Franco Sondrio, from the Sicilian Baroque to the Minimal Art

Franco Sondrio is an architect, passionate about the history of arts and a brilliant photographer. Minimalism is particularly suited to his style of photography and enables him to fully express his remarkable artistic vision.

by Alessandra Bettoni

In the today’s interview we turn the spotlight on Francesco Sondrio. We have appreciated him especially as a brilliant photographer but he has a solid background as an architect and artist. He has grown his passion for architecture and the history of arts since he was a child, dedicating his life and his career to these very inspiring forms of art. His passion has evolved through the years in a constant research that led him to express in photography, especially in the minimalist genre, a completely personal, artistic vision in which experimentation and aesthetic blend harmoniously.

© Franco Sondrio

We had a very pleasant chat with him, resulting in this very fascinating journey, unveiling his personal and captivating approach to art, photography and life.

Francesco Sondrio lives in the Sicilian town of Messina, where he was born in 1963. After completing the studies in his town, he graduated in Architecture at the Mediterranean University of Reggio Calabria. He got his doctorate at the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Messina by developing a thesis on “The representation of the landscape in the works of Antonello da Messina”.

He started his didactic work at the Faculty of Architecture in Reggio Calabria and has been co-ordinating many degree thesis in the fields of Restoration andHistory of Architecture. He has written essays and articles on books and scientific journals and is currently continuing his research work, with particular reference to the Antonello da Messina’s pictorial corpus, to the 15th century perspective apparatus and to the artistic and architectural developments of Messina, from the Renaissance to nowadays.

The most significant projects which he has carried out with his friend and colleague Francesco Galletta include the completion of the study of the “Annunciazione” made by Antonello da Messina in 1474. The study is related to the architectural space, the modular geometry and the prospective construction of Antonello’s masterpiece and has been functional to the following Virtual Restoration project which was in line with the Central Institute for Restoration (ICR) and gave start to the final intervention in 2008, in continuity with Cesare Brandi’s restoration theory.

Some significant collaborations have been achieved with the Museo Bellomo in Siracusa, where he took up a role as external expert, with the Institute for the Conservation and Restoration in Rome and with the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence.

He is currently teaching History of Arts and Graphic Representation Techniques in the higher school.

AVB: Welcome Francesco. First of all we’d like to thank you for your kind availability to have this lovely chat with us. Before starting, I just want you to be aware, I will name you Franco which is probably more familiar to me and to all our readers.  You have a very intense life: from profession to personal interests, passing through your great passions, it is a journey through the history of arts, architecture and photography that also witnesses your deep bond to your town, Messina. Have your education and profession influenced your artistic passion?

FS: I can actually affirm that I have been lucky enough to have immediately clear the goals to achieve in my life. My interest in art and architecture, which by the way reflect my passions, has emerged prematurely, leading me to study the history of these disciplines. Photography has then represented and continues to represent an important part of a cultural path that will last forever throughout life.

I have always looked at photography as a mean of objective investigation and personal recording of reality, It has turned out to be an effective form of expression, rather essential to fix and communicate the different instants of existence which are unique and could be lost in the time dimension. I think also that the precise moment when I choose to shoot becomes that unique, privileged moment in which I can effectively tell my “point of view” on things, trying not to move away from the formal aesthetic that is actually what I particularly care about. Back to your question, I can not say how much my education has influenced my artistic passions, but the only thing I can say is that I’ve been following my natural inclinations with deep participation.

The relationship with my city is a particularly delicate chapter to deal with. As it happens in all kind of long-lasting relationship, it brings either joy and pain. After the two disastrous earthquakes in 1783 and 1908, the city of Messina was totally rebuilt with reinforced concrete and with a checkered structure, but the inevitable cut with the past made the huge historical background of the city fade away. The historical archives of the city went lost, along with many human lives, buildings, monuments and works of art. All the memories of a crossroad city, leaning on the commercial and cultural routes of the Mediterranean sea were dramatically destroyed.

The new city has grown with some strengths and many weaknesses and lays still today in a very controversial situation: wide areas overlooking the sea can’t be used by citizens due to the coastal railway line, while other areas are in fact off-limits because they are intended for military, industrial or private use. Messina is a sea town which has actually been denied to the sea. Many water-front projects have been submitted but no one has been carried out yet. However, the city still keeps its strong bond with the territory, stretching between the Peloritani mountains and the Strait. I think, my photographs of the city are my personal way not to forget and keep trusting the enormous transformation potential of this city.

AVB: Many cities suffer from the same pain today, maybe especially in the South, being affected by long-lasting problems that never came to a solution. However, some small steps towards rebirth are sometime enough to promote optimism. Is this perhaps the case of the new MuMe museum, Franco do you want to tell us about it?

FS: Indeed, the good news are related to the opening of the “new” Regional Museum. It has been a never ending story which has lasted three, long decades, mainly affected by administrative and economic rushes. We have now come to an end and MuMe has finally opened with its 20,000 exposed works, tributing the glorious past of the Strait City. I would warmly suggest to all my fellow citizens, especially to the youth, to have a look at those beautiful artworks of the past. This would surely help to face a new, future vision which won’t forget its artistic and cultural, remarkable roots. 

AVB: Franco, we mostly know you as a brilliant minimalist photographer, but your artistic vision may have originated from your deep knowledge of architecture and art history. Away from the minimalistic abstraction, you seem to be attracted by history, the relevant evidence of the human passage over the past centuries. Do you agree? Is this a thought, you feel familiar with? Can you explain it better?

FS: Following the human evolution through the history of arts, from Lascaux’s graffiti to Banksy Street Art, passing through the greatest Renaissance artists, has been the most captivating and exciting journey ever. Having lived my last eight years in Tuscany and having worked in Florence – that open-air museum! – has done the rest.

I could not have appreciated Minimal Art without going through history. Knowledge brings new knowledge. Approaching a new form of art without knowing its main interpreters’ artworks, the related different trends, the previous and the subsequent implications, or without the right background and skill to capture the differences, can only produce fragmentary and confusing ideas. I think that when you want to express yourself artistically, you must bear clearly in mind how far you want to push yourself and your artistic ability. To do this, you have to spend some time studying, going and seeing with your own eyes the architectures that have made history, the great exhibitions, the museums … Art is really the master of life. As someone said, if your next question is “Who was your most important teacher?”, my answer is “The art itself!” . That’s it! 

AVB: We perceive, photography has a significant role in your daily life. We can imagine it is a very useful and effective tool in your work, but we also understand that your approach to photography comes from your strong, artistic inclination. How was the start with photography?

FS: In the 80s my university course included examinations on the Relief of Architecture. In addition to drawings and sketches combined with the dimensional facts and figures of the architectural element to be represented, I needed some photographic documentation. Then, I started exploring architecture through the lens of a camera, scrupulously spacing from the wider view of buildings to the closer look on details. From that time on, it has been necessary to me to seize the subjects according to precise compositional rules, intrinsically connected to the geometry of the captured factories.

I’ve switched then to landscape photography; I still remember, being struck by the beauty of the Sicilian landscapes of Diego Mormorio, deeply connected with the culture of the island. That influence resulted in a whole series of shots made in Sicily. Those photographs are still unpublished, I feel a sort of sense of protection, they represent the places where you belong, where your heart and soul  take a rest and probably I want to keep them safe.

There have also been the many years spent in the Tuscan Apennines, in closer contact with the unspoiled nature of the Pistoia Mountains. I have photographed the same landscapes painted by the Macchiaioli, at all hours of the day and in all the seasons, also facing the snow at -18 °C . The rides on the Emilian side of the Apennines and the excursions on the Apuan Alps are unforgettable. Last but not least, I have to mention the “fatal attraction” with the Sienese countryside and its sweet hills whose natural soft geometries along with the constant variations of light have been a never ending inspirational source.

The most recent step in my photographic evolution is the approach to the photography of artistic works. I have to say this is perhaps the most difficult to me, given the importance of the kind of subjects and the enormous production on it. I am still working, especially to avoid to take some trivial souvenir photos.

As you can see my evolution path in photography reflects my interests and passions, confirming that photography can be the mirror of one’s life. I do not know exactly if I have been able to effectively express myself through photography and if people can perceive in it my way of being. I can see a bit of myself reflected in my photographs and this is a good achievement to me.

AVB: Photography brings us back to Minimalism. You are very attentive and active on this front. Minimal Art is a source of inspiration for your photographic work and you are a persuasive supporter and promoter of Minimalism applied to photography. From Sicilian baroque to the “less is more” art, it is a bit unusual,how can this happen? What are the reason for your attraction to Minimalism? What are the main aspects enhancing your artistic vision?

FS: I’ve always been attracted by the great architect Mies van der Rohe and his clear principles about architecture, which can be summed up in two simple words: Order and Rationality. That has been the starting point for my personal research. I have moved from there to accomplish that process which identifies formal perfection with the nature of things. It was almost natural to bring this concept back to photography, removing any redundant element and focusing on the punctum.

From the pure intellectual interest to my first shots in a minimalist key the pace was really short. In 2012, along with Bianca Maria Bini, I was among the founders of the Facebook group “Only Minimal”, one of the first on the network, expressly dedicated to Minimalistic photography, that now has more than 8,000 members. I started sharing my photographs in OM and reviewing those posted by the other members. I think I have selected and reviewed thousands of photographs over the years, developing a particular propensity for critical image reading. Many minimalist photographers have moved their first steps in OM and today they are successful international artists.

It is not easy to explain the transition from Sicilian baroque to the minimal art. What I can tell you is that even when I photograph a Baroque building, I put in place all my resources as a minimalist photographer. The final render might not be properly “minimal”, but order and rationality in the composition are the ruling principle.

I’m always aware of the things I do and this is certainly stimulating my artistic vision, along with the attitude to keep learning new things.

The minimalistic approach is fundamental to approach all the other photographic genres. It leads no doubt to a vision of harmony which can be unveiled even in the most insignificant subjects. That is what attracts me particularly: minimalism is an exciting challenge and nothing can be left to chance.

Minimalistic abstractions by Franco Sondrio

AVB: Franco, you have such a wide and interesting photographic production, with many different works. Is there a work you particularly care about, and why? 

FS: My thoughts go immediately to two works in particular: the former is a shot made years ago in Garfagnana, from the dark interior of the Barga cathedral to the doorway crossed by an old man. In the background the skyline of the Apuan Alps. Maybe this composition includes too many elements to be considered a proper minimalist shot but the black and white rendering, the neutral background that occupies most of the frame and the decentralization of the subject are giving a vision and a sense of the things that still surprise me today. The latter is a snap to the limits of madness, for the situation and the moment when my attention was captured. I was crossing a street in the mess of Roman traffic when I suddenly saw the people on the stairs of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli composing a vision of dynamism. I did not hesitate to stop, risking my physical safety between insults and crazy horns. The center of the road was my privileged point of view to fix that particular moment. It certainly was worth the traffic jam. It was just one click with the heart madly beating, before running away. I must confess to be particularly proud of that photograph.

AVB: Looking at the future, Franco, are you working on some new projects? Do you have some anticipation for our readers? 

FS: I’m working on a personal exhibit, some joint publications and a monographic book on Antonello da Messina.

AVB: In conclusion Franco, we can actually perceive in your work and in your words, you put a lot of passion in what you do. What would you suggest to inexperienced people willing to approach photography? What did you learn from your experience?

FS: I can only suggest to follow their instinct and support it with passion and study. My experience has taught me the importance of moving on to your goals by following a search path open to all possible outcomes.

AVB: Franco, we just have to thank you for this passionate journey to discover your personality and incredible talent. Our best wishes for a future full of professional and personal achievements.

FS: Thank you very much for this opportunity to tell a bit my story. Special greetings to all the readers of ArteVitae.

Franco Sondrio – Photo Gallery

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