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'Fotografe!' Women photographers at Forte Belvedere: An interview with exhibition co-curator

An interview with Emanuela Sesti. 'Fotografe! Women photographers: Alinari Archives and Contemporary Perspectives' is on show at Villa Bardini and Forte Belvedere in Florence (June 18 to October 2, 2022). This interview, featured in Restoration Conversations Magazine spotlights the exhibition from the co-curator's viewpoint.

Fotografe! at Forte Belvedere

Ready, set... research

“The archives were our starting point for this exhibition. Through research, we first sought to understand the Alinari archives, from the early twentieth century onwards. Initially, we extrapolated three photographers whose archives are of particular interest: Wanda and Marion Wulz and Edith Arnaldi. Their collections contain vintage prints, and a wealth of other documents, including negatives, that need further study. The Wulz archive had been worked on, manipulated, and even compromised, but our job has been to rediscover their negatives, and see which match our vintage prints. We are also trying to differentiate between the works of Wanda and those of Marion, as the sisters often worked in tandem.

Nothing had ever been done with Edith Arnaldi’s archive, and there are nearly 10,000 negatives in the collection, so you can imagine the job of analysing them, one photogram at a time, and finding which ones are the most significant. Simply looking at the negative is not enough; we’ve done a first round of digitalisation, so we can now see her images, as if on a loop, in order to scrutinise every picture properly. This is the first stage of a larger project, initiated thanks to a development grant by Calliope Arts, and the idea is to press forward, after displaying our exhibition’s sampling of photographs. Digitalisation is a key part of the process. The archive is enriched by becoming accessible.”

Edith Arnaldi-Rosa Rosà (Vienna 1884-Rome 1978), Waterbearer, Ciociaria, Alinari Archives

A rising star on new horizons

“Edith Arnaldi was this show’s rediscovery, because her forgotten photographic oeuvre is being reclaimed. Arnaldi was recognised as an artist and illustrator, and we now know that she often used photography when creating her illustrations. In fact, this year, her art is on show at the Venice Biennale. Lisa Hanstein has conducted an interesting photographic study of Arnaldi; research into her negatives and handwritten notes suggests that her photographs from 1930 to 1934 are particularly significant. She immortalises the landscape and culture of several Italian regions – mostly in the south – Lazio, Abruzzi and Puglia. Hers was an anthropological and ethnographic study, and her subjects were mostly women.

Arnaldi focussed on people at work, and on their religious practices, as can be seen in her photographs of processions. Her copious archive suggests that she had fully-fledged projects in mind, but we don’t know what purpose they might have served, because her diaries have been lost. She was also a traveller, who journeyed to several countries in Europe, and even Northern Africa in the early 1930s, and then to Somalia in 1950 and 1952. We are starting to realise that she was a pioneering photographer in the post-war period, a precursor of neo-realism, and her work in the show is of great interest.”

Co-curator Emanuela Sesti at work at Forte Belvedere

Reflections of the self

“The Wulz sisters already enjoy a degree of renown, especially Wanda, due to her ties with the Futurist movement and the fact that her works received high praise from Marinetti. Marion preferred to stay in the shadows, but the two sisters worked together, and their constant game of creating self-portraits and portraits of each other makes for a fascinating study – a few new instances have emerged, and many of their photographs are on view in the show. Self-portraiture and portraiture have always been well loved among women, yet I don’t mean to suggest that this genre choice is entirely gender-based.

However, in the show, you’ll find contemporary photographers are drawn to it as well, although they seldom depict famous people – as was common in the 1900s. They look instead to the anonymous and unknown subject, and portraiture takes on a dimension linked to social research. One noteworthy segment of the show, in Villa Bardini, is called the ‘Social Portrait’ with works by Myriam Meloni, Arianna Arcara, and even Dorothea Lange, to name a few.

Arcara is not looking for illustrious faces, she looks for people outside the public sphere, casting aside glamour shots or those linked to more classic cannons. Sofia Uslenghi looks at metamorphosis, where she is transforming, in a series of black and white photos, in which she strongly identifies with nature. The same is true for Belli, who spotlights nature, through a game she plays with the lens, where she can rediscover and re-find herself.

The show takes us on a journey through two venues; it begins at Villa Bardini and ends up in Forte Belvedere. Villa Bardini starts with pioneering women, and that segment of the show goes as far as 1950. At Forte Belvedere, we see some shots from the 1950s and 1960s and into the contemporary, but that venue’s starting point is actually a 1970 photographic sequence by Diane Arbus. Her photographs are emblematic, and her albino sword-eater is especially noteworthy, with her head thrown back so that we cannot see her face. Like several of the photographers on show, she works with the human figure, and its more hidden side, the side we don’t always see.”

The exhibition is presented and promoted by the Alinari Foundation for Photography and the

Fondazione CR Firenze, in collaboration with the Municipality of Florence, with Calliope Arts as donor, in support of the Wulz sisters/ Arnaldi rooms.


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