In Massimiliano Verdino’s visual combinations, the oval ball becomes painting and statuary

Ancient and contemporary, artistic and sporty. In the iconographic analogies of Massimiliano Verdino rugby marries classical art, assumes its features, claims its canons, merging antithetical definitions.

The Roman anthropologist and photojournalist in the ‘Scrums and Battles’ series investigates the most feral and muscular sport. A sport as rough as it is elegant, programmatically enclosed in the words of Richard Burton: “rugby is a magnificent show, a ballet, an opera”. Verdino’s intuition combines gestures and movements from the field to the great classics of painting and statuary, highlighting the meanings and signifiers of both, complementing them with a deep anthropological examination.

We wanted to discover this interesting artistic-photographic collection by questioning the creator himself. Enjoy the reading.

‘Scrums and Battles’, how did the idea of these iconographic analogies between contemporary rugby and Renaissance art come about?

It is an idea that comes from my passion for art, especially Renaissance art. I have a classical background, I have photographed many sports. Thanks to the profession of sports photo-journalist I have followed the most varied sporting events, and my works have been published in Italian and international magazines. We have experienced the analogue juxtaposition together with Katia Stefanucci, my partner, who as a photo-editor investigates my photographic archive in search of these treasures…

As an expert on the subject, how much artistic power is present in the body of an athlete and, specifically, in the body of a rugby player?

The athlete’s body is a body that is built on a clean slate. Anthropologically we say that man dresses the athlete’s body with specific training, with a particular diet, with a lifestyle that we must consider culture. The rugby player’s body is also exemplary: we are talking about a discipline in which the athlete must have very strong athletic qualities, innate fighting skills, team spirit and loyalty towards the opponent.

All this is necessary for the action you ask me about: the research of the rugby player, but also of any athlete, tends towards something that goes beyond the goal or the achievement of a esult: it is a ‘tension towards the absolute’, which it is reached by interacting with the opponent or teammate within a well-defined space. In a single word, the athlete seeks the ‘agone’, that particular action that gives off a special aura. Here is the point: I understood, studying the history of art, that in my photographs I try to stop ‘that aura’, the same that the great Renaissance artists represented in their works.

How much study is there behind your project? Were you particularly impressed and influenced by any pictures or athletic gestures during your research?

There is a lot of study. Before shooting: in the days spent observing the athletes competing from the stands; during the shootings: because it is very difficult, even technically, to photograph the movement and control my state of mind, which is in full ecstasy in front of those moving works of art; after the shooting: in the darkroom or in the archive when you have to painfully define the selection that conceptualizes what you had set out for.

During the research I was struck by the Battle of the Centaurs, a small bas-relief by Michelangelo that I studied at Casa Michelangelo in Florence in 1996: from that day 16 years passed before the project saw the light with the publication of the volume “Inside Rugby”, presented at the Frankfurt Book Fair. During this period I traveled the world following the Italian Rugby team.

The presentation of your exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale in Genoa speaks about the desire to transmit the culture of rugby, but also rugby as a culture. Could you elaborate on this concept?

As an anthropologist I asked myself why sport has always been so important in human life. The answer is in the word ‘game’ from which the term sport derives: well, the free association of fantasy that underlies language, which distinguishes our human species, is nothing more than a game with certain rules that make it practicable: syntax and grammar.

Sport could not be practiced without rules, it would be just chaos. So sport and rugby by osmosis, borrowing the core of Huizinga’s essay Homo Ludens, is not sport that is also culture but it is culture that could not exist without play and sport. Then the term culture, anthropologically understood as a set of transmitted and shared practices, derives from the Latin verb ‘colere’ which has among its meanings embellish, adorn, take care: in this meaning the concept expressed above on the athlete’s body is perfectly justified.

Are you planning to expand this research outside of rugby in the future?

I have received many proposals in this sense and I don’t deny that the temptation to reiterate the concept is very strong. But this is a project that I really care about and in which I have invested a lot: let’s say that so far I’ve not yet had the right inspiration and I wouldn’t want it to be distorted only for an economic return. I can say that I started doing research in the world of fencing, which is another classical discipline that is very much represented in art. But we are just starting… We will talk about it in a few years!


Ph by Massimiliano Verdino
IG @maxverdino

Text by Gianmarco Pacione