Text by Marcus Barnett
In 1974, Letizia Battaglia returned to her birthplace of Sicily on the orders of L’Ora, the leftist newspaper for whom she had been reporting for in Milan. For the majority of the next two decades, she would be crucial in documenting Italy’s anni di piombo (years of lead), an epoch of intense disorder characterised by massive political and criminal violence. A choice selection from her daunting personal archive of 600,000 photographs is on display at the Open Eye gallery in Liverpool.
Battaglia’s exhibition is a grainy, unromantic testimony to the cadavers lingering on in Italy’s collective psyche, the human consequence of the Mafia’s ruthless war of annihilation against unsympathetic figures from all aspects of society. The Palermo prostitute executed in her living room for not ‘respecting the rules’; a poster-tribute to Peppino Impastato, a Mafia son turned communist murdered for his activity; a howling mother, restrained by listless policemen, convinced her son is the body crowds are gathering to peer at.
In the various deaths portrayed, the rush of the moment of assassination, the whirlwind shock and rush of excitement go hand in hand with composure and the dignity of the victims. These photographs, which caress and toy with the fabric of reality as much as they dutifully document, impose upon you the formidable force that the Mafia represented in a deeply corrupt Palermo. They also forbid you to escape from the reality of absolute poverty that successive conservative politicians, religious officialdom and criminal elements overlooked with ease in post-war Sicily. A photograph’s title explains the subject, a woman who having been exhausted from work did not respond to one of her children crying in a cot. She awoke to find that a rat had feasted on her baby’s fingers – in 1997.
Counterposed against this world of squalor are images of the local bourgeoisie and aristocracy holding luxurious balls. Given the poverty illuminated, it is perhaps no surprise for the reader to learn that post-war Italy was effectively a monopoly in which NATO, the Mafia and the conservative Christian Democrats invested considerable time and energy into keeping the popular Communist Party out of power. With this in mind, one can observe the image of insidious conservative politician Giulio Andreotti hobnobbing with mafia boss Nino Salvo and easily gain a sense of war between brothers during this time of heightened tension between state and criminality. In the case of Communists and prostitutes – ‘immoral elements’, if you like – being killed for standing in some way against the Mafia’s immediate interests, their deaths appear to be business as usual.
Nevertheless, there is also the pleasure, leisure, scratched walls, screaming mothers, forlorn men and lawless children that are attached to any inner-city area. ‘The Cala District, 1979’ is particularly arresting for its subject, a young girl clinging to a football with cynical, fatigued eyes, bitterness written throughout her demeanour. Breaking the Code of Silence is a stunning exposition of an unusual body of work that offers a history relatively unknown to these shores.