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Much Has Happened

Fr. Francesco Felice Mattera has been pastor of San Giovanni Battista in Buonopane for 33 years. The church, he says, was founded on the 9th of October, in 1537. When Fr. Mattera began as a young priest, the population of Buonopane was 1,300. Today it’s around 1,500. Recently many new villas have been constructed so now the village is hardly recognizable. It seems virtually everything has been remodeled, including the church. For instance, the floor used to be warm terra cotta. Now it is gray marble. The altar stone is new, but the columns supporting it date back to when the church was built. The oil painting of St. John above the altar is an original, done some time in the 1600s by Massimo Stanzione, who was among the students and followers of the great Caravaggio. Mattera, he says, is a very old family name in Buonopane. Much has happened in this tiny vllage during the past thirty-three years.

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to make st john the baptist look
like a debauchee from petronius is
an achievement.
perhaps, not remembering images in
detail, that more recent catholic
artist fellini achieved a bit of
the converse...touching the debauchees
with a special grace.

I like to think that for the artist all of life--the sacred or the profane--is material. Stanzione's intent is of course unknowable, but we are free to enjoy our speculations.

yes of course. is priest
a nice guy? face allows
certainly the interpretation
that he is but perhaps does
not enforce that reading...
your words do not give the
clue to reading.

As I was photographing a loaf of bread on the altar, Fr. Mattera appeared from the sacristy and he approached me in a questioning but nevertheless open, friendly manner. I know he was wondering why I was taking pictures, and that he was curious as to what brought me to this little village. So I simply said something to the effect that this church may be small but it is beautiful, and that is what I like to do, photograph beautiful things. Now, between my bad Italian and his limited English, we nevertheless managed to keep a conversation going. As we talked three very old women came in and sat in the front pews. We continued talking, and then Fr. Mattera looked at his watch, and I then thanked him for the information he'd given me. As I went past the women one of them asked him who I was, and he replied that my name was John. One of the women brightened and pointed to the Stanzione above the altar and looked at me playfully , and I nodded and pointed to myself. "Si. San Giovanni," I said, and they all laughed.

I should add that when I raised my camera and asked permission to take his picture, he seemed surprised and flattered, and he immediately assumed a pose which was not quite consistent with the more relaxed and enthusiastic tone of our conversation. It seemed to me this was not an affectation or an expression of annoyance, but rather it was his wanting to be correct and formal, as a way of honoring the interest I had showed him and his church. In all my years as a professional photographer I've never gotten this kind of a reaction. It was unique, and very interesting.

that is a bit of an oldfashioned attitude
isnt it like that one sees in photographs
early in the history of photography where
the faces have a gravity which comes surely
mostly from this which could lead (as jack
finney romantically says in 'time and again'0
one to think that these were a deeper and
different sort of people than we are.
and thank you for adding the word portrait
to the visual one.

Yes, indeed, in the early days cameras needed to have an extremely long exposure time which meant that subjects had to sit as motionless as possible, and sometimes this was aided by a metal bracket that held the subject's head steady. Those looks of facial gravitas often sprang from acute discomfort. But then this look became a photographic portrait convention, whereby the expression and pose was assumed even when cameras required shorter exposure times. I didn't think of this when Fr. Mattera went into his pose, and on reflection I still still believe his primary motive wasn't convention but rather respectful formality. Thank YOU for eliciting all this post-shoot examination and analysis!

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