While photographing throughout Tuscany in 2000 and 2001, Paula Chamlee found herself drawn to the great beauty, variety, and extraordinary craftsmanship of the Madonnina shrines that can be found everywhere in Tuscany. Throughout the countryside and in towns and villages, these lovingly crafted personal shrines to the Virgin Mary bear witness to a deep-seated and popular faith in the Holy Virgin and the humanity she embodies. With a tradition dating back to antiquity, these cultural and religious objects continue to be created even today as protection for personal property, homes and their inhabitants.
Whether sophisticated or primitive in design, the shrines represent a spirit of devotion expressed quietly and simply. They hold profound significance for a great number of the Italian people.
Although they can easily be overlooked by the casual traveler, these small shrines are readily found along roadsides, among fields, at intersections and property lines, set in the walls of houses and barns, and even in the woods as well as other unusual locations. Chamlee discovered one in the midst of a marble quarry beside a busy pathway cleared for giant marble-moving machines.
Paula Chamlee’s sensitive portrayal of Le Madonnine in their variety and beauty are complemented by an informative essay by the Italian scholar Giuliana Bianchi Caleri, who writes about the history and tradition of the Madonna shrines in Italy. In a foreword, photography curator Steven Maklansky draws insightful connections between photography, religion, and Chamlee’s intimate visual records of one of the most widely recognized of all religious icons.
The superb reproductions of the photographs, in 600-line screen quadtone, printed on heavy cover stock, are at the limits of what is technically possible in photographic reproduction.
“The icon: a timeless subject for personal expression. Paula Chamlee uncovers the intensely symbolic essence of these shrines through an exploration of their heritage and reveals that they continue to sustain a life of their own. They are excavations of art, culture, religion, and history—and ultimately of ourselves.” — Steve Yates, Curator of Photography, Museum of New Mexico
“Paula Chamlee’s Madonnina brings much of what is Italy—art, architecture, religion, the rural spirit—onto the page and into our eyes. Beautifully composed and exquisitely printed, the images both document and celebrate this intimate yet omnipresent tradition. The art, the artists, and the viewers are all richer for her wondrous work.” — M.J. Czarniecki III, President, Institute for Photographic Studies and Principal, S/RI Cultural Planners
Paula Chamlee returned to college in the 1980s majoring in the visual arts to finish a degree she had begun in the 1960s in the performing arts. She earned a B.F.A. in painting in 1988. During that year, she discovered photography and quickly found direct involvement with the world outside the studio to be irresistible. Since 1988 she has traveled extensively, making photographs both in the United States and abroad. Chamlee has been the recipient of several grants, including a major grant from the Leeway Foundation for “Excellence in Photography.” Her photographs are in numerous collections, both public and private in the United States and abroad. She is collected in nearly forty museums in the United States, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Cleveland Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, and Library of Congress. She has taught workshops in photography in the United States, Austria, Germany, Tuscany, England, France, Iceland, and Australia. Her seventh monograph was published in the fall of 2015.
Steven Maklansky is the former Assistant Director for Art and Curator of Photographs at the New Orleans Museum of Art. He is currently Executive Director of the Boca Raton Museum of Art.
Guiliana Bianchi Caleri, a native of Cortona, Italy, serves as Director of the High School system “Berrettini-Pancrazi.” Her historical research on local culture led to publications in volumes such as Parlando di Cortona (About Cortona) and La Val d’Esse di Cortona (The Val d’Esse of Cortona). Her iconographical research led to the publication by the Addademia Etrusca of the volume I Tabernacoli di Cortona e del suo Territorio (The Tabernacles of Cortona and its Territories).