Davide Degano ruminates on the cultural past and uncertain future of the remote villages in Italy’s north

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Returning to his childhood home, the photographer has dedicated his practice to reviving the historical heritage of Friuli

The word ‘Sclavanie’ once denoted the Northeasternmost region of Italy, inhabited by Slavic settlers in the 7th century. Today, the area is known as Friuli, and the term ‘sclavanie’ is considered derogatory, used to sneer at the mountain populations who have remained connected to their ancient Slavic roots.

Understanding the title of Davide Degano’s extensive project clues us into one of its central themes: the connection to one’s cultural past. After feeling out of step with Dutch culture during his studies at the Royal Academy of the Arts in the Hague, Degano began journeying home to Italy and photographing the sparsely populated area of his childhood. The resulting work, which is shot throughout Canebola, Costapiana, Stremiz and other villages in the Friulian region, became a rediscovery of his “cultural heritage, portraying facets of life in the mountains between the Italian and Slovenian borders,” he says. The project is resolved as a book combining Degano’s photographs with archival imagery and quotes from interviews. It is due to be published at the end of this year.

Sclavanie opens with a series of vast and dramatic mountainous landscapes, where tiny villages are dwarfed by the environment, like islands in a sea of forest. The pictures include portraits of the local community, interiors of homes, bars and religious buildings, still lifes, and other scenes chosen for both their descriptive quality and symbolic significance. At first, the work appears pretty and nostalgic, but complexity and contradiction run deep within this border region. In one image we see a wall decorated with pictures of the fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. This is paired with an image of a communist flag draped over a washing line. Each year in August, Friuli holds a communist party day, commemorating the bravery of the partisan forces who helped to defeat fascist Nazi troops. Degano explains, “the same people organising this party would recall Mussolini in good terms for what he did for the farmers.” The images fuse many such dichotomies; the local and the global; tradition and innovation; Slovenia and Italy; people and the land. 

We see a repeated reference to the ‘piasentina’ stone that Friulians were once proficient at working. A local named Giuliano, who returned to his homeland after 40 years spent living in Belgium, comments that “we never fully understood its value. We saw it as the symbol of our misery”. While Dino, the last remaining stonemason and inhabitant of Costapiana, adds: “now foreigners come to live here, in the stone houses of which we were so ashamed”.

A young dancer, Alice, leans against the chapel where she was baptised – her Eminem vest clashing against the tranquility of the religious building. For Degano, this picture is about embracing contradiction. After completing her studies in Manchester, Alice hopes to return to the mountains and set up a school, teaching the region’s traditional dance to newcomers. 

Degano believes that Friuli’s future needs to be found with its own culture in mind. Sclavanie presents a place and its people as they try to adapt to the modern world, without losing touch to their past. The photographer is working with a local publisher, Penisola Edizioni, and hopes for the book to reach the houses of as many Friulians as possible. He is also organising tours and an open air exhibition to teach tourists about the area’s history. Degano hopes to help fuel local business, while ascribing “importance [to the stories] of Friuli Venezia Giulia’s landscape.” 

Harry Flook

Harry Flook is a photographer and writer based in Bristol. Alongside his role as deputy editor at Loupe magazine Harry has written for other platforms such as Splash and Grab and BJP. His photographic practice is concerned with topics surrounding religion, belief, and the gap between perception and reality, as well as more playful collaborations with other artists. Harry is studying his MA in Photography at UWE Bristol, graduating in 2021.