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La Lunga Strada di Sabbia: Pasolini and Di Paolo’s Summer of ‘59

“Pasolini and Di Paolo captured the beginnings of Italy as we now know it: a country of sunshine, relaxation, and infinite colour.”

 

It is the summer of 1959, and two young men set off from Ventimiglia in a Fiat Millecento, ready to embark on a long and sandy journey across the Italian Peninsula. 

 

One is an ambitious 37-year-old writerstill oblivious to the fact that he will be considered one of Italy’s great cultural icons one daywho has big dreams of becoming a film director. The other is a skilful 35-year-old photojournalist whose images have featured in a number of respected publications such as Il Mondo and Tempo. The young men, who do not know each other very well, are Pier Paolo Pasolini and Paolo Di Paolo, commissioned to work together on a report about the Italian summer holidays for Successo magazine. With nothing but mutual respect for each other’s intellect, the two set off from the French-Italian border on an adventure that would later come to be known as La Lunga Strada di Sabbia (The Long Sandy Road).

 

Pasolini’s instantly recognisable, lyrical tone sets the scene for the three month venture that lies ahead:

“Border, June. The sun sets over France and Italy. A pile of rocks and shrubs, unique: a pile of earth with peaks, coves, ripples. Down below is the Coty villa, a small yellow villa with a lush garden around it. Pinkish vapour, smoking in columns from above, further fuses this block of coastline.”

 

Almost immediately, we are transported to the pair’s dreamlike surroundings. Pasolini’s vivid prose and Di Paolo’s candid photographs tell the story of Italians enjoying their holidays in true dolce vita style, a result of the country’s recent economic boom. Between 1958 to 1963, Italy’s unprecedented economic growth transformed the country into an industrialised, prosperous state, and the shift was so drastic, it was dubbed a “miracle.” Di Paolo’s images depict ordinary Italian citizens lounging by the seaside, their sun-soaked, glistening skin symbolic of the post-war era and the nation’s newfound appreciation for leisure. From the Tyrrhenian to the Adriatic seas, Ventimiglia to Ostia, Calabria to Sicily and Puglian Santa Maria di Leuca to Trieste, the writer and photographer captured it all. 

 

Many of Di Paolo’s black-and-white photographs masterfully capture what was perhaps one of the most extraordinary transformations to take place in post-war Italy: the birth of the women’s liberation movement. For years on end, Fascist propaganda had painted a fiercely negative picture of the modern Italian woman. Women were told that their place in society was limited to the domestic sphere, and were actively discouraged from pursuing careers, following fashion trends, or moving to large cities. The women in Di Paolo’s images, however, are undeniably free-spirited, revealing Italy’s radical shift in values. In one image, four young women are pictured on the beach of the popular Tuscan seaside town Forte Dei Marmi, their feet bare against the cool evening sand. Undeniably a beautiful bunch, the women don the iconic pareo (sarong) in a popular style that became fashionable in the mid to late 50s in which the pareo is loosely tied at the nape of one’s neck, instantly turning into a casual yet stylish summer dress. 

 

In another photograph, the actor Walter Chiari is pictured standing next to four women on Fregene Beach, a trendy summer destination frequented by Romans due to its proximity to the city’s historic centre. The carefree group is captured enjoying a moment of pure, sweet idlenessalso known as il dolce far niente, or the refined Italian art of doing absolutely nothing. Chiari smiles flirtatiously at the sun-kissed women, who wear strappy, chic bikini tops that are barely distinguishable from those women wear today. 

 

Only 12 years prior, the first official bikini had been introduced at a poolside fashion event in Paris. Unsurprisingly, the revealing suit caused absolute mayhem and was immediately banned in Italy for indecency. But with economic prosperity came the influx of mass media, and soon enough, swimwear went from functional to fashionable. The modern bikini as we know it, previously considered something only strippers or showgirls could wear, had finally gone mainstream—and its popularity meant that the patriarchy could do very little about it.

 

Pasolini and Di Paolo’s report captured a nation changing at cosmic speed. Yet change is almost always followed by resistance, and Italy was no exception. Although the country was decidedly in the process of forming a more cohesive cultural entity, regional identity still persevered, and many Italians considered themselves patriotic citizens of their own town or city before they did a unified Italy. 

 

One of Di Paolo’s images, La Prima Volta Al Mare, captures a scene that couldn’t be more different from those of emancipated men and women in skimpy swimwear, basking in the heat of summer. A young boy stands beside a middle-aged man and an elderly woman, staring out at sea. Despite the hot weather, the woman is covered from head to toe in black, —an indication that she is from a provincial village—where the concept of sunbathing, especially for women, was still nonexistent. The scene is reminiscent of an entirely different era in Italy’s history, one of poverty and conservative ideals. While half the country was embracing modernity, the other (poorer) half was being left behind. And in 1959, the tension between Italy’s glamorous, increasingly metropolitan cities and the hardship that still plagued its provinces couldn’t have been more apparent. 

 

This polarity was just as evident in Pasolini and Di Paolo’s complex relationship, which was just as fruitful as it was fragile. With almost every artistic collaboration comes conflict, and this one was no different. Although the pair shared a passion for both philosophy and art, they quickly discovered that each had a very different creative vision for the project they’d been assigned. Pasolini was blatantly Marxist, traditional and critical of the consumerism brought on by Italy’s flourishing economy. He interpreted his country’s recent prosperity as “moral corruption masquerading as freedom” and was adamant that the report should avoid cliché at all costs, focusing instead on Italy’s rich cultural heritage—or, in other words—its past

 

On the other hand, it was precisely Italy’s dramatic move towards modernity that Di Paolo wanted to document. “Pasolini was looking for a lost world of literary ghosts, an Italy that no longer existed,” recalls Di Paolo. “I was looking for an Italy that looked to the future.” The photographs “must be understood in relation to a new era, a society that was being transformed,” Di Paolo continues. “Italy had embarked upon a new Renaissance in form and spirit after 20 years of utter darkness. The strength and enthusiasm that motivated us young people was overwhelming: our happiness was intoxicating.” Despite Pasolini and Di Paolo’s obvious differences, they continued their endeavour with empathy and respect, forging an unassuming friendship based on mutual trust and admiration. The result is a delicate equilibrium of contrasting ideas, symbolic of a nuanced country full of contradictions, but also of immeasurable beauty. 

 

La Lunga Strada di Sabbia is a nostalgic, intimate snapshot of a nation that had only just begun morphing into the vibrant place it is today. By tracing the conflicting aspects of a society that was finally recovering from the misery and stupor of wartime, Pasolini and Di Paolo captured the beginnings of Italy as we now know it: a country of sunshine, relaxation, and infinite colour.

1959 © Archivio Fotografico Paolo Di Paolo