Marco Zanella finds love in the Italian countryside

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All images from Scalandrê © Marco Zanella.

This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine – a special edition with a double theme, Love / Ukraine. It can be delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription or available to purchase as a single issue on the BJP shop.

The Italian photographer travelled to the village of Cotignola in 2018, seeking inspiration and a new beginning. There, he found a sleepy, agricultural community living according to the seasons and preserving traditional practices in the face of a rapidly changing world. He also met his first love, and now, completed his first photobook. 

The historic village of Cotignola sits in the Italian Province of Ravenna. It is a small farming community of around 8000 people, where rural identity is valued, tittle-tattle is impossible to avoid, and where the digital age is often thwarted by tradition. Like in many agricultural villages in the north-eastern province, life pertains to a slow, natural rhythm, following the seasons as they ease into one another. In the height of summer, daily activities ambulate around the heat of the sun, and by night, life erupts around the restaurants in the village centre. 

Marco Zanella strode into Cotignola for the first time in July 2018 with few possessions and even fewer connections. Before he arrived, Zanella was caught up in a never-ending cycle of post-production, agonising over a visual narrative from the many projects he’d been working on. “I was living unhealthily, locked away in the studio, in darkness, not taking in enough sunlight,” he says. “I needed a change, so I contacted the organisers of Nell’Arena delle Balle di Paglia and expressed an interest in working with them.”

ITALY. Cotignola, Emilia-Romagna. Summer 2018. Mariani's country house. Rebecca, Tommaso and Teresa after swimming in the pool. © Marco Zanella.
ITALY. Cotignola, Emilia-Romagna. Summer 2019. Straw bales. © Marco Zanella.

“For me, Cotignola went from being just an excuse to change the life I was leading to being a life-changing experience. It’s where I found my first real love, and where I made Scalandrê, my first book as a photographer.”

Nell’Arena delle Balle di Paglia is an annual outdoor performing arts festival set on a floodplain in the Cotignola countryside – an expanse of land where the river Senio meets the Emiliano Romagnolo Canal. Preparation for the festival is year-long, involving farmers, carpenters and local volunteers who erect a Roman-style amphitheatre using balle di paglia (bales of straw). Since it began, in 2009, it has become the event of the year in the Province of Ravenna, attracting musicians, poets and artisans eager to participate in the celebrations. It is when, every summer, Cotignolans invite outsiders to share their world.

“As a joke, I told [the organisers] I was looking for love and images,” says Zanella. “But they took me seriously and even included my quote in the festival’s flyer.” By the end of the summer, Zanella had found what he was looking for. He began to photograph Nell’Arena that July. And, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, he continued making pictures of the village over the three subsequent years, documenting life in these rural surroundings.

ITALY. Cotignola, Emilia-Romagna. Summer 2019. Inside Pasquale Ercolani's home. © Marco Zanella.

 Zanella became absorbed by Cotignola, lost in its slow tempo, its heart, and his newfound love, Cristina, whom he met on the first day of the festival. “For me, Cotignola went from being just an excuse to change the life I was leading to being a life-changing experience. It’s where I found my first real love, and where I made Scalandrê, my first book as a photographer.” Unfolding over 104 pages, in 58 black-and-white photographs, Zanella’s book explores an agricultural community weighed down by the pandemic, by industrialisation, the digitisation of our world, and by a changing climate. The only certainty is the change of seasons, but the people find strength in the binds of tradition, and in each other. They preserve these memories at all costs.

The title Scalandrê derives from a regional Romagnol dialect, meaning ‘out of season’, suggesting that the absence of something is only temporary, and in time it will return, renewed yet familiar. It illustrates a cycle that Cotignola has moved through over many centuries, pushing against the tide of a rapidly evolving world. And what Zanella himself has done by remaking his life there.

ITALY. Cotignola, Emilia-Romagna. Spring 2019. The remains of the statue of the "Segavecchia" after the fire.
ITALY. Cotignola, Emilia-Romagna. Autumn 2019. Aqueduct.

“When I started working on the project, I didn’t really have a direction in mind,” he explains. “I was just in love with my new situation, with my new life, with walking in the countryside and discovering a new world.” But a story unfolded with every photograph he took – the story of a wounded community united by heritage, identity and, above all, love.

Scalandrê is published by Cesura, an Italian photo collective and publishing house founded in 2008, based in Piacenza. “When I joined the Cesura collective, I suddenly understood the importance of living in a small community, connected to the seasons, to the land,” says Zanella, who’s originally from Parma, Emilia-Romagna’s second largest city. “But Cesura is also where my passion for photography became an obsession.” It was 2011, and the collective’s co-founder and Magnum photographer Alex Majoli was hosting a masterclass at Cesura. Zanella enrolled in his workshop, describing it as “a week that changed my life”. With a degree from Istituto Tecnico Statale Leonardo da Vinci and a technical background in metal carpentry, Zanella’s outlook on life had always been pragmatic. But meeting Majoli changed everything, he explains of the Italian photographer, known for his documentation of war and conflict, and for whom the human condition is central to his work. “Majoli taught me how to see the world differently,” he says.

Zanella started working as Majoli’s studio assistant. “He taught me to break the protective barriers I had placed between me and the outside world,” says Zanella, thereby giving him the impetus to explore Italy’s rich heritage through his lens. While at Cesura, Zanella met the Dutch-Iranian artist, curator and photobook editor Daria Birang, who years later nominated him for British Journal of Photography’s 2017 Ones to Watch. Birang said of Zanella in BJP: “He uses the camera to better understand the world around him, and to connect… he feels very deeply about people.”

ITALY. Cotignola, Emilia-Romagna. Summer 2019. Mariani's country house. Enea and Romeo wrestling in the pool for fun. © Marco Zanella.

…to read more about Marco Zanella’s Scalandrê, head to the BJP shop to purchase the latest issue, themed Love.

Scalandrê is published by Cesura, priced €38. It is available now