A photographer’s ode to an Italy that no longer exists

CNN  — 

When Hope Herman Wurmfeld was 4 years old, she became fascinated by a glass of water that had turned blue with the paint she was using to make art.

“It was so beautiful, I just had to drink it,” she says of the liquid, which she started to sip before her mother stopped her.

That was around 1938.

Some 25 years later, in 1964, she became mesmerized by the beauty she saw around her in Italy on her first trip to Europe and felt compelled to absorb it.

“It was like drinking the blue water,” she says.

This time, though, she didn’t drink. Instead, she started photographing what she saw – women doing chores, men sitting together in a piazza, children playing, ships resting in port, posters hanging on crumbling walls and ancient buildings standing serenely.

During that year she spent in Italy, she took thousands of photographs, about 50 of which will be on display at a new exhibition at Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò, a cultural center and the home of New York University’s Department of Italian Studies.

Exploring 1960s Italy

The exhibition, titled “Vintage: Italy 1964,” runs from September 14 through October 13.

The Italian experience changed the course of Wurmfeld’s life, which until then had been focused on painting and art history.

“I had a camera with me wherever I went, with the lens cap always off,” says Wurmfeld, who decided to become a photographer as a result of that trip. (She also got married in Rome – and was to later discover, in a surprising twist, another tie to Italy.)

Since that significant trip, her work has been shown in numerous exhibitions, featured in books and included in many collections, among them New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.

“I was really struck by the quality of the photographs,” says Stefano Albertini, an NYU professor and the director of Casa Italiana, which opened in 1990 in a renovated 1850s brownstone donated by Baroness Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimò, in memory of her husband Guido.

Albertini, who’s in charge of Casa Italiania’s exhibitions, said he was immediately taken by the rich black and white images. “They almost seem three-dimensional,” he says.

Moreover, he says, they were taken during a significant period in Italian history, at “the end of Italy as an agricultural country and the beginning of Italy as an industrial country.”

READ: Italian photographer takes candid images of his homeland

On the cusp of change

Wurmfeld’s photographs show Italy “on the cusp of a profound industrial and political change,” he says. “They are like a time capsule.”

Indeed, most of what she captured would not look the same today, says Wurmfeld, sitting at a long table in the Greenwich Village apartment where she lives and works, not far from the Casa Italiana.

She almost didn’t go to Italy, she says. Her then boyfriend, Michael S. Wurmfeld, had won a Fulbright grant to study architecture there and invited her to come along. At first, she was reluctant because she was determined to finish her master’s degree in art history at Columbia University.

But then she changed her mind, deciding to take off a little time from classes at the end of 1963 to “to see what it’s like” to be in Italy. And she was amazed.

“I thought, ‘This is the stuff I’m looking at in books and on slides, and I could see it in person here.’” She took a leave of absence from her academic program and married Wurmfeld in Rome in March 1964.

They were based in the city but explored the rest of the country, especially small towns and out-of-the-way neighborhoods, as often as they could. They returned to New York City in 1965.

And, yes, she did eventually finish her degree, “after two kids.” Her son and daughter both work in the film industry. Her husband died 17 years ago.

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‘On the edge of nowhere’

And she still has her vibrant “time capsule” pictures.

One shows a torn image of US President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated on November 22, 1963, pasted over a ragged poster advertising spumante on a debris-filled street in Rome.

In another scene, boys in a different part of Rome happily play on a makeshift swing hanging from a large billboard, backed by a bleak landscape that, Wurmfeld says, “looks like Syria, housing on the edge of nowhere.”

In a photograph she took of several nuns in Venice, the women are in traditional voluminous black habits with crisp white edging around their faces. “They don’t wear those anymore, except maybe on formal occasions,” says Wurmfeld, who has frequently returned to Italy.

Likewise, a striking photograph she took from a window above the Piazza San Marco shows people and pigeons wandering within the spacious public square. The women wear skirts, and most of the men are in suits and ties. “People don’t dress that formally anymore,” she says.

Many of the people she photographed were not aware of her presence, she says, though some glanced at her but didn’t pose.

“I tried to be a fly on the wall,” she says. “I started to wear black to blend in.” She didn’t want them running home to put on their Sunday best, she adds.

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Women inside, men outside

One scene in Palermo, Sicily, shows two women peeking over a low door, near clothing hanging to dry outside their building. They might be looking at her, but, if so, it is only with mild curiosity.

“Women were inside a lot,” she says. “They were taking care of children or cleaning.”

In contrast, men were often outside, as in one scene of a group in shirtsleeves gathered in chairs around a table near a wall of a piazza in Trastevere, a medieval Roman neighborhood where she and her husband lived. Then, it was a working-class district. These days it’s spiffed up for tourists and more upscale residents.

Another photograph, one of her favorites because of its precise composition and compelling subject matter, shows five men on the deck of a bright white ship punctuated by black portholes and two more men in dark clothing on the ground below, where there are also thick ropes to be seen.

Though it’s not apparent, they are lifting a car – probably hers and her husband’s – onto the ship, she said, in the Port of Naples.

Two decades after her sojourn in Rome, Wurmfeld’s personal connection to Italy expanded in an unforeseen way. She had known, as she was growing up in Mount Vernon, a small city north of New York City, that she was adopted. Her family was loving, she says, but in the 1980s she started to research about who her biological parents might be at the New York Public Library.

“I never thought I was Italian,” she say. But she discovered that her father had come from southeast Italy.

She visited the Apulia region, where he was from, and, by matching old family photographs – she brings out an enlarged sepia-toned one that shows her father as a boy surrounded by many relatives – she found her biological family in a small town called San Nicandro Garganico. She is close with them now.

The knowledge, she says, “adds richness to the photographs” she took in 1964. And could her heritage be why she felt so drawn to Italy?

“I don’t know,” she says. “I just found beauty there.”

Freelance writer Aileen Jacobson writes for publications including the New York Times, Newsday, AudioFile and Lilith. Follow her on Twitter @aileenj.