• PROOF:
  • November 7, 2014

Umberto Pizzi’s Rome: High Society, Paparazzi Style

Author
Alexa Keefe
Contributions
Anne Wernikoff

Sitting in on a preview of the National Geographic magazine about the notorious Roman emperor Nero back in February 2014, a series of paparazzi-style photographs by Alex Majoli of the Roman glitterati caught my attention. They were so different from what we normally see in the pages of the magazine. “It would be a lot of fun to do something about this in Proof,” I thought to myself.

Alice Gabriner, the photo editor of the story, suggested I interview Umberto Pizzi, a legendary Italian ‘paparazzo’ now in his late 70s, whose work documenting the Italian elite for the online tabloid Dagospia has resulted in two books, Ultra Cafonal, and its predecessor, Cafonal. The title, roughly translated, means the nouveau riche: people who like to show off their wealth in an over-the-top and tasteless way. The photographs were outrageous, grotesque, and deeply amusing. I was intrigued by the unabashed displays of decadence, and the seemingly complicit relationship with the photographer on the other side of the lens, inviting judgment while at the same time thumbing their nose at it.

Former Miss Italy and actress Silvana Pampanini
Former Miss Italy and actress Silvana Pampanini samples a slice of prosciutto at a Christmas party.

Fast-forward to June. I had a chance to meet Majoli while he was visiting our headquarters in D.C. We got to talking about photographing the Nero story. “I had to get access to these parties, they would never let me [in]. So I contacted Pizzi,” he said. They have a mutual friend, who had introduced them. They ended up photographing the same party together—the one that was published in the magazine.

I got in touch with Pizzi, and with the help of my Italian-speaking colleague, Anne Wernikoff, asked him a few questions about how he sees himself and his work.

ALEXA KEEFE: How did you get your start as a paparrazo?

UMBERTO PIZZI: I began working with UNICEF’s Freedom from Hunger Campaign in the Middle East at the beginning of the ‘60s. Once I returned from those backbreaking and unprofitable trips, the picture editor from FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization) in Rome told me, “Umberto, you should spend some time watching the paparazzi photographers from Via Veneto, they know what they’re doing.” And so I did. For almost three months I observed them and came to understand that if I wanted to make a living, this was the way to do it. I wasn’t really interested in celebrities. I was really just interested in taking photos and telling people’s stories, regardless of their social status. Actually, the photos I took of the socialites were often more of a critique of their behavior than anything else.

I’ve never liked the word “paparazzi.” Apparently, Federico Fellini never liked news photographers because they always snapped him with other women, which made it obvious that his marriage to Giulietta Masina was rife with infidelities. Therefore, he invented that word which later became synonymous with aggressive photojournalists.

Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia, Prince of Venice and Piedmont (left), Italian singer Enzo Ghinazzi, better known as Pupo (center) and a woman wearing a sparkly dress (barely).
Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia, Prince of Venice and Piedmont (left), Italian singer Enzo Ghinazzi, better known as Pupo (center) and a woman wearing a sparkly dress (barely).

ALEXA: How would you describe your relationship to the celebrities you photograph? And what is their attitude towards you?

UMBERTO: My relationship with my subjects is very strange; it’s a love/hate relationship. When I encounter a celebrity (I mean anyone with economic, financial or political power) they make a point of coming over and greeting me. Liz Taylor used to call me “Izzi Bizzi” and was always very happy to see me, but once I reported a big and unflattering story about her and after that she never greeted me anymore.

On the other hand, one day a member of the Italian parliament, of whom I had frequently taken unflattering photos, saw me in the photographer’s area of parliament building and gave me a standing ovation along with 30 other members.

Italian politician Renato Brunetta and a friend
Italian politician Renato Brunetta and his wife, Titti.

ALEXA: Who is your audience, and what are you wanting to show them?

UMBERTO: My audience is made up of people from all backgrounds, but mostly they are of middle to upper social status and are interested in current events around the world. I would say that people in power, in particular, are very interested in my photos and my books. Mario Draghi, president of the BCE (European Central Bank), is such a huge fan of my work that he sends copies of my book Cafonal as Christmas presents to his friends. Former Russian Ambassador to Italy Alexei Meshkov has told me that there are copies of my books in the Ambassador’s library in Rome and during his tenure he would have all new arriving officials look at them in order to better understand where they were and what was expected of them.

141104-pizzi-04
Italian actress Eduarda Vessel Crociani clutching a lemon with her daughter Camilla Bourbon-Two Sicilies, duchess of Castro

ALEXA: The flamboyance, decadence, and emphasis on physical beauty and youth, pleasures of the flesh—are characteristics that have existed in Roman society since Nero’s time, at least. Do you see yourself as a documentarian of modern Roman society?

UMBERTO: Yes, I sometimes see myself as a modern day Petronius. Roman parties were about continuous gorging, with Nero strumming on the kithara (an ancient instrument) and screaming crazy lyrics. It’s all the same; this is a society that hasn’t changed in over 2000 years. The only difference is the clothing. If you go to the soccer stadium and close your eyes, you’ll still feel as if you were in the Colosseum—the players are modern gladiators and the cheers replicate the cries for the lions to devour the men. This is effectively the decadence that remains in a population which created the Italian Renaissance.

ALEXA: Is there anything else you would like to add?

UMBERTO: I want to talk about that society, not about George Clooney’s love life. I couldn’t care less about that. Long live photography, queen of the visual arts!

There are 20 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Frederic Jackson
    November 23, 2014

    Actually, I’d be glad to be rich and Italian. Or rich and almost anybody else. Otherwise I think these pictures are pretty tame, and a little sad. We are a country that gets crazy about a crotch shot of Brittany Spears, and idolizes Honey Boo-Boo. At least the Italians seem to have some flair to their trash.

  2. Jeremy Lewer
    November 20, 2014

    All I can say is that Im glad Im not rich and not Italian.

  3. Ava
    November 18, 2014

    Proof that no matter where you go in the world, people in other countries are just as trashy and insipid as over here.

  4. Seda Saar
    November 17, 2014

    images can be so revealing of the lives – I would like to see some from not so lucky peple just as a comparative narrative with a common denominator- say of a lemon tree or a bottle of booze … with an artistists narrative eye – Well done

  5. Rob
    November 17, 2014

    It constantly amazes me how the camera can capture such grotesque realities…high society living in a small cave!

  6. Ed Munson
    November 17, 2014

    What I find interesting here is to see examples of excess well beyond our shores. We seem to be the “poster child” for excessive behavior (with some justification); however, we have some excellent competition in Europe.

  7. Emma
    November 17, 2014

    When I see these photos, I see people who like other people and who are willing to buy clothes and accessories from their home country, (why would they buy them from anywhere else?) and who spend money that maintains jobs for artisans. I see old ladies who work hard despite their ages to maintain high standards of appearance. I see an old lady relishing good prosciutto: this photo must be heart-warming to the food artisans of her country. She, like all of the other people in these photos, does not look like she is eats prosciutto 24/7.
    The writer mentions decadence. What in particular in these photos is decadent? These people look clean and healthy.(And that lady’s clothing malfunction is something that happens occasionally everywhere – get over it!) How about showing his subjects stepping over homeless people? Not many of those photos around? I can’t see anything in these photos that say these people are cruel or rude, or are attempting to harm other less fortunate people in any way. Would the photographer rate these people more highly if they were all dressed in slovenly jeans? Thank goodness these people are around to encourage others to create such beautiful clothes! (I do think the plumped up lips ar unnecessary, but heh, at least these people are willing ot open their wallets for beauty.)

    In these photos, the photographer has not captured reasons for the contempt he has for these people. As far as I can see, this article pushes stereotypes without providing any kind of understanding. (and I’m not even Italian.) This article isn’t worthy of National Geographic.
    When I see these photos, I see people who like other people and who are willing to buy clothes and accessories from their home country, (why would they buy them from anywhere else?) and who spend money that maintains jobs for artisans. I see old ladies who work hard despite their ages to maintain high standards of appearance. I see an old lady relishing good prosciutto: this photo must be heart-warming to the food artisans of her country. She, like all of the other people in these photos, does not look like she is eats prosciutto 24/7.

    The writer mentions decadence. What in particular in these photos is decadent? These people look clean and healthy.(And that lady’s clothing malfunction is something that happens occasionally everywhere – get over it!) How about showing his subjects stepping over homeless people? Not many of those photos around? I can’t see anything in these photos that say these people are cruel or rude, or are attempting to harm other less fortunate people in any way. Would the photographer rate these people more highly if they were all dressed in slovenly jeans? Thank goodness these people are around to encourage others to create such beautiful clothes! (I do think the plumped up lips ar unnecessary, but heh, at least these people are willing to open their wallets for beauty.)

    In these photos, the photographer has not captured reasons for the contempt he has for these people. As far as I can see, this article pushes stereotypes without providing any kind of understanding. (and I’m not even Italian.) This article isn’t worthy of National Geographic. The photographer should do a bit of soul searching before he continues to label these people.

    Finally, just for the sake of logic, if a society is in a state of decay (decadence), it cannot last 2000 years+!

  8. Michele
    November 16, 2014

    I feel icky, like I need to shower filth off of me after looking at the vile nature of these photographs. Seriously disgusting content (which is a compliment to the photographer for the “real-ness” of these photos!). 🙂

  9. Charlotte
    November 16, 2014

    I agree; that is not true High Society- fame and money do not Class make. Those are photos of celebrities.

  10. Sandra
    November 16, 2014

    This story reminds me of a few things that I believe are happening worldwide: 1) the grotesque are demanding attention by “over the top” jewels and clothing. If I looked like that I would try to draw as little attention to myself as possible. Hedonism has always been here. ENTITLEMENT is the driving force that sets humans apart. EVERYONE is entitled (including our animal friends) of a safe nuturing life with love and enough safety and food to eat. May we all realize this before we leave this life.

  11. Roberto G.
    November 16, 2014

    For sure, this is NOT the italian society

  12. Mauro Branchetti
    November 16, 2014

    As Italian I’m sad looking at these pictures. As Photographer i’m glad that someone can see the ruin italy is going to face. The people seen n these photos are almost really the Italian upper class. A kick to everybody in Italy works hard to survive and keep the name of my nation worthy of respect and admiration wordwide.

  13. GIANNI
    November 16, 2014

    AS MARIO MENTIONED THESE RIDICULE PEOPLE ARE NOT THE HIGH SOCIETE` OF ROME OR SICILY……LIKE THE “GREAT BEAUTY” MOVIE JUST A PARODY OF FEW SEMI RICH ITALIANS! THERE IS MUCH MORE BEYOND THE TALL WALLS OF THE CASTLE…..BUONANOTTE&BUONAFORTUNA.

  14. Shannon Simpson
    November 16, 2014

    Pathetic waste of money and useless nonsense with so many starving and homeless … human and animal!!

  15. Fil
    November 16, 2014

    Excellent photos and well-written (although short) story which is in essence about an ugly, World-widely spread behavior! It is good for all to see, and in the same time sad to realize, that the very people so many look up to have not been able to change in their most primitive cravings; basically, humans have not advanced much through all the thousands of years.
    Contrary to what one would think, it seems the better they eat the worse they behave.

  16. mario t. reoyan
    November 16, 2014

    Italian high or not, its nice to picture the human subject and its an art also plus the story of their life ……… tell to the godfather ……………

  17. Martin Carraher
    November 16, 2014

    I am an aspiring photographer and always get more great ideas when I take the time ready your emails! Keep up the good work!

  18. Sebastian
    November 16, 2014

    How sad to call them italians!

  19. Andrew
    November 12, 2014

    This is not real Italian High Society BTW.

  20. Juca
    November 7, 2014

    What an entertaining article with great choice of images and questions– pretty funny! Also it is cool that it was set in motion by the Nero story, and Pizzi’s comments about today’s culture there were enlightening.

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