Mario Isnenghi

The Ossified Mountain

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In Italy’s collective imaginings of the First World War, a vital legacy of that conflict, there are a mountain and a human face to the fighting in the mountains, epitomized by the Alpine Division. As with other legends, only more so, both the reality and the legend of the Alpine Division are based on real circumstances. It is true, in fact, that a peak such as Mount Ortigara was drenched in blood – the blood of the Alpine Division – but you were considered lucky if you got sent to Carnia in the Friulian Alps, or to defend any front lines up in the mountains, instead of being slaughtered on the Karst Plateau behind Trieste. The latter was an anonymous death, perfectly consistent with the depersonalization of mass machine warfare, while the war waged by the Alpine Division had a name for everything: individuals, regions, valleys or quotas.
Even the battalions have names and not just numbers. And dialects as well: soldiers recruited and assembled differently from the rest of the infantry to which they formally belonged, that is, according to territorial divisions, not national. Could this explain a wealth of narratives and memoirs of remarkable quality that puts all the other branches of the army to shame? Just a handful of regiments and a few dozen battalions – twenty or thirty thousand men in all – yet you’d think from the bibliography that the Italian army was dominated by the Alpine Division. Con me e con gli alpini, by Piero Jahier (1919), Scarpe al sole, by Paolo Monelli (1921), followed by the film of the same name by Marco Elter fifteen years later: these would form the pillars of that resurgence and resilience of the collective imagination, leavened with folklore by the National Alpini Association – the liveliest and longest-lasting of all the military associations – which met periodically in different places; and through these works the generations to follow would meet and bond, even those who never experienced war, a majority of whom never read a book.

Are these tamed, humanized mountains the ones we see in Luca Campigotto’s enigmatic peaks and masses? Not in the least. They don’t even come close. His peaks are completely different from the mountains that resound with song, and are also strangers to the refuges, even the highest and most authentic of them, their sociability, for city people out on hikes, long dependent on those songs presumed to be folk songs, intimately linked to the war of 1915-18, although purged of their cruder, more veracious aspects. No, in the jagged, traumatized horizons of Campigotto’s mountainscapes, not a song is to be heard from the rocky spires that dominate the scene. No sound in his images, and no “colour” either.
An analogy comes to mind. There is a grand historical precedent for this photography exhibition from the summer of 2013, in the person of Luca Comerio, a photographer and early filmmaker to remember, who immortalized Mount Adamello and other high peaks. The comparison makes sense as far as the sheer technique of their visions is concerned, yet, once again, the approach and the scale are different. Comerio shoots snow, and the snow preserves the grandeur but softens the edges; plus there are human figures – the Alpine Division, that is – who push cannons up impossibly steep inclines, who struggle against nature and ultimately ‘outdo’ it. Campigotto’s high-altitude mountains see no snow, their bony, craggy skeletons are thus exposed to the elements; above all, they are bereft of human presence. Metaphysics for mountains: are they deserted or desertified? Not a living soul in sight, and not even a corpse. We understand that men had been there. In some indefinite, suspended era – which we know, for other reasons, was a hundred years ago – certain remote presences have left traces, and debris, of their own transit on the land. Disactivated memory: man was here, but no longer. He left his mark on tunnels, windows cut into the rock face, stairs, emplacements, and partially erased mule trails. Then he left.
Beneath the tortured rock face, or clinging to it, no weapons remain. The holes in the rock have no meaning we can perceive. Reasons and purposes, sounds and gestures: then nothing. It’s up to us, if we should care, to match the visual information with a wealth of non-visual information, like the time and place, the hows and whys. Or else we can leave the natural landscape to its primordial immobility regained. If our aim is to document a specific historical trend, it’s clear that the tunnels dug by Italy’s army corps of engineers fit the bill. There being a few rare cases of extant signatures that allow us to nail down exactly when they were dug, and which divisions were involved, the tunnels come along with ruined forts and military apparatus, and concrete and landfill materials, all of which to blend in with the rocky surfaces, and some of which swallowed up entirely. If, however, the eye of the camera is to provide a freer and more independent investigation, then well over half of these images will do: no effort having been made to include those ruins and remote signs of man’s passage, or make them visible. Here a broken landscape of towers, peaks and pinnacles monopolizes the stage, sufficient unto itself. Everything is jagged and dissonant. From the viewer’s vantage point, ridges, vertical lines and slashing diagonals plunge headlong into the image. There will be those who try to label the places shown, but it’s not strictly necessary to have a good visual memory and be able to pick out the various mounts Cinque Torri, Lagazuoi, Sass de Stria, Pal Piccolo, Sabotino or Cengio, whose names alone summon up crowded sequences of events for a scene the artist chooses to leave empty.
Little in the way of verdant meadows here, even in the Altopiano (highlands), since this is hardly the thousand-metre-high, idyllic Asiago plateau, but the two-thousand-metre Karst area over Trieste, rocky and bone-dry. We are at seriously high altitudes, with a whole world below us that we can’t see, since Campigotto does not indulge in panoramic valley views. Valleys are left outside our field of vision. We go higher and higher, well above the tree line; there are no villages, not even dimly on the horizon; no gushing springs, no huts, no sheep grazing; no tiny Alpine churches, and just one silhouette of a ruined, crooked cross. Any and all idyllic elements are banned. Postcard-perfect blue skies and sunsets? All is drama here: motionless, ossified drama, with the rock-strewn foregrounds, middle grounds and backgrounds, and the skies, at least, in motion at dusk, with clusters of huge storm clouds on the move. All this is by choice, obviously. It’s the artist’s signature style. Sturm und Drang? With a double meaning, however: the looming immobility, the pose of the rocks – dynamized by their jagged, pointed profiles – and the heaving of the billowing clouds. All darkened, quite often, by the use of filters and varying shades of grey or black.

The choice of this raw, dramatic register reveals the photographer’s design. Unburdened by a documentarian’s preconceptions, Campigotto has clearly chosen to take his pictures on the days, and at the times of day, that best matched his masterful tale of war, a century after the war. We know that all those nameless, invisible men in uniform (who were they?) who dug their shelters and trenches one hundred years ago also lived by the light of day and had good days, with no action, when they scrutinized the horizon for villages, or studied spirals of smoke, or heard far-off church bells or sheep bells. They certainly wondered if they would “meet again at the chalet,” like the Alpine soldier in The Sergeant in the Snow, another war-time classic about the Alpine Division by Mario Rigoni Stern, the imagery and ideographs of which exhibited full continuity with the First World War, although set in the Second. Reworking and rehashing a field diary of the soldiers’ days for the umpteenth time, adding in the popular idea of a canon of solidarity and all the other stereotypes about the war accumulated over the course of an entire century, was obviously not what the creator of this great visual narrative had in mind. Not the soldiers’ daily lives, to compel and inspire viewers, nor a re-evocation of the lives of the men who passed through this scene, but the slow, immobile rhythms of nature, that awe-inspiring nature that we can imagine the photographer silently approaching, striving to select a vantage point that suits the large open spaces and freeze it forever, filling the absence of a temporal dimension with the click of his camera.

 

Essay for the book Theatres of War, Silvana, Milan 2014

copyright © 2013 Luca Campigotto

Luca Campigotto