Roberto Donetta (1865-1932) is one of Swiss photography’s great outsiders.
He was born in the Blenio Valley in Ticino, one of the poorest regions in Switzerland; an Italian-speaking territory to the south of the Alps. Donetta had married young at the age of 21, and had seven children to feed and provide for. He was forced to emigrate, like most of his countrymen. He went to Northern Italy to sell chestnuts on the streets and later to London to work as a waiter, returning just 15 months later, sick and exhausted. Somewhere along the way, he met a sculptor, Dionigi Sorgesa, who in addition to teaching him the basics, gave him a camera. Making a living as a travelling photographer and seed salesman, Donneta eventually found his way back to Switzerland, settling in the Casserio of Corzoneso.
Between 1900 and 1930, he took more than 5.000 photographs, which were preserved merely by chance. These capture the archaic life of his compatriots in the Valle di Blenio, which at the time was totally isolated.
The Blenio Valley is a mountain valley, quite mild at the bottom and on the western slopes, but alpine and barren up on the heights. Just two entities still testify today to a more modern industrialised world: the hotel Terme di Acquarossa, a sophisticated place for urbanites on summer vacation in Donetta’s day; and the striking Cima Norma chocolate factory.
In 1903 Cima brothers established the chocolate factory “Cima” between Torre and Dangio villages. Torre village has been familiar with the production of chocolate since 19th century, when the population worked as chocolate manufacturers abroad. In 1913, Giuseppe Pagani became Cima’s owner, and in 1914 bought “Norma” chocolate factory in Zurich. Cima Norma factory constantly increased its growth until the 60s, when it produced 500 tons of chocolate and employed 340 people. But, in the following years, competition became stronger and finally the factory closed in 1968. Machinery and raw materials were sold, while the buildings became a military warehouse; they were later made available to organise arts and crafts workshops and to build lofts. Cima Norma deeply influenced the life of workers and citizens of Blenio Valley; for instance, it provided male workers with houses and female workers with a hostel, where nuns taught them housekeeping and manners. Donetta photographed both the Cima Norma factory and the hotel Terme di Acquarossa frequently as they were fixed points in social life in the valley.
“The details of the photographs are fascinating. The placement of the figures in Female Workers in Front of the Chocolate Factory Cima Norma for example, where the left two sitting figures have their legs crossed in the opposite direction while both rest their face in their hands, a central figure, and then two figures interlocked as in an infinity symbol looking at each other. The ‘line’ of the photograph changes from one height to another. We observe that Donetta stages his photographs with infinite care, even when there is a blank wall behind the sitter.”
Dr Marcus Bunyan – Artblart
Donetta’s personality was full of contradictions. On the one hand, he expressed considerable interest in all the phenomena associated with the advent of modern achievements, such as photography. On the other hand, he was decidedly conservative when it came to the cohesion of the family or his close links with nature. The latter prevented him from leaving the valley to look for more secure work in town. He lamented the constant changes associated with road building and new railway lines, which he did not see as a blessing for the valley. In his capacity as a photographer he succumbed to the fascination of the modern, yet at the same time he expressed a deep respect for long-standing traditions and rituals. Festivals, weddings, funerals, processions, outdoor church services, these were inconceivable without “il fotografo”. Donetta made photography an important part of those rituals, and over the course of time the photographer was as much a part of the valley as the parson was of the church. This is surely the source of the quality of his photographs: the people did not dissimulate, indeed it’s almost as if they forgot that someone with a camera was watching, so self engrossed do they look, serious, at one with themselves.
Children have a special place in the work of Roberto Donetta – not only because he photographed them regularly and readily, but also because of the originality of the respective images. He took the young people seriously, and they in turn were his accomplices, becoming involved in his creative ideas. The presence of children in his work can also be explained from a socio-historical viewpoint: children played an important role in everyday life and contributed to their family’s economic survival. Sometimes even the worries of the older people are reflected on their little faces. The high infant mortality in the Blenio Valley at the beginning of the 20th century also left its mark. The repeated experience of losing a child increased the need for portraits. Roberto Donetta fulfilled the wish of many parents to try and hold on to their offspring, at least in an image. What is particularly moving is when they called on the photographer to immortalize a small child on his or her death bed.
In an era of great change, Donetta became a unique chronicler who at the same time saw himself as an artist who – self-taught – experimented freely and knew how to master his medium.
When he died, Donetta owed money to many of the town’s locals who had help support him throughout his economic hardships. His wife and family had abandoned him and moved to France years ago, but he was obviously well-liked within his community. When the Commune of Corzoneso held an auction of his belongings to retrieve some of the expenses that helped keep him afloat in his last years, his remarkable collection of photography was ironically the only thing they couldn’t sell for any value. By default, the Commune of Corzonesco became the owners of the Donetta archives, which were re-discovered in the mid-1980s by Mariarosa Bozzini. The Roberto Donetta Archives are housed in the Casa Comunale of Corzoneso, which is responsible for the supervision and conservation of his work.
Sources/More to Read:
Messy Nessy: Memories of a Lost Valley: 5,000 Photographs Discovered in an Attic
Wikipedia: Roberto Donetta (in German)
Fotostiftung Schweiz: Roberto Donetta – Photographer and Seed Salesman
Fondazione Archivio Fotografico Roberto Donetta (in Italian)
Artblart: Roberto Donetta at Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur, Zurich
La Fabbrica Del Cioccolato: Our Story
Ticino Top Ten: Historic Trail Blenio Valley