Photography If photography tells the art of the past: Luca Santese for MARec

If photography tells the art of the past: Luca Santese for MARec

Anna Frattini

For almost a year, the Museo dell’Arte Recuperata (MARec) in San Severino Marche has been welcoming hundreds of works literally saved from sacred places in the Marche region after the devastating earthquake of 2016. It serves as a temporary home where priceless sacred artworks dating from the 12th to the 18th century can be returned to the public. The context from which these works were violently separated by the earthquake is recreated through a division based on their original place of origin within the beautiful rooms of the Palazzo Vescovile. However, contrary to the antiquity of the exhibited works, museum director Barbara Mastrocola strongly wanted an intervention capable of conveying the power of the artworks through one of the most contemporary languages: photography and video.
Taking up the challenge are Luca Santese, photographer and founder of the Cesura Collective, and Nicola Patruno, cultural critic and curator, who have created a comprehensive documentary that portrays a collectively experienced landscape, with a narrative rich in suggestions, emotions, and the words of those who are an integral part of that territory. Additionally, in April, a significant publication was presented to convey the mission of the museum. It is not a catalog but a volume that “is a journey within the works,” as Barbara Mastrocola explains, “synthesizing the sense of this Museum with highly evocative images. It represents the aspiration for rebirth that also involves the recovery of artworks, astonishing testimonies of the ancient vitality, including the economic vitality, of the places that, especially after the wounds of the earthquake, may superficially appear somewhat marginalized compared to the development that seems to have occurred only in the coastal areas of the Marche region”. We asked Luca Santese to tell us how photography has contributed to defining the identity of MARec.

Editorial experience is not new in your practice, although here we find ourselves facing a hybrid publication that is not a catalog but also not a simple guide. Nevertheless, its ability to involve the public in the MARec project is quite high, thanks to a balanced use of texts and images. How did you, Nicola Patruno, and Barbara Mastrocola coordinate the work? What are the objectives of the publication?
As you mentioned, I started very young with independent publishing through Cesura, my photographic collective, and its independent publishing house, Cesura Publish. Through them, I have mainly been involved in authorial photography books. This catalog has found a strong identity because it combines my experience with the expertise of Nicola Patruno, a curator and cultural critic, Giulia Fumagalli, an experienced and experimental graphic designer, and Barbara Mastrocola, the director of the MARec museum who has an intimate knowledge of each individual artwork. Together with Patruno, I have been working closely with Mastrocola from the very beginning to curate this volume.

In your case, as a research photographer with an extremely contemporary vision, what approach did you want to give to the images of the recovered artworks? How did these incredible works, belonging to a different era and carrying other wounds/stories, manage to speak to you, and how did you manage to convey their essence?
The Director granted me the privilege of interpreting the museum’s artworks photographically, working with a non-scientific light on the sculptures. Instead of approaching them from a cataloging perspective, I aimed for a more dramatic lighting that allowed me to enhance the expressiveness of the works, almost giving life to the subjects. Regarding the paintings, I had the freedom to select specific details, creating a sense of paintings within paintings. Working closely with medieval painting and sculpture photographically is a powerful experience that establishes an intimate and profound connection between the photographer and the artworks themselves. It allows for a deep understanding and knowledge of the works.

To what extent did directing the documentary, and therefore delving deeper into the narrative and existential fabric of the territory, influence your way of photographing?
Certainly, it had a significant impact because the exploration of the territory, in order to create this documentary with Nicola Patruno, was thorough and methodical. It allowed me to deeply understand the spirit of the place that is preserved and lives on in the artworks, in their function of worship and memory that indissolubly links them to the inhabitants. This deeper understanding of the territory and its people influenced my approach to photography, as I was able to capture not only the physical beauty of the artworks but also their emotional and cultural significance within the context of the local community.

In the publication, there are many detailed photographs, and the shooting angles are sometimes unusual. The use of light is theatrical, almost aiming to dramatize the subjects photographed. This approach is certainly more authorial compared to the conventional style of museum catalogs and places this publication on a different level of interpretation. Do you believe this choice also extends to the texts and contributions of the other professionals you worked with? Who is the intended audience for this unique publication?
As I mentioned, I had the opportunity to interpret the museum’s artworks photographically, working with non-scientific lighting and framing techniques that emphasized their expressiveness, both in sculpture and painting. This approach was applied by all the professionals involved in the project, and it influenced every aspect of our work. Together, we aimed to highlight not only the fundamental documentary function of the catalog but also the expressive aspect related to curatorial, graphic, and photographic interpretation. This aspect was crucial to our goal: to convey with the utmost strength not only the power of the artworks but also the entire history that enlivens and sustains them, from their rescue to their new life. This publication is intended for an audience that appreciates not only the historical and artistic significance of the artworks but also their emotional and expressive qualities. It invites readers to engage with the narratives and stories behind the artworks and to experience the profound connection between art, history, and the local community.

Ph. courtesy MARec

Written by Anna Frattini
Listen on