By Alessandra Stanley, February 20, 2000.
ROME — To illustrate an article about a recent conference on breast cancer prevention, Il Messaggero, the daily newspaper, splashed across its front page a picture of a sultry nude starlet, Sabrina Ferilli, reclining on a hammock, touching her breast and wearing a come-hither look that does not seem directed at an oncologist.
The color photograph, taken from one of Italy’s best-selling nude calendars, did not offend many readers, not even Dr. Aurelio Picciocchi, chief of surgery at the Catholic Hospital of the Sacred Heart in Rome, and a speaker at the conference. “Oh, that’s just journalism”, he said cheerfully. “But I can assure that, alas, no nude starlets attended the conference. That I would have noticed”.
European countries generally are more relaxed about nudity than the United States, particularly nudity in newspapers and advertising. While English and German newspapers tidily tend to restrict their naked starlets to the entertainment pages, however, their Italian counterparts regularly blend nudity or startling graphics into reporting, blurring the line between soft porn and hard news.
Blurring distinctions is an Italian art form, after all, even literally. “It was Leonardo da Vinci who invented the painting technique of sfumato, smudging the edges of a line for greater effect”, said Paolo Fabbri, a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna.
That ethical — and perhaps aesthetic — dexterity may help explain the Italian reaction to Benetton’s notorious Death Row ad campaign. Many admired the shock value of the ads that have become the trademark of the fashion retailer, but few seemed concerned that the photographer Oliviero Toscani and his colleagues may have misrepresented themselves as journalists to the prison authorities and death row inmates they photographed.
“I found the ads very strong and courageous”, Paolo Graldi, editor in chief of Il Messaggero, said. When asked about the ethics of the campaign, he replied, “Well, I am not familiar with the deontology of the professional guidelines that were followed”.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Graldi saw nothing questionable in using a nude pinup to report on breast cancer awareness. “The picture is both reassuring and suggestive”, he explained. “It shows women that they should not be afraid to touch their breasts. Breasts are beautiful, after all”.
Italian newspapers and magazines routinely feature naked women, and the newsmagazine Panorama broke new ground in 1997 when it illustrated a story on privacy with a nude cover photograph of the former Fiat chairman Gianni Agnelli, now 78, diving into the sea from his yacht.
But nudity isn’t the only thing that sells newspapers in Italy. So do movies. Just as articles on bank robberies often feature a spaghetti-western still of Clint Eastwood, reports on child prostitution are almost always accompanied by a still of Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver. Adult prostitution is illustrated with shots from Pretty Woman. A recent Il Messaggero article on research on tar-blocking filters in cigarettes was printed alongside the image of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, lighting a cigarette in the film’s famous interrogation scene.
Science and medicine tend to inspire the most imaginative graphics. A report on Dr. Severino Antinori, a fertility specialist who has been conducting experiments using mouse sperm to combat male infertility, was illustrated with a drawing of the cartoon mouse Topo Gigio.
Fabbri noted that for centuries Italian reality, with its cozy accommodations between church, state, politics, business and even organized crime has itself presented a blurry picture to the world. For example, in his 1994 election campaign, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a center-right politician and a media tycoon, flooded his own airwaves with political ads and also made many appearances on his networks’ most popular variety shows, which only his opponents viewed as an unfair advantage.
This month, the center-left government of Massimo D’Alema passed a law strictly limiting the use of political ads on television, and introducing equal-time rules that infuriated Berlusconi, who has never conceded that owning the three largest private television networks conflicted with his political duties.
Whether fact and fiction can be legislated back into their proper domains in Italy remains to be seen, but Fabbri warned that the smudging of distinctions between reality, art, journalism and advertising was not a cultural throwback but a sign of things to come. “Unfortunately, this phenomenon is very postmodern”, he said. “The degeneration of values and modes of communication lie in the future of all societies and not just Italy”.
In any case, he said he believed that Toscani’s effort to blend commerce and political statement has so far backfired. “He is a victim of his own confusions”, he said. “He is pretending to do journalism, but people read it as fiction. When they see these beautifully lit, colored images, most people don’t even realize they are seeing real faces of death row inmates, or it has no importance — they see it as another skillful publicity campaign, a movie poster, not reality”.