Postcards from Italy, c. 1950



When I recently organized my basement I came upon a stack of elegantly bound photo albums, their solid covers in carmine red, black snake print, and a discreet linden green held together by matching silk cords. As I was turning the heavy, dark gray pages, covered with wonderfully evocative, glossy black and white postcards in sharp focus, labeled vera fotografia (genuine photography) 1953, I remembered “curating” these albums for my parents. They always enjoyed poring over each page, memories of perfect vacations on their beloved island of Ischia and sundry culture trips across Italia.


The albums.

I thought it would be amusing and poignant to share a small selection of these midcentury cartoline vera fotografia.

This may also be a good moment to mention that I grew up in Munich, Germany, the somewhat Italianate capital of Bavaria, Monaco di Baviera, as the Italians would have it. From there, it is a relatively short car ride, or train trip, to Northern Italy. You would have breakfast at home, and 4 or 5 hours later, you could take a swim in Lake Garda, maybe a late lunch in Verona, or, if you pushed it a little, sip your aperitivo Bellini at Harry’s Bar in Venice before dinner. At the time, in the early fifties, Italy was one of the most popular tourist destinations for Germans who were tired of their still somewhat drab cities and hardship of reconstruction. La bella Italia offered not only mare, luce, e sole (sea, light and sun) but inexpensive lodging, cheap wine, and endless varieties of pasta.

En route southward, regular stops included Verona, Vicenza, Padua, and Ravenna. Padua, in particular, offers both spiritual and sublimely beautiful cultural attractions: St. Anthony of Padua, a beloved and popular saint lies buried in his cathedral under much magnificent marble that is said to have magically spiritual power. Devout admirers from all over the world line up to touch the marble wall of his tomb. He is said to help to find what is lost, from the sacred to the profane. I, for example, conjure his name each time I mislay my cellphone or my house keys but also send him thoughts when flying through a heavy turbulence. He helps, I promise.


Saint Anthony.

Most worthy of a leisurely visit in Padua are the sublime Giotto frescos of the Cappella degli Scrovegni all’Arena. Alas, these days, visits are strictly regulated, both in time and space. At the time of my parent’s travels, one could just walk into the chapel and had the leisure to contemplate as long as one wished.


Detail from the Arresto di Gesu.

Perugia seems to have always been on their itinerary. They stayed in the then-classic Hotel la Rosetta. Its restaurant was famous for desserts, especially the Zuppa Inglese, a mouthwatering mess of cream, liquor-drenched fruits, and a bit of angel food cake.


Perugia’s Palazzo Communale and the Basilica San Pietro.


A team of oxen pulling a handheld plough near Assisi.

The ancient Umbrian town of Gubbio is well known for its strong papal connections. Velazquez painted Pope Innocent X, member of the Gubbio Pamphili family.


A scene from Gubbio.


Arezzo. Basilica di San Francesco. The incomparable Piero della Francesca (1416-1492) created the basilica’s magnificent frescos.


From Napoli, the erupting Mount Vesuvius and a bronze figure of a dancing Faun in the National Archaeological Museum.

As I wrote earlier, my parents spent many vacations on the glorious Island of Ischia. It seems to me, looking at cards and some personal pictures, that they were at their most relaxed, merry, and joyful when walking across the island, chatting with the islanders, watching the fishermen at work and gazing at the “wine-dark sea.”

Ischia is the largest island in the Bay of Naples and has a fascinating history reaching back to gods and mythological heroes. Ulysses is said to have touched down there, Aphrodite bathed in its thermal waters, Aeneas beached his boat there somewhere, and the archangel Michael gave the picturesque fishing village of Sant’Angelo its name. There is also archaeological evidence for Phoenician and early Greek settlements.


Torre del Angelo, Ischia.

Artists flocked to Sant’Angelo in the 1950s. One of them declaring it the most beautiful place in the world.


Umbrellas on the coast.


Fishermen at work.


A photo by my mother of a meandering lane on the island.


My father chatting with Catarina, the fig and grape queen of the island, photographed by my mother.

And finally, because it’s the season, the most cheerful fresco from San Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, of the Magi, wishing us all a blessed holiday season, wherever we may be in the world.


The Magi.