The coronavirus crisis captured in time

Italy’s largest festival of photography is among countless cultural events affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Undeterred its organisers set out to create an extraordinary record of this troubled year

Alastair Smart


Over the past decade, Cortona On The Move has grown into Italy’s largest photography festival, as well as a fixture on the international calendar. Founded in 2011, it’s held every summer in locations across the historic hilltop town of Cortona in Tuscany.

The title refers to the festival’s mission to be constantly seeking out new approaches to photography: never to stand still, in other words, to be always ‘on the move’. Planning for the 2020 edition was well underway when Italy went into lockdown in March due to the outbreak of coronavirus.

“Not since the Second World War had anything hit the country with so much impact,” says the festival’s director, Antonio Carloni. “Italy went into one of the hardest lockdowns of any western nation, where pretty much everything closed, and initially we thought it would be very hard to hold Cortona On The Move this year.

“But then we stopped and realised we could use this incredible moment in history for something more than a festival.”

Photo credits Alex Majoli

The result was the Covid-19 Visual Project, an archive of photographs – created in partnership with Intesa Sanpaolo – showing the effect of the pandemic on people and places around the world. Among the photographers commissioned by Carloni and his team was Daniele Ratti, who drove up and down the Italian peninsula during lockdown, capturing 50 eerily deserted motorway service stations.

Andrea Frazzetta contributed a series called Life or Death Shifts, in which he took poignant portrait shots of doctors, nurses, paramedics and volunteers in northern Italian hospitals at the height of the pandemic. Gideon Mendel, meanwhile, photographed shoppers at a food market in East London – red markings on the street indicating the two metres of physical distance that people were meant to keep between each other.

Available to view online at, the archive is regularly being added to. Carloni says this will be the case until a vaccine for coronavirus is found, as “photographers are continuing to respond to this situation in interesting ways”.

Cortona On The Move built its reputation as a documentary photo festival, focusing on what its director calls “engaging visual narratives that tell stories about our world”. The global pandemic has generated a surfeit of such narratives.

Photo credits Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti

Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti, for example, were granted access to some of Italy’s finest galleries and museums – including Intesa Sanpaolo’s own Gallerie d’Italia di Piazza Scala in Milan – at a time when they were closed to the public. Shooting in darkness and providing their own dramatic lighting, the duo made artworks such as Antonio Canova’s sculpture The Three Graces (on loan from the Hermitage) look like characters in a theatrical production.

In most cases, the photographers participating in the Covid-19 Visual Project are established figures already known to – and specifically commissioned by – the Cortona On The Move team. Non-professionals are free to pitch photographs too, however, through an Open Call section on the website. If selected, their imagery will join the archive.

Once lockdown in Italy was lifted, Cortona On The Move was actually able to go ahead – albeit on a slightly smaller scale than in previous years. The 10th edition of the festival opened at venues in Cortona on July 11, showing a selection of works from the online project.

It runs until October 31, with visitors asked to observe social-distancing guidelines – and doctors and nurses given a discount on their ticket price, as a gesture of thanks to those who have been at the frontline of the battle against coronavirus.

Intesa Sanpaolo began its partnership with Cortona On The Move in 2018 and Carloni says this year’s festival – like the whole Covid-19 Visual Project – “would have been impossible without it”.

“The uniqueness of photography lies in combining an artistic value with a documentary one, capable of charting the history and evolution of society”
Michele Coppola, Intesa Sanpaolo’s Executive Director of Art, Culture & Historic Heritage

The bank’s involvement is part of Progetto Cultura, its policy of contributing not just to economic growth in society but to cultural richness, too.

“Intesa Sanpaolo is directly committed to promoting and supporting the arts sector,” says Michele Coppola, the bank’s Executive Director of Art, Culture & Historic Heritage. “It is a sector which will undeniably be a key to Italy’s bounce-back after the pandemic.

“In the case of Cortona On The Move, we worked [with its team] to conceive an innovative online archive, whose materials will serve long into the future as a memory of the extreme time we’re going though.”

Intesa Sanpaolo currently boasts a network of three art galleries – in Milan, Vicenza and Naples (Gallerie d’Italia) – where highlights from the bank’s collection of 30,000 paintings, sculptures and other artworks are displayed. It has just announced that a fourth space, the Gallerie di Piazza San Carlo in Turin, dedicated mainly to photography and video, will be opened by the end of 2022.

“Progetto Cultura is taking an increased interest in photography,” Coppola says, “on the grounds that it’s an expressive yet highly topical medium. The uniqueness of photography lies in combining an artistic value with a documentary one, capable of charting the history and evolution of society.”

Around 70 photographic projects have been uploaded to so far. Given how unpredictable the pandemic is proving, it’s impossible to say how many more there will be to come.

“We stopped and realised we could use this incredible moment in history for something more than a festival”
Antonio Carloni, director, Cortona On The Move

Photo credits cover Edoardo Delille

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