When I close my eyes to conjure a vision of the most sublime Italian scene I can muster – often in deepest, greyest winter, when it feels furthest from my reality – what comes instantly to mind is not my favourite beach or my childhood home, nor the glorious island on which I have spent endless, happy summers. Neither is it, strangely enough, any place I have ever been before. What – or rather, who – comes inevitably to mind, is Slim Aarons: the American photographer, who over many decades, captured Italy’s most glamorous people and places.
Whether we realise it or not, this photographer’s unique vision of Italy has become so ingrained in our collective imagination that it is almost impossible to separate his images from our concept of la dolce vita. Flicking through coffee table books and fashionable travel features in glossy magazines, or even just scrolling through Instagram, Slim Aarons’ photographs are everywhere. You may not know his name, but you almost certainly know his images. And, unsurprisingly, the majority of the most famous ones were taken in our very own Bel Paese.
‘Attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places’
Slim Aarons famously coined this phrase when describing his work. No wonder, then, that he was so drawn to Italy, and spent many years there. Having worked as a combat photojournalist during World War II, he vowed never to photograph such horrors again – “the only beach I am interested in landing on is one decorated with beautiful, seminude girls tanning in a tranquil sun.” Instead, he turned his hand to photographing the decadent lives of high society, their stunning homes and leisurely pursuits. But almost as soon as Italy reopened its borders and life in Europe began to glitter again, Aarons relocated to Rome, swapping American socialites for European aristocrats and royalty.
For someone innately drawn to beauty, elegance and excess, Italy was – and still is – the dream subject. Where else boasts so many natural wonders, fantastic vistas, glorious beaches and sprawling fields alongside ancient ruins, iconic villas and modern architectural marvels?
All this formed the perfect backdrop for Aaron’s fabulous subjects: Gore Vidal climbing the steps to his villa in Ravello, model Bettina Graziani towing her sailboat to shore in Sardinia, Virna Lisi on the Costa Smeralda, actress Laura Hawk in Paestum, Principessa Antonella d’Avalos in her Neapolitan Palazzo, Dolores Guinness outside Cala di Volpe, Prince Karim Aga Khan in Sardinia… The list goes glamorously on.
Most distinctively, however, Aarons so often chose Italy herself as his subject matter, something which he rarely did elsewhere. In his most recognisable images, the people are secondary, fading into the beauty of Italy’s scenery and evocative summer scenes – lavish fish and pasta feasts by the sea, slick speed boats coming to shore along the rugged coast, bathing beauties perched precariously on sun-drenched rocks, colourful sun-beds dotting the beach and terraces that seem to float in the sky above an expanse of deep blue.
Aarons’ photographs also provide a glittering glimpse into Italy’s most exclusive villas, private properties, fashionable resorts and renowned beach clubs – the settings for innumerable parties during the sixties, seventies and eighties, displaying extravagance of Great Gatsby proportions.
For those chasing this ‘golden era’ of Italian lifestyle, such scenes are not beyond reach. Hotels that Aarons loved to photograph, such as Il Pellicano in Porto Ercole, Capri’s Punta Tragara, Lake Como’s Villa d’Este, Il San Pietro di Positano and Excelsior Venice Lido, remain largely unchanged, but for a few modern updates to keep them at the height of luxury. In fact, they are arguably more fashionable now than they were then – largely thanks to Aarons, whose photographs immortalised the lifestyle they still represent.
The places themselves might be inaccessible to most of us, and the people pictured might be some of the wealthiest and most privileged in the world – but what Aarons captured is something we can all experience: la dolce vita, the art of living well. Simplicity and magic all in one. Pure benessere – which in its essence, is the same whether enjoyed from a luxurious villa above Capri, or with a sandwich on the rocks down below.
Slim Aarons’ photographs are the stuff of daydreams – but for anyone visiting Italy, they become a reality.