The importance of being Estella: Abruzzo through the eyes of Estella Canziani

A few years ago, Estella Canziani came into my life on tiptoe. 

She was a British writer and artist who visited Abruzzo in the summer of 1914 and bound her incredible impressions of the region in her diaries. Traveling with her father from London to Italy, their mission was to collect folklore and lifeways, the songs, and the stories of the people. They were warned that the Abruzzese countryside was a wild and dangerous place, populated by bandits and surly, unhelpful village folk.

While they did not encounter the first, Canziani’s narrative proves the second to be true more often than not. Estella sketched and painted and became known to the villagers as she traveled, which helped break down some of the conversational barriers. After the War, Canziani published her stories and illustrations as Through the Apennines and the Lands of the Abruzzi Landscape and Peasant Life: Described and Drawn by Estella Canziani.

This book is a compilation of her travelogue through the Abruzzi during the late-1920s. Traditional customs, songs, and various ethnographic observations are noted. Her well-documented journey includes a visit to Calascio and interactions with some townsfolk. Her drawings and illustrations of authentic Abruzzo are simply impressive!

In 2013 Italian photographer Giorgio Marcoaldi published Abruzzo – Un Viaggio Nel Tempo wherein he revisits Canziani’s watercolors via photography, highlighting how the places she took drawings of haven’t changed so far.

I met Giorgio in a photography exhibition and stood speechless admiring his rare 1928 edition of Estella Canziani’s book: every printed word was a flash of her amazing journey throughout the land of Abruzzo, which she meticulously described with a sense of urgency as if that pastoral world was about to perish forever.

I believe that Estella’s words have indeed captured the true essence of our land and the character of Abruzzese, shaped by centuries of substantial isolation occasionally interrupted by cautious openings to the outer world:

“Few travellers go to the Abruzzi, for they are wild in every sense of the word […] but I hope that the contents of my book will show that, however primitive and at times emotional the peasants may be, true kindliness, and not seldom unusual courtesy, are shown to sympathethic strangers.”

I wish to thank Giorgio Marcoaldi for taking the time to share his experience, I profoundly admired your work and amazing photographs. I’m moved by your sincere love for Abruzzo.

A digital edition of Estella Canziani’s book is viewable at Hathi Trust Digital Library (original from the University of Michigan).

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