Sardinia 1959. Carlo Bavagnoli: Africa at home


Maybe it’s because I love Sardinia, maybe because for me Sardinia is primarily the interior highlands, or maybe because I was born in 1959… anyway, as soon as I saw the book of Carlo Bavagnoli, I knew immediately that I want it.


Of Carlo Bavagnoli, the photographer I had not even known he existed, for which I feel a little ashamed. But the Sardinia his photos tell about I know very well. Initially from the novels of Grazia Deledda, and later from our wanderings in Baronia and Barbagia.

Because this past poverty is still evident there. These decaying old houses made of stone and adobe are still parts of the urban landscape.


And they exert an irresistible charm on us. Because in these stones there are written the stories of those persons who, until the beginning of the economic boom, lived here in extreme conditions of backwardness and misery, while retaining their dignity, pride and also a certain elegance. It is enough to speak with any old man or woman to understand it.


Carlo Bavagnoli arrived in Sardinia in 1959 with Livio Zanetti, editor of Espresso. From the evidence gathered by them was written the interview series, published in the journal, which documented the poverty of the South on behalf of a parliamentary committee.

“Why are they fleeing to the North? Africa at home”

For Carlo Bavagnoli this was not the first Sardinian report. In the previous year he had visited Orani, where he documented the activity of the painter and sculptor Costantino Nivola.

Costantino Nivola: Female figure

Costantino Nivola: Homecoming to Ithaca. Photo by Carlo Bavagnoli – Orani, streets of the old town

A lot of people left Sardinia in those years and went to the mainland, in hope of a better life. A hard fate was waiting for all of them, breaking away from their roots, uncertainty and marginalization. The same that waits today for the many who leave Africa. If the mountain will not go to Muhammad, they said, finally Muhammad has to go to the mountain. The miracle, it is clear, is yet to come.

I was born in 1959, the year of the photo report.


From my first-grade year I still remember the money box, in which we collected money for the poor children of Africa and Bangladesh. It made the adults appear better, but this far away poverty was not our personal responsibility. I realized only year later, that the silence about the South was intentional. During my wanderings I always wanted to ask why they maintain the ruins. I think, lest they forget who they were, what Sardinia was. I think, the book I have purchased means the same to me. And also a little reparation. For exactly the same day on which I was born in the north of Italy, on 20 November 1959, someone from mainland Italy went to Sardinia, to see only what he wanted to see there.


Carlo Bavagnoli was born in 1932 in Piacenza. After the classical high school he enrolled for law in Milan. In Brera he met some young photographers, Alfa Castaldi, Mario Dondero and Ugo Mulas. In 1955 he moved to Milan, where he began working as a photographer for Illustrazione Italiana, Tempo illustrato and Cinema Nuovo.

In 1956 he becomes a photographer for Epoca, and moves to the headquarters of the journal in Rome. Here he starts to document the everyday life of the popular suburb of Trastevere. Thanks to this, he gets connected with the American magazine Life, which publishes some of his photos.

In March 1958 he goes for the first time to Sardinia, to the town of Orani, where he photographs for Life Costantino Nivela working on the façade of the church of Madonna d’Itria. He also documents his statues set up in the streets of the town.


The following year he spends a month in New York, making a photo report for Life about the everyday life of the city. Two years later he becomes a permanent Italian correspondent of the magazine. For a few years he works as a freelancer for several newspapers.

In 1960-1961, commissioned by Espresso, he returns to Sardinia, to Loculi and Irgoli, where he reports about poverty in Italy. In subsequent years he repeatedly travels to America. He documents for Life the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the funeral of John XXIII, the election of Paul VI. Meanwhile, he continuously publishes in Epoca.

1964 is a turning point in his creative life. He is admitted as the only Italian in the editorship of Life. After a year in New York, he moves to the Paris headquarters of the magazine.

Since 1972, the termination of Life, he turns back to Italy. He travels home several times, publishes a number of photo albums, makes documentaries for the Italian TV, and is engaged in classical music.


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