There is a key moment near the start of A Room with a View, E.M. Forster’s romance set in Florence, where the young heroine Lucy, on holiday to see the highlights of antiquity, witnesses a murder in the Piazza Signoria. It is a graphic scene, as violence and blood floods into the ordered, sanitised Florence that has been sternly imposed on her. In a instant, Florence turns from an extraordinarily beautiful playground of marble and relics, into a living city like any other, where life and death play out side by side.
This is perhaps a melodramatic segue way into a discussion of Dolce Via, a gorgeous collection by New York-based photographer Charles H. Traub of photos taken during his summer visits to Italy in the early 1980s. Yet there is a common thread to be found in both Traub’s and Forster’s work, in which the clichés of an outsider’s perspective on Italy are scythed through with a vivid swipe of the real, red blooded reality of a city running at full speed, its people living their lives in respectful irreverence of the antiquities that surround them. So often in the traditional portrayals of the likes of Rome, Naples and Florence, we find the day-to-day life of the city side-lined as we stand in thrall to its past; the lusts, lights and shades of its present ignored in favour of its ancient gods, moss strewn stones and exquisite ceilings lit up by the popping flashes of the tourist's camera. Not so in Dolce Via. Here it is the antiquities who are side-lined, left to bear witness to the life of the city that rolls by in waves of vibrant colour, where the emotions of Rome are found etched on skin not marble.
"In Dolce Via, the emotions of Rome are found etched on skin not marble"
The resulting work is a total delight. It is summer in the city of sunlight, and people are drinking, sweating, walking, smoking, shopping and basking. Many are in love and showing it, as couples embrace on benches by the river, by Michelangelo’s David, by the ubiquitous Vespa. Children pose in lines, their tanned skin and drooling ice creams at joyous odds with the bulky marble form of Zeus sprawled across a gargoyle strewn fountain behind them. A sunburnt woman flops out of the Trevi, paying clumsy, scrunched-face homage to Anita Ekberg’s picturesque frolics in La Dolce Vita. Seen through Traub's lens, Rome and the rest are cities alive to their own beauty, but with better things to think about – their people enjoying life in the now as the tourists stand like pallid statues, earnestly taking photos of the silent and gone.
Dolce Via: Italy in the 1980s by Charies H. Traub is out now, published by Damiani.
Text by Tish Wrigley