A number of large-format Italian views from the famous Beach Series are now on display at Palais Metternich. Due to their ethereal or even surreal exquisiteness, Due Sorelle Motor Boat (2013) and Bassa Trinità Blue Ball (2013) fit in very well with the elegant atmosphere of the Garland Salon. On the other hand, Rosignano Night (1995), packed with a crowd of people, and the somewhat unwieldy Livorno Calafuria (2002) have been installed in the Battle Salon, named after a monumental painting attributed to Nicola Mario Rossi that shows Vienna’s liberation from the Turks in 1683. Due Sorelle refers to the two large white cliffs rising up from the coast of the Marche region, whose the turquoise sea in the photograph is reflected beautifully in one of the Garland Salon’s mirrored couch tables. A decorative ashtray in the form of a scallop placed on the small table magically merges with Vitali’s sparkling waters. A large painting by Luca Giordano installed in its immediate vicinity depicts a scene from Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Jerusalem Delivered, which takes place on Armida’s magic island: the amorous Rinaldo reclines dreamily in the arms of the witch while holding up a mirror to her face.

The scene in Vitali’s photograph gives an equally enchanted and dreamy impression. The composition is so perfect that one might suspect it has been orchestrated. Taking a closer look, one seems to be able to feel the luxurious relaxation of the people dozing off in boats softly rocked by the waves of the sea. A soft breeze likely makes the heat more bearable, with the crystal-clear water inviting bathers to take a refreshing swim. Spiaggia di Bassa Trinità is the name of a beach on La Maddalena, a small island north-east of Sardinia. The photograph conveys most of all a mood of merrymaking, which Vitali seems to symbolize in a small blue beach ball. Whether this boisterous atmosphere spills over to the adjacent painting from Luca Giordano’s workshop showing Ariadne left behind by Theseus on the island of Naxos remains unresolved.

Rosignano Night, on the other hand, indeed seems to be a scenic continuation of the above-mentioned large-format painting in the Battle Salon. Having emerged victorious from their battle, the boyars of the Polish king Jan Sobieski, mingling with the imperial troops, seem to have entered Vitali’s magnificent photograph in order to throw a wild party. In fact, they are present-day youngsters celebrating their ‘victory’ over the working week near Livorno. In the distance, however, one can see the testimonials of a real and cruel victory: industrialization’s triumph over nature. The radiant campaniles do not represent the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant – Italy is fortunately a non-nuclear country – but instead those of the Rosignano Solvay soda factory, which, until a few years ago, discharged hundreds of tons of mercury into the sea, thus producing the famous, albeit toxic Spiagge Bianche [white beaches] of Vada. Yet the young people seem to be entirely unimpressed by this backdrop, which due to the device of overexposure resembles Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, nor are they irritated by the bleached sand, which was still highly contaminated at the time the photograph was shot. The scene is also vaguely reminiscent of the crowded compositions of Hieronymus Bosch, although the activities in which the youngsters are engaged appear to be entirely harmless: they take walks, talk, dance, drink, and kiss … Only a strong, seemingly alien light in the foreground – assumedly produced by Vitali – forces its course through the crowd unperturbedly, seeking to elucidate the secret of the colorful scene.

When looked at superficially, Vitali’s photographs might pass as snapshots that anyone could have taken. However, the specific choice of the vantage point on a three-metre-tall platform in the far distance, the great wealth of details, and a more or less strong overexposure endow Vitali’s beaches with a special melange of sober documentation and empathy. Oscillating between landscape and portraiture, his photographs capture both the existence of the individual and the vibrant life of crowds. As beautiful as Vitali’s beaches may appear at first sight, they are just as much subtly critical descriptions of the human condition in general and of the commercialization of leisure in particular.

Marcello Farabegoli, excerpt from the catalogue of the exhibition Domenica: Pablo Chiereghin, Aldo Giannotti and Massimo Vitali, Italian embassy  – Palais Metternich Vienna, 28 April to 30 June 2017.