Rediscover the magic of rituals in southern Italy

In his job, Parallel EyesItalian photographer Alessia Rollo embarks on a journey mapping the origins of ancient southern rites, reintroducing the long-neglected magic of rituals and documenting them in a way that highlights the collective spirit of the community rather than the focussed aspects profit from their performance.

When she realized that the work of photographers from southern Italy rarely appeared in photography books about southern Italy, photographer Alessia Rollo launched a research project with two burning questions: who represented the south ? And what stories were featured?

“There was a depiction of Southern social and cultural life categorized by rationalism and positivism that didn’t fit with what I remembered and the entire Southern cultural and social system,” Rollo says.

The stimulating responses that emerged propelled her towards an archival study of the work of her fellow photographers. His effort aimed to recapture the magic of rituals that had been overlooked by so many filmmakers and photographers who had approached the South with an analytical and detached “documentary gaze”. Rollo also noticed how regional rites had lost their original meaning for the communities that had created them. They had become commercial festivals, popular attractions devoid of their primary purpose.

So she embarked on a journey – with her Parallel Eyes-map the origins of southern rituals and document them in a way that highlights the collective spirit of the community rather than the profit-oriented aspects of their performance.

Many rituals had pagan origins, linked to the cycles of nature: fertility rites for the earth that took place around the same time in different regions, at the solstices and equinoxes. But Catholicism had absorbed many of these rituals, obscuring their connection to nature. In Puglia, for example, the “Focara” – which means “fire” and revolves around a large bonfire – celebrates Sant’Antonio Abate on January 16. It coincides with the Campanacci in Basilicata, another rite of fertility and purification that once hinged on community life.

Among his many inspirations, Rollo studied the work of Ukrainian-American filmmaker Maya Deren, an avant-garde artist of the 1940s and 1950s. Deren belonged to a school of visual anthology that reprimanded the documentary approach. Like her Divine Riders: The Living Gods of Haiti took shape, she abandoned the idea of ​​documenting the rituals because, she says, “the rites exist” for those who have faith, but the camera inevitably fails to show what people “feel”. Echoing this sentiment, Rollo aims to show what people feel, beyond what is visible to tourists.

“That’s how I felt too, [watching] these documentaries, as if they wanted to “prove” something that had nothing to do with the community’s need to perform the rites. I wanted to put into images what we couldn’t see, this attention to the invisible.”

In these numerous transformations, the rituals flatten out. The “Notte della Taranta”, a regional dance from Puglia, loses its meaning because it is addressed to a community that is no longer its original community: it becomes a musical attraction whose roots are incomprehensible to tourists. “They don’t have an ‘anthropological interest’ in possession rites… [Visitors] come because it’s become a huge festival,” says Rollo. “That is why the meaning of these rituals has been lost.

The rites were, for Rollo, aesthetic manifestations of a social structure reduced to mere folklore. One of the many reasons, she explains, is that in the 1970s and 1980s Italy yearned to prove itself as an important cog in the European machine, so there was an incentive to conceal the aspects more ceremonial and traditional than represented the south.

Major structural changes within society also correspond to the historical moment of industrial progress, contributing to the disappearance of rituals. The introduction of factories led to industrial growth and the dissolution of peasant culture. Only recently has an appreciation emerged for the diverse microcultures that characterize these territories and their ancient rituals.

Looking at the works of authors who had played with the ambiguity of the photographic medium, Rollo began to manipulate images, applying elements of analog and digital distortion, reintroducing the “magical ritual” into archival photos. By working on certain images, she introduced symbols – water, fire, earth – elements that revive a link with the essence of the rites.

For one image, she drilled tiny holes in a light box to create a cascade of light. She describes this application as “creating another presence”: she added another dimension within the image, and superimposed the two photographs.

The idea is to realize a multimedia project in which different temporalities are present, an important aspect of rituals. “Time always returns to the same moments, to the same rites, to the same manifestations, to the same hierarchy within the rite.” Therefore, the light boxes make the circularity of time manifest, she explains, and offer a layered perception.

This circularity is an important aspect of the rites. In the last century, throughout Italy, and especially in the far south, life was marked by repetition – the same actions and habits repeated over and over again. This idea, bothersome from a commercial point of view, gradually disappeared, tarnishing the essence of the rites, their spiritual sense of devotion.

Take for example the “Focara” mentioned above. Dating back over 1,000 years, it absorbed the winter solstice and requires extensive preparation and teamwork as olive branches and vines are cut and laboriously heaped into a three-story pyre. The image of Sant’Antonio Abbate, placed in the center, is then ignited and burns for several days.

The care Rollo puts into re-evaluating rituals and recreating them through imagery fosters an understanding and acceptance of different ways of life, bridging the cultural gap between north and south.

These same customs once condemned, even rejected, have been reconsidered and turned into attractions: “Salento Lento” – a pun on the name of the region and the feeling of slowness – has now become a slogan where relaxation, once stigmatized, is now embraced. . Moreover, Rollo believes that his commitment to chronicling the south can do justice to an authentic storytelling of the rituals, restoring their true essence.

“I’d like to see other multifaceted perspectives on this story, more personal and subjective, and less documentary,” Rollo says.

“I would like to take more courage and get [more] hands on this story,” she continues. “I don’t want things to be explained. I would like to “feel” things. I would like this story to be open to several points of view because mine is only one. There are a lot of stories inside.”


All photos ©Alessia Rollo, from the Parallel Eyes series


Alessia Rollo is a conceptual photographer based in Italy. Find it on instagram and PhMuseum.

Lucie De Stefani is a writer specializing in photography, illustration, culture and all things teenage. She lives in New York. Find it on Twitter and instagram.


This article is part of the series New generationa monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talent in our community.

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