An Italian photographer’s lifelong love affair with the land and culture of Iran
Imagine a teenager having recently immigrated to the United States spending the summer in his native Shiraz. The August of Shiraz, hot and dry, draws him inside the bookstores of Molla Sadra avenue. Intimately familiar with the poetry of Sohrab Sepehri, he has a ravenous appetite for commentaries on Sepehri’s oeuvre, which encompasses too many titles to note, even in a bibliography; and, with his new camera, one may even say this teenager has an eye for photography. He grabs a few books, goes to the cashier, and spots underneath the display case at the counter a copy of Ta Shaghayegh Hast (While Poppies Bloom) – an exquisite find!
With colours popping out of its cover, While Poppies Bloom is a coffee table book of 80 photographs of Persian landscapes published together with the poetry of Sohrab Sepehri in both Persian and English. It represents a collaborative effort between the translator, Karim Emami, and the photographer and Iranologist Riccardo Zipoli. In the book’s introduction, written with sincerity and style, Riccardo speaks of his love affair with Iran, its culture, and its people.
Upon his return to the United States, the teenager in question reached out to Riccardo; he admired how well his images of rural Iran captured the voice and sentiment of Sepehri’s poems. Their correspondence marked the beginning of a friendship, initially formed through phone conversations and emails, until the two eventually met several years later over coffee in Campo San Polo in Venice, Riccardo’s ‘second’ home.
Although their correspondences had primarily been of an intellectual nature, their first meeting held a casual, social pleasure as well. The young man – yours truly – immediately stepped into a different world through Riccardo’s eloquence in Persian, his knowledge of Iranian geography, and his ability to tune in to the nuances of Iranian society. With a style of speaking and humour unique to him, tactfully and humbly, Riccardo began to describe his first encounter with Iran in 1972. Having reached Iran via a road trip through former Yugoslavia and Turkey with his mentor, Gianroberto Scarcia, Riccardo’s one-month stay in the country commenced a lifelong love affair that brought together his passion for exploring the Iranian landscape and his area of expertise, Persian poetry.
Riccardo began his academic career in 1978, and at present, chairs the Department of Eurasian Studies at the University of Venice, where he teaches Persian literature and photography. The author of multiple publications, his scholarship engages historical and stylistic problems in classical Persian literature, particularly concerning the Sabk-i Hindi (lit. ‘Indian Style’). What initially began in the 70s as an interest in the landscape photography of rural Iran has now turned into a career that has taken him to dozens of countries, and seen his works showcased in galleries around the world, such as the Paradise Art Center in the Persian Gulf island of Hormuz, which recently exhibited a number of his photographs in a solo exhibition entitled A Gulf, a Strait, and a Sea.
Riccardo’s Iran, discovered and rediscovered in verdant valleys, dense forests, and desert plains becomes a mirror in which the world and its distant lands appear before one’s eyes
Riccardo’s latest book, Riflessi di Persia (Reflections of Persia) brings together the uniqueness of the scholar and photographer’s life and work. In the introduction, in both Italian and English, he evokes the likes of the 17th century Persian-language poet from India, ‘Abdo ’l-Qâder Bidel (popularly referred to as Bidel Dihlavi, lit. ‘The Heartless One of Delhi’), and Jorge Luis Borges in pondering the process of discovering, studying, photographing, and rediscovering Iran. Reflections of Persia features 50 photographs of Persian landscapes as well as those of 15 other countries, including Cuba, Iceland, Mexico, Morocco, Yemen, and Oman, that have been presented alongside one another within a dialogue. The photographs have been divided by themes specific (e.g. roads, bushes, trees, walls, etc.), general (e.g. deserts, mountains, clouds, etc.), and in two instances, intermediary (e.g. fields and oases). Each ‘theme’ includes a photograph of Iran, used as a model or source of inspiration, followed by four photographs of other countries selected to ‘complete’ the theme. The geographical origins of the individual images are only listed in the final appendix, forcing readers to pay close attention to each landscape both on its own, as well as vis-à-vis others. In doing so, Riccardo removes political borders, placing before the eyes of readers a global ‘empire of landscapes.’ As he states,
Through all my trips to Iran, a sort of a conceptual landscape has gradually taken shape in my mind and spirit, and now, increasingly often, I find that landscape also in other countries. In a certain sense, the world has been stripped of its borders in an aesthetic globalisation of the landscape, fostered by a region, which … has become a peaceful, unrivalled exporter of beauty.
In the past four decades, what has Riccardo discovered in Iran that calls on him to trace its features outside the country? And, if Iran is to be rediscovered in other terrain, what constitutes the essence of its landscape? On what level does ‘Persianness,’ which has now assumed a form of a ‘universal constant’ rest? The answer lies in the author’s first encounters in Iran, accompanied by Scarcia. ‘My professor had alluded to the existence of two Iranian landscape satrapies,’ notes Riccardo,‘far outside the borders of the country and very distant from each other: the northern satrapy of Iceland, and the southern satrapy of Yemen’. An Old Persian term, satrap referred to local governors of the myriad regions of the Persian Empire. Applying a term conventionally used to divide Iran’s political landscape in terms of its natural geography, Scarcia points to other provinces outside of Iran that are ‘arranged according to the typical models of [their] own land’. Riccardo’s photography captures these satrapies, and his selection of arrangements speaks of the existence of an empire: a ‘landscape empire,’ as opposed to a political one. Riccardo’s Iran, discovered and rediscovered in verdant valleys, dense forests, and desert plains becomes a mirror in which the world and its distant lands appear before one’s eyes.
Reflections of Persia celebrates the journey of a scholar, photographer, literary translator, and above all, an Iranologist, who has gone above and beyond the political borders of Iran
Reflections of Persia also features 52 lines of poetry, translated in English and Italian, by Bidel. The concept of reflection is central to the poems, while the image of the mirror (widely evoked in Persian Sufi literature) constantly resurfaces. Bidel’s verse, known for its complexity and ‘polysemantic labyrinths’ ties in well with the general theme of the book: that is, of tracing reflections of Persia in all its geographical diversity in remote and faraway landscapes. The selected poems speak powerfully alongside the photographs, each image having been arranged in thematic sets with one photograph acting as a source of inspiration (the mirror) for the other four photographs, which present variations (reflections) of the theme.
Bidel, a relatively understudied figure in Iran today, evokes yet another distant landscape of the country: the global realm of Persian literature, especially where South Asia is concerned. In Mughal India, Persian was the main language of administration, literary production, and historiography, and played a vital role in the reform of the educational system, particularly during the reign of the Emperor Akbar (1556 – 1605). The legacy of Persian literature, however – once shared among different cultural, ethnic, and religious groups – is becoming increasingly occluded. While Iranian nationalists view the Sabk-i Hindi form of Persian poetry as degenerate, dense, inaccessible, and elitist, it is regarded as a language of ‘Muslim elites’ in South Asia, a heritage Hindu nationalists deem foreign to India.
It is against such a political and historical backdrop that the importance of Riccardo’s scholarship, encapsulated by his latest publication, should be regarded. Reflections of Persia celebrates the journey of a scholar, photographer, literary translator, and above all, an Iranologist, who has gone above and beyond the political borders of Iran to hold up a mirror of its distant literary and natural landscapes.
Of every vision the mirror shows only a simple reflection;
No painter knows how to make a drawing of the human soul
– Bidel Dihlavi