A Rome Suburbs Pilgrimage



a photobook by Michael Wernli, preface by Daniela Maurizi

A reportage in the emptied urban spaces of the northern suburbs of Rome shot during the 2020 lock-down

Selected by publisher Crowdbooks for an ongoing crowdfunding campaign

Rome. Lock down. The clock stops for seventy days, and every glance is confined within the limits of a courtyard, a terrace, a window. From that moment on, the desire to look beyond the enforced boundaries almost becomes an act of rebellion, the act of possession of the denied urban space, with the complicity of photography. And the everyday imperative of the soul: “GETTING OUT” becomes an obsession.

Getting out. Trying to see to photograph and to photograph to see, hanging on a camera as if it were an oxygen mask, to find oneself in an alien world, no longer habitual, no longer habitable.
This is how the author was initially driven, day in day out, to roam alone in the northen suburbs
of Rome, stealing with the eye bits of the forbidden city, to record this quite uncommon and disorienting scenery which let itself be photographed and looked at as never before.

Indeed, what had changed in these days was not only the scenery, but the way you looked at it, as if for the first time, freed from the schemes of previous memories, with a full presence of mind, body and soul. And in that motionless silence of emptiness, which rekindles the sharpness of senses, you could return to photographing the reality of the urban fact for what it was, in its true and strongly objective evidence, just for a moment overcoming the neverending split between observer and observed object.

And then, the habit of seeing poetry in the harsh reality, and of telling it, gradually took over during postproduction. That observer, who had let himslef be a humble instrument in grasping reality, turned back to building his narrative plot of free association. This is how the eight chapters of the book were created, as sequences of frames gathered following a fully human horizon of meaning: transits, duels, ruins, messages, relics, still lives, incursions, matters.

And internally, a further segregation by couples of dialoguing pictures - left vs. right page, alternatively following an ironic, symbolic, chromatic or formal tone.

This is the origin of the tale of a town without men. A seemingly dead town, which after the first shock of depopulation goes back to breathing on its own, beginning to dilaogue with a surviving photograph in a surreal, dreamlike exchange. A town which for the first time talks of itself and of its own body: surfaces, skeletons, circulatory systems, and everyday objects echoing the human in his absence.

A world of things which go back to being absolute masters of the field, almost lively presences. Except for relics abandoned with violent indifference by man, or by the insitutions themselves, attesting the death of things and civilisation. But soon, condemnation gives way to poetic rapture, and among these banal, degraded, discarded, worn out objects, one gradually uncovers small treasures, fleeting details, at times surprising, which lead the observer into a dimension of magic realism.

We thus find out a strangely inhabited extra ordinary reality: that linked to the life of the hypogeal  town, crawling with pipes which emerge as invaders from the underground (Incursions); weird voluntary or random aggregations of common objects, created out of necessity or for mere decoration, which reveal the pop-kitsch side of existence (Still lives); material surfaces exposed to the action of man and time, which seem to hoodwink the most cultured abstract-informal art (Matters); abandoned objects which become traces of the living with a shy reference to the poetry of the objet trouvé (Relics);

signals, plots of communication codes which no longer talk to anyone, reduced as they are to mere abstract signs or surreal admonitions cast into the void, with no recipients (Messages); places and artifacts subject to the degradation of abandonment and to the disruptive blows of nature and time (Ruins); paths, guidelines of presumed or planned routes, perspectives in search of a new horizon of feeling (Transits); fictional wrestlers from antagonist worlds who face up, in a game of specularity or in deadly hugs, in that eternal fight between artifice and nature (Duels).

This and more is what Michael Wernli's photos tell us, shot as they were during the 2020 Italian lock down period in the Primavalle and Monte Mario suburbs of Rome. And they also remind us that being able to see is the conquest, or reconquest, of an often unaccessible reality, masked or hidden as it is behind a surrogate vitality. But just take a walk among these pages to reignite the desire to get back to seeing beyond the already seen and enter into a relationship with the world, where degradation embraces hope, where the object becomes presence, where all things talk of themselves.

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