Love and Lead – how paparazzi dealt truth and fiction in terror-stricken Rome

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It was early on the morning of 16 March 1978. Italy’s former Prime Minister, was sitting in the back of a blue Fiat, his driver inching through the labyrinthine streets of rush-hour Rome. Moro was heading to the Italian Parliament, where he was due to chair a vote for a new government that might, for the first time, make the Italian Communist Party a party of government – the first step in what he had called “the historic compromise” between Parliamentary Social Democracy and Euro-Communism.

Oreste Leonardi, a high-ranking carabiniere and his chief bodyguard, sat beside him; following his Fiat was a white Alfetta manned by three armed security agents. Driving down Via Fani – a tight road in a shady part of town – Moro’s car was hit by another Fiat, which came screeching in from a side road. A second vehicle arrived from behind, hemming Moro’s convoy in.

A hail of bullets tore through the air as four uniformed men emerged from the bushes, semi-automatic weapons held to their shoulders. Leonardi was killed first, a bullet sluicing through his neck. Then Moro’s driver fell. Autopsies found the remaining bodyguards took 45 bullets to their bodies. Moro was dragged from his car, thrown into a getaway vehicle, and spirited away.

Rome’s famed paparazzi were on the scene as quickly as the police, the high-whine of their Vespas sounding in warped harmony with the carabiniere’s sirens. The pictures they took, of bodyguards in perfectly tailored dark suits strewn across the concrete, priests above them administering the last rights, of Moro’s car, a corpse of glass, blood and bullet holes, ran on the front pages of newspapers around the world.

Moro was held captive for 55 days. On the fourth day, a Polaroid photograph found its way into the hands of the same paparazzi, and was also wired around the world. Moro, looking gaunt and pale, held a copy of the previous day’s La Repubblica newspaper. Above him loomed the insignia of the Red Brigade, a communist splinter group already suspected of a series of terrorist attacks, bombings and murders throughout the decade of “near civil war” in Italy, which became known as the Years of Lead.

“Moro’s kidnapping was specifically intended to cause maximum outrage: spectaculars that would be splashed across the world’s press,” says Roger Hargreaves, co-curator, along with  Federica Chiocchetti, of Amore e Piombo [Love and Lead]: The Photography of Extremes in 1970s Italy, which exhibited at the Brighton Photo Biennial last year.

“Paparazzi always follow the money,” says Hargreaves. “It was in celebrities and film stars and now, suddenly, it was in demonstrations, riots, kidnappings and terrorism, enacted for the news cameras to gain attention around the world.”

On 9th May, after an anonymous phonecall to his assistant, Moro’s body was found in the boot of a red Renault parked on Via Caetani, a busy street in downtown Rome almost exactly midway between the national seats of the Christian Democrat and Italian Communist Party. He had been shot with a 9mm Walther PPK and, after that weapon jammed, a 7.65mm Škorpion vz. 61. Gianni Giansanti, a prominent paparazzi, photographed Moro’s corpse before the police cordoned off the area. His pictures were syndicated worldwide.

In Italy, no-one recorded history like those confrontational, controversial photographers, their cameras constantly set to flash, their Vespas always ready to fly. Hargreaves, a curator at the Archive of Modern Conflict and lecturer at The Photographer’s Gallery, and his collaborator Federica Chiocchetti, director of the online magazine The Photocaptionist, acquired 12,000 prints from Team Editorial Services, a Rome-based press agency founded in the mid-1960s by journalist Franco Lefèvre, a wartime member of the Resistenza, and which now retains the copyright of over a quarter of a million photos taken from the Years of Lead and beyond.

Team Editorial Services employed a stable of paparazzi, such as Nicola Sansone, Augusto Casasola, Remo Casilla, Alberto Cristofari, Tiziana Fabi, Franco Fiori, Romano Gentile, Antonio Scattolon, Mimmo Frassineti, Francesco Gianni, Stafano Group, Daniele Gianni La Malfa, Carla Menegol, Massimo Vergari and Adriano Mordenti.

Hargreaves and Chiocchetti attempted to recreate an “era of political chaos shrouded in mystery” through the visual evidence it left behind – evidence which was often staged for the camera. “The terrorist outrages, the kidnappings, the abduction of Moro, the assassination of his security entourage, were all meant to be seen on prime time news,” Hargreaves tells me over cigarettes and coffee in his office in Bethnal Green, box upon box of prints piled high in the neighbouring room. “They were laid on for the press.”

What their exhibition reveals most clearly, say the pair, is what’s not revealed, despite the paparazzi’s seemingly all-seeing eyes. “We’re not seeing the puppet masters, the string pullers, the clandestine figures in the shadows orchestrating for the cameras,” they write.

Rome’s paparazzi industry dates back to Adolfo Porry Pastorel, who established the Visioni Editoriali Diffuse Ovunque agency [Visual Editorial Distributed Everywhere] in 1919. It became part of the nation’s cultural character in the early 1960s, when Hollywood’s discovery of Europe turned Rome into an open-air film set – a time immortalised by Federico Fellini in La Dolce Vita, in which Marcello Mastroianni’s bored reporter, Paparazzo, hunts Rome’s rich, famous and hedonistic.

It was the perfect storm for photographers – Italy’s great post-war directors, Fellini, Pasolini, Antonioni and De Sica, were at their peak just as Hollywood started to exploit the tiny production costs of the now legendary Cinecittà studios. New Europe actresses like Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot and Claudia Cardinale drank and danced with Hollywood stars like Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Mansfield and Raquel Welch in bars like Strega, Rosati and Club 84 in the Via Veneto part of town; the photographers spent their days shooting on-set, and joined the cast in the evenings. A cult of celebrity was created that remains potent half a century later.

“Politics and celebrity are brought together through this style of alto contrasto, collusion and intrusion,” Hargreaves and Chiocchetti write in their introductory notes. “There are no paper trails. Just whispers in the deep shadows. Unseen hands certainly stirred the ingredients of the season – gnostic terrorism, conspiracy and collaboration – into the already toxic brew of perpetual coalition government, economic stagnation and industrial unrest as Europe’s fiercest and most radical working class movements took to the streets.”

The first day of the Years of Lead was 12 December 1969, when a bomb ripped through the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura in Milan’s Piazza Fontana. Sixteen people were killed as they queued for the cashier, and more than 100 others injured. The Italian police arrested over 4,000 people in the aftermath. The bombing marked the start of a series of attacks known as “the strategy of tension”, in which terrorism was used as a weapon of change by political splinter groups. The era appeared to come to an end in 1974, but Moro’s death was followed by the carnage of 1980, when a suitcase with over 18kg of explosives went off in a train station in Bologna, killing 85 and wounding more than 200 people.

Despite endless trials and appeals, information and misinformation, conspiracy and counter-conspiracy, no-one was ever successfully prosecuted for the Piazza Fontana bombing. At first, the blame was placed on an anarchist-dancer called Pietro Valpreda, who was jailed without trial until 1972 only to be cleared in 1981. Over 80 known anarchists were questioned for the crime, including Giuseppe Pinelli – a middle-aged railway worker who fell to his death from a fourth-floor window moments after a police inspector left the room.

The “strategy of tension”, and the conspiracy theories surrounding it, came from the rise of the Italian Communist Party as an electoral force, Hargreaves and Chiocchetti write. “For the far-left, the Party’s willingness to reach an historic political compromise with the Christian Democrats represented a betrayal of principles. Externally, the Soviet Union was less than keen on the soft model of Eurocommunism. Equally the USA could not countenance a communist party as a coalition partner within the government of a NATO ally.”

The CIA has long been suspected of involvement, a conspiracy theory that seems to have more credence than most. In an interview with the Genoa newspaper Il Secolo XIX last August, long-serving Christian Democrat minister Paolo Emilio Taviani said he did not believe the US Central Intelligence Agency was involved in organising the Milan bomb, but added: “It seems to me certain, however, that agents of the CIA were among those who supplied the materials and who muddied the waters of the investigation.”

Cinecittà and its stars launched Italy in the world’s imagination as a byword for cool, glamour, liberalism and free love – a movement uninterrupted by the brutal murder of gay intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini, but stymied when Italy’s historic compromise was put in a boot and driven away in 1968. The 1970s saw liberal issues rise again, with the birth control pill introduced in 1971, the referendum for divorce in 1974, and the legalisation of abortion (under certain circumstances) in 1978, yet simultaneously the Years of Lead threatened to completely stymie Italian democracy. The men on Vespas were on hand to record it all, money on their minds,  their images lying somewhere between collusion and illusion.

Amore e Piombo [Love and Lead]: The Photography of Extremes in 1970s Italy exhibited at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Royal Pavilion Gardens.

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