Photograph by Luigi Ghirri showing people walking up stairs in front of a replica model of the Alps

Luigi Ghirri’s photographic study of a very little Italy

Reality and illusion collide in a new book of Ghirri’s photographs taken in an Italian miniature park, where he established his enduring themes of ambiguity and artifice

The late artist and photographer Luigi Ghirri had a lifelong interest in the relationship between fiction and reality. This was a prevalent theme within his practice, and the subject of many of his works, including a series of photographs titled In Scala, which he began in 1977.

During this time, and well into the 80s, Ghirri made several visits to the famous Italia in Miniatura theme park, situated just outside of the city of Rimini. Here, he became fascinated by the park’s extensive collection of scale models representing Italy’s iconic natural and architectural landmarks. In particular, he was drawn to the way in which they enter into dialogue with reality.

Photograph by Luigi Ghirri showing a replica model of an Italian city
All images by Luigi Ghirri, from Italia in Miniatura, Mack, 2024. Courtesy the artist and Mack

The photographs from this series – including some never-before-seen images – have been released as a book, Italia in Miniatura, by London-based publisher Mack, along with materials lifted from the archive of the park’s founder and designer, Ivo Rambaldi.

Though it is not known whether the two ever met, in the book Ghirri’s photography and Rambaldi’s maps, sketches, collages, and reference images come together to form a cohesive visual study of miniaturisation.

Photograph by Luigi Ghirri showing a replica model of an Italian city

Writing in the book’s foreword, Italian curator Ilaria Campioli – who headed this project along with fellow curators Joan Fontcuberta and Matteo Guidi – says: “When Ghirri started working on the In Scale series in 1977, roughly ten years had passed since his first experiments with the medium, during which time his extensive production of images and in-depth theoretical reflection had allowed him to conduct an attentive and thorough analysis of systems of representation, images, and their relationship with reality.

“Ghirri did not merely ponder the status of the image but immediately set himself a specific, well-defined goal that he determinedly pursued, to reveal the gap that exists between reality and a second-degree reality which consists entirely of images and relentlessly superimposes itself on the former.”

Photograph by Luigi Ghirri showing a replica model of an Italian city

In photographing these scale models, Ghirri was building on the established tradition of visually depicting Italy through its most famous landmarks – a tradition that finds its roots in 15th-century geographic drawings – as well as on the widespread tradition of postcard illustration that remains a popular way of capturing the country even today.

As with the postcards, Ghirri’s photographs offer a touristic perspective of Italy, but unlike the postcards, they also attempt to reveal the fictitious nature of such a perspective, which despite the mimesis at play, offers a decidedly alternative reality.

Photograph by Luigi Ghirri showing a person wearing shorts and a vest standing in front of a replica model of an Italian city

For example, in one of the photographs of the iconic Mont Blanc mountain, the light of sunset serves to reveal the artifice of the scale model, while in others the models are photographed from behind, showing the supporting structures used in their construction. Elsewhere, visitors to the park are featured within the frame, their presence becoming signifiers of scale that break the illusion of reality.

In capturing them, Ghirri not only treats the visitors as tools through which to lift the curtain, but also speaks to their own experience of the park, showing various moments in which they become aware that they are “inside a great sham”.

Photograph by Luigi Ghirri showing a replica model of an Italian city

Interestingly, Campioli notes in the introduction that “it is precisely in front of the model that we can experience truth, reality. The copy recalls the real experience and not that mediated by the ever-increasing number of images. Hence, models, like photography, have the ability to evoke reality, to bring to mind the experience, and thus to illuminate.

“The amusement park becomes a great metaphor for how photography and images work,” she says.

Italia in Miniatura is published by Mack;