (including skulls and taxidermy). Cats screech, dogs wander and prowl, goats ramble through the streets, predatory hawks squawk from above, alligators lurk in the water, and insects dot the sidewalks, the animal kingdom seemingly just as untamed and unruly as that of the humans.

Caimi and Piccinni have done a thoughtful job with the sequencing of Rhome, creating a number of smart pairings across the spreads. A hand adjusting candles in front of a landscape painting is matched with a flash lit image of nighttime trees, the verticals in both pictures creating an echo. A stone statue of a saintly woman holds a real flowering branch, which is placed with a tree of a similar shape and petal pattern between two doors, like a choice. A man suavely smoking a cigarette is paired with another statue, seen from behind with a swoop of carved hair that echoes his own. And a man’s arms wrap a nude woman and her striking gaze, while nearby another man’s arms grab the neck of a stone egret, both pictures enlivened by tangled, twisted limbs. Rhome is filled with these kinds of visual connections, making the overall flow feel neatly interlocked, each piece related to the larger whole.

The design and construction of the photobook do an excellent job of highlighting these pairings and resonances. Beyond the bold mouth endpapers and the central Rome/Home duality, other features include a map of Rome at the center fold, a reproduction page from an art history book near the beginning (and end) providing a physical reminder of the outer layer of history, and a few transparent black pages interspersed through the flow veiling certain images and creating delays in the page turns. The images themselves are bordered by areas of white, but the reproductions feel large given the size of the book itself, creating a sense of intensity and action.

Rhome succeeds because it merges brashness with understated and affectionate respect. Caimi and Piccinni take us on a tour of the freakish and the unconventional in nocturnal Rome, but then frame those discoveries within the sweep of the ancient city. Their conclusion is that it all belongs, and that the conflicted mix of old and new brings vitality to their adopted hometown. In this way, Rhome is like a valentine, a visual love letter to all the chaos and contradiction that make contemporary Rome much more than just a pile of ancient ruins.

Collector’s POV: Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni do not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artists via their website (linked in the sidebar).

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Read more about: Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni, FUAM (Instanbul Photobook Festival)

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