Aaron Schuman pictures Italy through the eyes of a traveller

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The photographer’s latest book revists the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to explore Italy’s cultural and historical legacies 

Between the years 1786 and 1788, German poet, novelist and natural philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe journeyed through Italy. The resulting book from his travels, Italian Journey, inspired both a renewed interest in the classical art of ancient Greece and, among young Germans, a desire to emulate his pilgrimage.

During his time in Italy, Goethe asked himself: “In putting my powers of observation to the test, I have found a new interest in life…Can I learn to look at things with clear, fresh eyes? How much can I take in at a single glance? Can the grooves of old mental habits be effaced?” Over the past four years, photographer Aaron Schuman – yet another to be inspired by Goethe’s travels – has revisited many of these same questions.

Taken during the American photographer’s own journeys through Italy, Schuman has now compiled his studies of Goethe’s “sense-impressions” into a new book. Published by MACK, the dark red, fabric covered volume bears the title, Sonata, embossed in gold across its cover. 

From Sonata, published by MACK © Aaron Schuman.
From Sonata, published by MACK © Aaron Schuman.

On first look, it appears more like a diary than a traditional photobook. Inside, Sonata’s departures from the norm continue. A map of Italy adorns its inside cover and its images, presented without comment or caption, fill little more than half of the book’s pages. This choice – to present many of the images alone and with vast borders – gives each the feeling of a postcard, a snapshot of memory from Schuman’s four-year exploration of Italy.

The images vary widely in subject and, by employing the classical three movement form of a Sonata, in style. The book’s first movement, exposition, is filled with bold, curious and atmospheric moments – sunlight, statues and cracks in museum walls. Its second, development, presents a change of pace – detailed, black and white images of fruit trees and their shadows fill page after page.

As the name suggests, Sonata’s final movement, recapitulation, returns once more to its earlier style and subjects. However, images here have a stronger sense of confrontation. Statues stare resolutely out from these final pages, accompanied by bones, teeth and bare breasts.

Throughout Sonata, Schuman invites us to explore an Italy that is as much of the mind as of the world, an Italy soaked in the euphoria and terror, harmony and dissonance of its cultural and historical legacies. Themes of gender, race and religion all haunt this book’s pages, as Schuman strives to convey an objective reality, exploring what Italy has represented to countless travellers – including Goethe – who have ventured there before him.

Sonata by Aaron Schuman is published by MACK