Italian Prisoners Revive Crushed Spirits Through Acting – Photos by Clara Vannucci

Remarkable portraits by young Italian photographer at Italian Cultural Institute

Roles in Theater Liberate Hardened Criminals in Enlightened Program

Free To Roam Cafes Before Performance, None Flee

Clara Vannucci’s images record the spiritual liberation accorded Italy’s Volterra prisoners when they play different roles on stage

What’s the best way to rehabilitate hardened criminals? A striking set of portraits of Italian prisoners on show at the Italian Cultural Institute this month may hold the answer.

Photographed by a young Italian from Florence, Clara Vannucci, 29, the series focuses over the last seven years on an innovative program, the Compagnia della Fortezza, that is rehabilitating prisoners in one of Italy’s toughest prisons by giving them roles in a theatrical production which tours the country.

The exhibit opened last night (Feb 21 2014) as “Crime and Redemption Theater” curated by Veronica Santi at the Italian Cultural Institute. The well attended event included many young Italian friends of Vannucci, and there was even a local ex-prisoner of Rikers Island in attendance. It will run through March 13 weekdays from 10am-4pm.

Changing through acting

clara_vannucci_2 tattooed in mirrorWhen she started the project in 2007 at age 22, Vannucci said, she had come from a sheltered background and had no idea why the prisoners were incarcerated or what life was like behind the thick walls, or even whether the program was successful. But while she interned in New York at Magnum she shot inside Rikers Island before going back to Italy to continue with the Volterra project.

The hard core “lifers” of Tuscany’s 15th Century Volterra fortress prison, equivalent to Sing Sing or Folsom prisons in the US, value the opportunity to act on stage so highly that while they roam unguarded through towns and cafes before their performances, none have attempted to escape. They are housed overnight in the local prisons. As one told Vannucci, “Why should I run? Where would I go? Twenty years I have lived in prison. Now I have something to live for. Life has meaning.”

Sympathy for the ravaged


Since the company was founded in 1988 by playwright Armando Punzo, the experience of adopting different roles and lives on stage and collaborating in a production reportedly has had a powerfully restorative effect on actor-inmates worn down and toughened after as long as twenty years or more in cells.

The faces in Vannucci’s sympathetic and often close up portraits seem to show both the ravages of long term imprisonment and the spiritual release of the opportunity given them to present themselves on stage differently from the harsh daily role they have been assigned by society for so long. She will continue with the project, she said. “I think I will never be finished.”

The prisoners involved leave Volterra able to rejoin society at a professional level, that of an actor. “They become like stars”, says Vannucci. One former Mafia killer, Aniello Arena, won the Palme d’Or for his role in Reality, a film at Cannes in 2012. Still in prison after two decades serving a life sentence for murder, he acted a fishmonger obsessed with winning a reality show.

Gourmet dining in the fortress

But then, Italian society has surely traveled far from the cruelty of the Coliseum in the past 2000 years, its appetite for violence and war notoriously diminished compared with other nations today. Prisons in different regions are coming up with similar projects, though none have a theatre project like Tuscany’s Volterra.

At Volterra they now have a second initiative which bespeaks the essential warmth and kindness at the heart of the modern Italian soul, and the national reluctance to cast criminals into the darkness of abandonment and despair notoriously suffered by inmates in the US.

The ancient fortress is now the site of a gourmet restaurant operated once a month on Fridays where tourists who have been checked by security dine by candle light on vegetarian meals prepared by chef prisoners. Call 39-055-234-2777 to reserve.

P1550740Sixty more photos of the opening see Photocalendar Talk In New York:Feb 21 Fri 6-8pm ICI – Photos by CLARA VANNUCCI – Italian Prisoners Redeemed Through Theater.

See also Maximum Security and a Starring Role


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