What does the impact of mankind look like when you get far enough above the Earth to remove all signs of human habitation except the permanent ones? One sometimes discovers interesting things on Instagram – one account I’ve recently found and enjoyed is @SquareofItaly. Brainchild of Ottavio Rusalen, a 25 year old from northern Italy, the account features savvily selected, beautiful satellite images of Italy. I asked him if he’d be willing to share a few reflections here in an interview.
Palmanova is a late Renaissance star fort!
Who are you?
My name is Ottavio Rusalen and I am from Gorgo al Monticano (a small town in the province of Treviso), I’m 25 years old and I work in a marketing and communications agency.
Hey so do I! You also spend your spare time on Instagram despite doing it for work… Do tell us, what is @squareofitaly?
Square Of Italy is the first (and only) project dedicated to observing Italy from satellite level. I refer to it as a project because it’s not just an Instagram account – I hope to develop it into a book, a traveling exhibition in Italy, and a blog to develop some of the themes that come out of observing landscapes that we can see from high above.
The island of San Michele in Venice | Landsat
So what is the goal of this project?
The project’s goal is to discover Italy from a totally different point of view compared to that presented by many of the self-defined photographers on Instagram. Beyond this, I hope to sensitize viewers about the impact that humankind has on the environment and on what is around us, as well as to admire the beauty of the Italian landscape and generate respect for it and for the great gift that this nature gives us.
The Ferriera di Servola, near Trieste, is the only producer of cast iron in Italy | Digital Globe
How do you source your images? What tools do you use? Do you do any editing?
Well I can’t give away all my secrets! Let’s say that if you read the captions you can figure out how I get them… My research begins simply by “traveling” around Google Maps, though I also use blogs or newspapers since some images are connected to news items. I do a tiny bit of editing just to make the image usable online, but nothing invasive – it has to be as natural as possible.
The man-made Bilancino Lake in the Mugello area of Tuscany | Google Earth Pro
The project has been very successful on Instagram. In a world prepared for images #fromabove through the diffusion of drones, how are your satellite images different?
I think that the Instagram page is appreciated because it’s a different theme than what you usually see. It’s true that they are “from above” pictures, but the aspect that unites all of them is that they have been “taken” from satellites. Another secret to its success, I think, is that the images are primarily of Italy (though I occasionally feature other places in the categories #squareofworld and #squareofeurope); there are no other pages of which I know that focus on Italy in this way.
Siena from above | Landsat
Tell us about the images of Italian cities you have found.
No doubt that what hits me the most is the geometry of so many Italian cities. I never stop wondering at the perfect lines with which some areas are drawn.
Florence from above demonstrates the geometry of a Roman city and its later Medieval developments | Google Earth Pro
But you don’t only focus on cities… What about natural sites?
The natural areas are a bit harder to source for this project because often it’s hard to find a shape in them. But in Italy there are plenty of natural areas that seem to have been drawn with a ruler!
The Trapani salt mines are a WWF protected area | Google Earth Pro
You also look beyond Italy to some fascinating places in the rest of the world – I was amazed by the golden ratio worked into the planning of a residential area near the port of Alkmaar! What differences have you observed comparing Italy to other places in the world?
Often the difference comes simply from the age of the places we’re looking at. Many Italian centers appear more “messy” from above because they were built ages ago, when urbanism didn’t impose straight lines [editors’ note: or didn’t exist at all], while in the new world you can see much greater study of spaces and shapes in urbanistic projects.
The residential area at the port of Alkmaar in Holland | Google Earth Pro
Follow Ottavio and his project at Instagram.com/SquareofItaly.
The church of Il Redentore appears floating on water. Its Palladian façade and perfect lines echo ancient civilizations and compete in their whiteness with the nearby water basin which was once the arrival point of anyone traveling to Venice. Water has stopped flowing and like fog poetically envelops the island. Silence overwhelms everything.
Viewing Venice through the black and white eye of photographer Lisa Katsiaris helps us see Venice in its timeless beauty. Stripped off of any vulgarity or distracting details, Venice is portrayed as a powerful icon of the harmonious dialogue between architecture, design and nature that has gone on for centuries.
Photo Lisa Katsiaris for Venice in Black and White
And yet, while losing themselves in this dreamy reverie and marvel, readers cannot forget that they are looking at photos of Venice, as the city is today, a contemporary city. Beyond unpleasant noise or cheap souvenirs, masses of people or out of proportion ships crossing the lagoon, in the end the beauty is there. Readers are thus confronted with the dilemma of Venice, a beauty either to preserve or to promote, and will be left wondering which way they can bear respect to this beauty, without violating it any further. Sometimes small steps can do a lot and this book is one of them, promoting a creative solution to witness deep love to Venice and to support those that love it.
Luisella Romeo: Learning you have come to Venice many times, especially in the winter, I am sure by now that the city has inspired you differently. Would you be able to tell us what has changed throughout these years?
Lisa Katsiaris: I remember coming to Venice as a keen but novice photographer in December 2013. My hotel room overlooked San Giorgio Maggiore and I was so excited I couldn’t sleep; I even set up my tripod and took some photographs at midnight. I was like a child waiting for Santa Claus. Now, after so many trips, my photography is much more considered.
The most significant change is how my photography style has developed. It wasn’t until the latter part of 2014 that I started to create minimalist, monochrome images. When I returned to Venice in January 2015, I looked at the city with new eyes. The more I visit Venice, the more I’m able to see beyond the obvious.
I’ve also learned that, even if you revisit a place numerous times, nothing is ever the same twice. You can stand in the same spot at the same time of day and get very different results depending on the light and the weather and, importantly, how you feel.
Photo Lisa Katsiaris for Venice in Black and White
LR: You are clearly creating balanced, void and silent spaces in your photography. Less is more, as a rule of aesthetics seems to be underlying your style, stripping down to the essentials of Venice. Before this project with JoAnn Locktov, has your art ever been “social”? Have you ever felt the urge to do something to support Venice “using” your art as a means?
LK: Photography is very much something I do for my own enjoyment. I do sell my images, but it’s not something I’ve focused on and it’s only recently that I’ve started to share my images more widely.
I was familiar with the Dream of Venice books, so when I saw that the next book in JoAnn’s series would focus on black and white images, I was keen to participate. It was delighted when JoAnn confirmed that my image would feature on the cover. Not only is it rewarding to be able to share my work with a wider audience, but also I feel honoured to be part of a project that is benefiting a place that’s so dear to me and to be able to give something back.
Photo Lisa Katsiaris for Venice in Black and White
LR: Talking about ugliness instead. Do you see ugliness in Venice? Like a disease affecting beauty, this is a rather common literary motif in Venice. What is the ugliness that disturbs you? The cheap and not locally produced souvenirs? The empty homes? … Is your photography a refuge away from the ugliness?
LK: There is a saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; I think the same thing can be said of ugliness. It’s very subjective and can differ widely between cultures. The Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi seeks to find beauty in the imperfect, the impermanent and the incomplete. It’s a concept derived from Zen Buddhism that reminds us that we are all transient beings on this earth. In Venice, I’m always seeking out ramshackle fishing huts, broken jetties, crumbling walls and deserted homes. To me, they are deeply evocative and often very beautiful. So rather than thinking of my photography as a refuge from ugliness, I think about it as a way of finding beauty in the ordinary and the everyday. That said, I can find no beauty in the cheap souvenirs sold in the piazza or along the Riva degli Schiavoni. If I were in charge, I would ban them or put the vendor’s stalls to a better use.
Photo Lisa Katsiaris for Venice in Black and White
LR: In a photo anthology that privileges B/W, I guess you expect this question of mine… what is wrong with colours?
LK: There is a quote in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Terre des Hommes: ‘Perfection is attained not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away’. I find colour distracting and one of the elements that I can remove from my images.
There are many reasons why photographers continue to create images in black and white despite advances in technology. Black and white is timeless and presents a world that is both real and imagined. I also think it’s often more revealing; it signals to the viewer that they should look beyond what can be seen with the human eye. And without the distraction of colour it allows the subject to take centre stage.
LR: Any thought about Canaletto and his views of Venice?
LK: Canaletto is famous for his highly detailed, realistic paintings of Venice, so I find it fascinating to see how he altered reality to create more pleasing compositions: manipulating space, altering perspectives, removing buildings and even straightening the Grand Canal. Today, digital photography has pushed the boundaries of image manipulation to the extreme and the subject continues to provoke heated debate. I find it interesting and amusing that photographers are sometimes criticised and censured for manipulating images when Canaletto was doing the exact same thing in his paintings almost 300 years ago.
Photo Lisa Katsiaris for Venice in Black and White
LR: What is it that you would not photograph in Venice?
LK. Carnevale. I would have to be dragged kicking and screaming to Venice during the festivities, but I know photographers who love the hustle and bustle. Give me deserted squares and fog any day!
As well as Carnevale, I never photograph people when I’m in Venice – at least not without their permission. I’m not comfortable with it and I don’t enjoy it. However, if I could converse with people, it would be fascinating to do a series of photographs showing Venetians engaged in local crafts and industries. So never say ‘never’!
Photo Lisa Katsiaris for Venice in Black and White
LR: In Venice there are two large buildings that on the opposite sides of the city dominate it. One is the Doge’s palace. The other one is the Car park Garage designed in the 1930s in Piazzale Roma. Is this Venice for you? Or are there limits beyond which Venice is no longer Venice to you?
LK: For me, the boundaries of ‘Venice’ are broad. As soon as I cross the lagoon from the airport and see the bricole and the domes and campanile shimmering on the horizon, I am in Venice! Anyone who visits for a few days and moves only between San Marco and the Salute will return home with a very narrow view of Venice. There’s so much more to discover and, for a small island, it’s surprising how different each sestiere feels. Visiting regularly has also given me the opportunity to explore more widely – from Torcello to Pellestrina, which I love very much. They are all part of the rich tapestry that makes up ‘Venice’.
A new year has dawned and with it, travel plans for the year (or more) to come. Over the Christmas holidays (now a distant memory!) I brainstormed with my Mom about some of the amazing Italy experiences that I’ve been lucky to have over time, and we have rounded them up for your inspiration (yes, Mom helped me with this post). Be this your first trip to Italy or one of many, these are some of the things to do in Italy that we believe one should do at least once.
1/ Visit the Uffizi
The Birth of Venus now has a different point of view
I have a love-hate relationship with the Uffizi. It’s got Botticelli and Michelangelo, some Raphael and Leonardo, some amazing Venetian pieces by Titian and Tintoretto… the famous Giotto and Cimabue comparison… It’s a Renaissance art historian’s dream collection, but since it’s also the top destination on every tourist’s Florence and Italy list, it’s generally too crowded for its own good. Although the new director has been trying to improve the visitor experience and flow (including by introducing new lower priced off-season tickets amongst other things), it’s still a museum with too little signage and seating. If you don’t have Ren Art 101 memorized, you might find my little guide to the Uffizi handy – I list the most important works in there to help you get through without feeling exhausted.
2/ Go Hiking in the Cinque Terre
Vernazza in the Cinque Terre
Speaking of love-hate relationships, how about the Cinque Terre? Another bucket list topper, and possibly one of the most beautiful places in Italy. I’d say on Earth, but I don’t know enough about other countries to judge. The way the shimmering sea reflects light that bounces on to the characteristic colourful houses of these towns perched above is essentially indescribable. The hiking paths are, in my opinion, relatively challenging unless you’re used to climbing infinite stairs, but they offer spectacular views and so much satisfaction. Between Easter and October, this place is super crowded (if you have to go, follow these simple travel hacks), so do yourself a favour and visit the Cinque Terre in the off-season.
3/ Learn how to make and cook pasta properly
Learned to make this ravioli with Cooking with Friends (no longer in operation, unfortunately)
If you’re coming to Italy for any amount of time at all, I humbly recommend learning how Italians make pasta. Your family will thank you, forever. A lot goes in to the right quality and shape of pasta, matching the sauce with that (and the time of year!), and cooking it until it’s perfectly al dente, but not too much (and god forbid, not overcooked). Any cooking class in Italy will do the trick as you’re sure to make at least one pasta dish. Many cooking classes also teach you how to make fresh pasta, either the long and fun fettuccine, or maybe some classic filled ravioli. After just one lesson, I’ve got the ravioli down pat and, if I had more time, I’d make them more often as it’s really easy!
4/ See Venice before it sinks
The view of Venice’s grand canal from Fondaco dei Tedeschi
They say Venice is sinking, and the cruise ships don’t help. Venice is, however magical (so maybe magic will help it stay up?). If you’ve never been there, you must go, especially if you love stumbling upon world-famous altarpieces in dark churches (a few of those are listed in this Venice weekend art-lovers itinerary). Know that it will be crowded and, if that bothers you, try to avoid the busiest times of year (basically, summer). On the other hand, if you do go there in summertime, you can catch the alternating Venice Biennale dedicated to either art or architecture. I do recommend staying in Venice itself, because when the sun goes down, the daytrippers leave and you can experience the silence of the canals at night. If you have a bit more time in the area, spend a day or more in Padova to see Giotto’s little gem, the Arena Chapel.
5/ See where people lived in caves
A donkey in Matera :)
Matera is one of the strangest places in Italy – come to think of it, almost as strange as Venice, if you stop to consider that they want to the trouble of building a city on stilts. In this case, people dwelled in caves until half a century ago (and would have continued to do so if the government hadn’t declared them unhealthy). Rather than building something magnificent on difficult terrain, Materans adapted to life in this remote landscape by using what nature gave them, and not much more. This UNESCO Heritage city will be European capital of culture in 2019 – get it before it gets crowded?
6/ Go to the Viareggio Carnevale
Trump float at 2017 Carnevale
In the same way as, in the States, Halloween melds into Thanksgiving and straight into Christmas, Carnevale is the way to break up the period between Christmas and Easter. As soon as the panettoni are off the shelves, the cenci and fritelle start coming out, even before their official season starts. This feasting on sweets, that preceeds Lent, and a few kids in wigs is all you’ll see of Carnevale in many cities, but there are a few places in Italy that really do Carnevale. Viareggio’s Carnevale is one of the most famous. It started with a procession of ox-drawn carts in 1873, which went on for a few years and grew in size. Now the “carts” (or carri) are the size of a small house, blasting music and hosting dancers much of the time, while making some political commentary. Last year I finally went to the Viareggio Carnevale and found it really interesting to learn about its history and economic impact on the city. I really recommend staying at the city’s top hotel, the Principe di Piemonte, because if the weather is awful (which it generally is) you can take advantage of the very nice spa and other facilities instead.
7/ Climb up Florence’s Duomo
The Duomo Secret Terraces Tour!
It’s 463 steps to the top but if you want to have the best view of Florence, you should climb up the Duomo (or alternately, the belltower). When I had the privilege of visiting the Duomo museum before it opened a few years ago, curator Monsignor Timothy Verdon talked about how he wanted to create closer ties between museum and the Duomo, and that many more people walk up the dome than visit the museum and the other parts of the complex. That may be changing as the word’s out on how great the museum is, but it’s still worth a note to say DO spend half a day or more seeing all the parts that make up this “whole”. Walking up the dome is, yes, about the experience and seeing Florence from above, but it’s also technically more about the dome itself, I think. If you’re interested in putting the Dome more into context and also visiting a newly opened area of the Duomo climb (from which I took the photo above), take a Secret Terraces of the Duomo tour by one of just a very few tour providers who hold the key (literally!) to this special place.
8/ Get blown away by patterns in Palermo
Immacolata Concezione al capo
I didn’t know I’d love Palermo as much as I did until I got there and started exploring it on foot. Ruled by everyone and their uncle, be he Byzantine or Ostragoth, Arab or Spanish, it’s a city that breaks all the rules and does it with style. I particularly loved the Palermitan Baroque style, which is light-filled, with lots of pink marble, pattern and drama. The other highlight here, in my opinion, is the mosaic work, which can be found in numerous locations in the city and, for something really spectacular, the Duomo of Monreale just a short trip outside the city. If you love hustle and bustle, street food at all hours, tons of art clashing with street culture, and not spending a lot of money, Palermo should be on the top of your list.
9/ Make (and drink) real Italian coffee
I think that spending any time in Italy makes one into a food snob, and most certainly also a coffee snob. I used to spend a lot of time in late high school and early university, sitting in coffee shops drinking those tall tubs of “American coffee”. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s part of why my stomach is so bad now that I can’t drink the stuff at all. On my first trip to Italy, I fell in love with the creamy cappuccinos taken standing up at a marble bar (at the time, the fancy bar in Florence’s piazza San Marco made the best one in town). When it wasn’t possible to go out for one, I bought a Bialetti Moka, and quickly learned the tricks of making Italian coffee in a moka. If you want to get really serious about it, there’s a certification course you can take from the Institute of Coffee Tasters. Or, just sip your mornings away in the best bars around Italy and hit up the barista to learn the tricks of the trade!
10/ See how the Romans lived
Touring the Colosseum with Context Travel
Personally, my favourite historical periods are the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. I’ve always found the Ancient periods to be harder to understand, maybe because they require more imagination and information to understand the functions of the objects and spaces that come down to us today. (Also, most Archaeological Museums in Italy are underfunded and hence have terrible labeling and display.) Lately I’ve been reading the Cicero Trilogy on my Kindle so I’ve got a new urge to see the Forum and imagine the book’s characters there. Walking through central Rome’s amazingly well preserved monuments like the Colosseum and the Imperial Forum is absolutely a don’t miss experience. While they’re impressive and legible on their own, I’d recommend taking the Colosseum Tour with Context Travel here in order to understand it properly and in context – I love their small group tours with an academic slant.
11/ Get buffalo mozzarella from the source
The cows that make buffalo mozzarella
Have you ever visited a cheesemaker? I’ve been to a few places that make pecorino and seen a lot of cute sheep, but going to a buffalo mozzarella farm is a whole other ballgame. Mozzarella di Bufala is a DOP protected product made in the Campania area of Italy, with a rich history that goes back to the 12th century (though the first citation of the name mozzarella is in a book from 1570). In the Campania region in and outside of Naples, you’ll find plenty of good producers – Caserta and Paestum may be two of the most famous areas. My family and I were visiting the archaeological site at Paestum when we got pretty hungry, so went to Caseificio Barlotti, where you can visit the farm animals (and smell them) right where they make the cheese and serve it in a small restaurant. Besides being as fresh as it gets, I discovered my love of smoked mozzarella!
12/ Immerse yourself in the Dolomites
The Dolomites are a UNESCO Heritage Site
The Dolomites are incredibly beautiful at any time of year. In the winter, the snow capped mountains dazzle for their seeming inaccessibility, yet we drive in, ski on them, and enjoy spa resorts there. In the spring, coloured flowers carpet the hillsides and the hiking paths become inviting; they stay like that (but get hotter and less floral) in the summer. Fall can get cold early, but has its joys as well. The Italian Dolomites are of course vast, so you can choose the area you prefer to visit and won’t run out of places to return. I’ve been twice lately to the Val Pusteria, known in winter for the Kronplatz ski area, which I found particularly rich with both natural and cultural beauty. I’ll be writing more about that soon!
13/ Visit a Chianti Classico Winery
Me in the vines at Dievole. Photo Michelle Davis.
Last year, you may recall that I decided to start drinking wine after over 20 years of tee-totaling. The decision wasn’t one I took lightly, but living in Tuscany for this long, it seemed ignorant to exclude such an important part of the local culture. Tuscany’s landscape is very much shaped by mankind, sculpted with cypress trees dividing properties, and parceled into orderly stripes of vineyards and patches of olive groves. The Chianti Classico area is where Tuscany’s reputation for quality wine started (the original “Chianti” zone grew over a few hundred years, and was hence restricted by legislation in more recent times). I’m now really enjoying visiting wineries all over Italy (see, for example, wineries to visit in Maremma). Many have structured wine tours you can book online. I’ve been managing social media for Dievole, near Siena, for a few years, and I highly recommend and love Dievole’s picnic and wine tasting tour, because you can easily feel at home there with that delicious lunch and spectacular view.
14/ Drive along the Amalfi Coast
The famous Amalfi Coast
Historically, it seems that Italians purposefully chose to settle in some of the most hard to reach, inhospitable places of the country. Or maybe it’s just that with lots of hills, mountains and coastline, so much of the country is, well, anti-highway. The Amalfi Coast road is not for the faint of stomach; the two-lane road clings to the side of the hill and in plenty of places you wonder if it’s not actually one-way, yet it’s packed with busses, motorini and more. Like the Cinque Terre in Liguria, vines are built terraced into the hill and the people know what hard life is like. Here, as a visitor, it’s all about the views, the limoncello, the anchovies and the very impressive villas and luxury hotels. If you time your visit right, I think the most amazing thing would be to attend a concert at the Ravello Festival, performed on a terrace that juts out over the sea at Villa Rufolo. But at just about any time of the year, this area of Southern Italy is worth a visit.
15/ Analyze the Sistine Chapel, alone
After Hours Vatican Museum Tour | Context Travel - YouTube
The problem with a list of experiences you must do once in your lifetime is that a lot of these great places get pretty crowded. I’ve been to the Vatican Museums and seen the Sistine Chapel many times, though it’s been years since I have visited, as I seem to get more intolerant of crowds with age! In this article about how to avoid tourists in the most touristy places in the world, Context Travel docent Agnes Crawford gives some tips on how to make the Vatican experience most pleasant – for example, the best time to visit is Tuesday, Thursday, or Friday in the afternoon. But probably the best thing to do, if you can afford it, is to book the Sistine Chapel just for yourself! I’m not going to kid with you, it costs $4000, but if you’re taking a once in a lifetime trip with your family, this may be better than anything else you can do with your money, IMO. It’s on my bucket list for this year, that’s for sure.
16/ Stay in a Trullo (in summertime)
An abandoned trullo in a field in Puglia
Although they look prehistoric, trulli (singular: trullo) are not documented in Puglia’s Valle d’Itria until the 17th century. But the origin may be older, and the legend behind this peculiar house shape is one of my favourite stories about Italian cleverness (the right word here is furbo – see this article by Girl in Florence about the word and its application). The legend is that house tax was based on one’s roof, so they built these dry stone walled circular huts with conical stone roofs that could be dismantled as quickly as the tax man was spotted by the nearest sheep farmer. Trulli were primarily rural buildings, with the exception being the town of Alberobello, a..