ON FEBRUARY 13TH, 2013, as the news of Gabriele Basilico’s passing reached me from Milan, I became profoundly aware of the tremendous mark left by this internationally known photographer on his own community. His premature death at the age of sixty-eight, after a difficult year fighting with cancer, left everybody numb, deprived of a friend and a guide, while his photography, imbued with a special kind of humanism and engaged in a new definition of urban culture, continued to resonate worldwide.
Basilico had been the ideal interlocutor for architects and urban planners. Born in Milan, he received a degree in Architecture at the Polytechnic in the early 1970s, and it was during this heated political period that he had encountered the theories of Aldo Rossi, an architect and university professor aligned to the Italian Left. Rossi’s book, The Architecture of the City (1966) was a treatise engaging with the urban periphery; consequently, Basilico’s first important book, Milan: Portraits of Factories (1981), focused on a working-class district on the city’s outskirts. Basilico’s “portraits” of industrial architecture recalled Bernd and Hilla Bechers’ “anonymous sculptures,” and echoed an international trend of photographers tuned to a landscape in transformation. As Basilico expressed, “these worn-out sites, particularly those with traces of industrial civilization,” were not meant to leave space to nostalgia but to create awareness “that these suffering locations were a reality we have to live with—like a patrimony of life and culture, a past and present with which our future will have to deal.”
Basilico was the only Italian photographer invited to participate in the French government commission DATAR (Delegation for Regional Planning) between 1984 and ’86, and this experience enhanced his contemplative attitude toward landscape, with a particular focus on the harbors in the Northern territories. Increasingly, he developed projects that showed the new and amorphous shapes of cities—alternatively defined by Rem Koolhaas, David Harvey, and Stefano Boeri, as scattered, flexible, and eclectic. Basilico was also included in “Viaggio in Italia” (Voyage in Italy, 1984), a pivotal curatorial project launched by photographer Luigi Ghirri, opening a new definition of the Italian landscape, and in 1991 he was selected among an international group of photographers to record the remnants of Beirut. I recall seeing those prints—a rare group in color—at the Fifty-Second edition of the Venice Biennale, in 2007, and being struck by the skeletal buildings acting as evidence of resistance among a deserted landscape. Those images reflected the beauty that history had left behind, along with tragedy and obvious desolation. Standing by the urban solitudes of Beirut and of other local peripheries, Basilico was able to recognize a trace of life in the bare walls, and this was perhaps the most important gift he left to us: a special clarity of vision, vigorously projected toward the future, and a sense of a living community.
Maria Antonella Pelizzari is professor of art history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY.