Taking pictures in Italian discotheques could be problematic during the rave days of the 1990s. “It was the time when you were still allowed to smoke”, explains Italian photographer Massimo Vitali. Difficult in visual terms, I suggest. “In terms of stink,”, he replies. “You even had to wash the camera cases”. Vitali is sitting in his studio, which is cocooned by the Passeggiata delle Mura Urbane, the raised promenade on the ramparts that encircle the medieval hear of Lucca. The studio is industrial but homely. An art deco patisserie sign hangs in the hall, and 19th century floor-to-ceiling cupboards loom over a bank of Apple Macs. In ha gabbia – a walk-in cage – his camera equipment an negatives sit behind bars. Abutting the building is Lucca’s ancient prison.

Vitali is the poet laureate of Italian herds – as framed by discos, rock concerts, ski slopes, parks, tourist hotspots and seaside resorts. His monumental landscapes – some two by two meters – are pointillist panoramas made up of multiple miniature portraits. Figures are caught swimming, sunbathing, sleeping, kissing, dancing, eating and arguing. All human life is here, captured in extraordinary detail in a hazy Mediterranean palette.

Portrait by Alberto Zanetti, Marina di Pietrasanta 2018.

His pictures hark back to Bruegel’s pastoral scene of peasants. “I think that the most important thing you have to do before you start to take any picture is to know the history of art in general,” says Vitali. “My idea of filling the frame with things, that obviously comes from Renaissance painting:” He has focused on the tourists milling around St Mark’s Square in Venice, on the Spanish Steps in Rome, even at Lucca’s 14th century Guinigi Tower, which is capped with a garden of oaks. Further afield, he has shot the cluttered lawns of the Jardin du Luxembourg, the having boardwalks of Coney Island and, challenging, the hot springs of Iceland (“I only had three hours of light”).

But he is best known for his forensic take on the sun-seekers of Italy’s beaches. This series – taken over the past two decades – has seen him capture the coconut oiled crowds in Genoa, Viareggio, Cagliari, Ostia, Catania and Palermo. He avoids what he calls “bad hombre beaches”, but also shuns the glitzy hangouts of the jet set. He shoots on a large format camera from a rated platform, up to three meters high, erected on the sand or in the water.

Portrait by Alberto Zanetti, Lucca 2018.

[…] In Lucca, a small studio team maintain Vitali’s equipment, updates his website and manages the comple logistics for his shoots (“They tend to be last-minute,” says his studio manager). They have lunch together at a pasta restaurant near piazza Napoleone. At the head of the table, Vitali is candid in conversation, his boyishness belying the fact that the did not start his art photography career until he was in his fifties – nearly a quarter of a century ago.

Born in Como in 1944, Vitali left Italy in the mid-1960s to study at the London College of Printing. A boom time for photography, it was the era of Antonioni’s Blow-Up and he heyday of David Bailey, Brian Duffy and Terence Donovan. “Did I feel this?” Vitali smiles. “No. London in the Sixties was really different to what London is now. Houses with no bathrooms, bad pub food. The only exciting thing I remember is that I had a flat in front of Christine Keeler’s House. Obviously I knew nothing about…” He pauses. “Well, I saw girls coming and going, because I was very interested in girls.”

Christian House, "Crowd Pleaser" In Christie’s Magazine, September - October 2018, pp. 70 - 81.