Arturo Mari – man whose photos tell stories

Wlodzimierz Redzioch talks to Arturo Mari, the retired papal photographer.

Arturo is going to retire! It seems impossible. It would be as if a ‘part’ of the Vatican disappeared. Since my first visit to the Vatican, i.e. since 1980, this short and well-built man, impeccably dressed in black suit, white shirt and dark spotted tie, with continuously smiling face, has been somehow an ‘element’ of the Vatican landscape. There was no public speech of the Pope, nor Mass or audience without Arturo. Carrying his cameras he accompanied the Holy Father discreetly. That was for 51 years! Without any break, holiday, even one day of sickness. The papal photographer became so well known that a joke spread in Rome, ‘Who is that man dressed in white, the one who stands near Mari?’
I am meeting Arturo Mari, the retired papal photographer, in a bar in Borgo Pio, in the district where he was born in 1940. Since he is a real Roman, or as it is said, ‘romano de Roma’, i.e. Roman from Rome, although one should say that he is ‘borghiciano’, inhabitant of the district of Borgo. Borgo is one of the old districts of the city, which borders the Vatican, where Saxons, Franks and Lombardians, pilgriming to the tomb of St Peter, resided in the Middle Ages. The pilgrims from northern Europe called it ‘burg’ in their tongue. The Italians changed it into ‘borgo’. Here even the streets are named ‘borgo’ and not ‘via’ as in the other parts of Rome. Arturo has spent all his life in this very district, situated in the shadow of the dome of St Peter’s Basilica. Here his great adventure with photographing began. We begin our conversation speaking about this subject.

Wlodzimierz Redzioch: – What were the beginnings of your passion for photography?

Arturo Mari: – My father was an amateur photographer and he used to take me to the photo laboratory in the local school so that I would not spend time idly in the street. When I was six years old I knew everything about photography.

– In a word, you were a kind of miracle child as far as photography is concerned…

– You can say so since my father, and my grandfather and I worked in the Vatican. My passion became known behind the Bronze Gate. When I was 16 Count Giuseppe Dalla Torre, the editor of ‘L’Osservatore Romano’, wanted to get to know me because he like my photos. I remember him setting an appointment on 9 March 1956 at 11.00 a.m. On that day I was employed as photographer and ‘incorporated’ into the photographic company ‘Giordani’ since in those days there was no photographic service in the board of ‘L’Osservatore Romano.’ From the very beginning my task was to testify to the pontificate – I did that for 51 years!

– So you began taking photos of the popes when Pius XII reigned. What do you remember from your first day of work?

– My first service concerned the beautification ceremony in St Peter’s Basilica; the ceremony was presided by Pius XII. In those days the Pope spoke very rarely in public and his speeches were very long. When I saw the Pope wearing the tiara and being carried on the portable throne I was shocked. But what I was to do, I captured photos.

– What was Pius XII like?

– Pius XII was tall, slim and very dignified. Once he entered St Peter’s he spread his arms wide. I remembered his spontaneous gesture, which showed care. But those were different times. The Pope almost never left the Vatican and when in 1957 he went to inaugurate the new centre of the Vatican radio in Santa Maria di Galleria, near Rome, it seemed that he was going to the other end of the world.

– Pius XII was the first of the six popes who you took photos of. The next one was John XXIII…

– John XXIII differed from his predecessors. He was friendly and close to ordinary people. However, his strict and uncompromising attitude towards fundamental issues was behind his good nature. He began travelling outside the Vatican. The Pope initiated the tradition of pastoral visits to the Roman parishes, he visited the children’s hospital ‘Bambino Gesu’, the prison ‘Regina Coeli’; he travelled to Assisi and Loreto (I took photos of his first trip by train). And I cannot omit the historical moment of announcing the Second Vatican Council in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls…

– You travelled with Paul VI even more …

– That’s right. In 1964 I was with Paul VI in Jerusalem. The Pope flew for the first time in his life; we landed at the airport in Amman, Jordan. Pilgriming with Paul VI in the Holy land was something very emotional! In 1970 we went to East Asia and Australia.
Paul VI was shy and reserved to some extent. That’ why people did not understand him, I think, although he did a lot.

– The pontificate of John Paul I was only ‘a moment’ if we can say that. But you took several unique photos of him…

– Yes, I did. I took the first official photos of him and then the famous pictures in the Vatican gardens. One of them is now historical: you can see the Pope’s back when he walked along a pinewood lane. There was something melancholic in this picture, something that announced his dramatic near future.

– The next Pope was John Paul II…

– Twenty-seven years with John Paul II was another thing. If you see a man from 6 a.m. till the evening things look different. The door of the papal apartment was always open for me. Therefore, I happened to meet the Pope or took part in some ‘delicate’ moments, or I witnessed some discussions (because family members do discuss). In a word, thanks to the Pope’s goodness I felt as a family member – John Paul II was father to me. If you were half a metre away from some person for twenty-seven years you began ‘feeling’ his soul. Therefore, I will never forget my experiences being so close to John Paul II.

– You were also in the very dramatic moments of that ‘father.’ What are your memories of 13 May 1981?

– The moment of the assassination attempt was horrible. I felt very badly but I took photos instinctively. I would never have wanted to take those photos.

– Which picture of the Pope do you consider to be most important?

– Undoubtedly, I took the most important photo on Good Friday, 2005. John Paul II watched the television broadcast of the Way of the Cross at the Coliseum. When the procession reached the 14th station the Pope gave a sign with his hand. Don Stanislao asked him what he wanted. The Pope asked for the crucifix. Then the Holy Father took the cross, looked at Christ for a while and then he pressed the cross to his heart and put his head on it. I think that the photo I shot then symbolised the whole life of John Paul II, his complete dedication to suffering Christ.

– That was one of the last pictures of John Paul II you took. Then the time of the agony of ‘our’ Pope came. We spent the last days praying under the windows of the papal apartment…

–The last moments of the Pope’s life are vivid to me still. Six hours before his death Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz called me to come to the papal apartment. I entered his room and knelt. I was shocked. The Pope was lying with his head turned to the side. When his secretary said, ‘Holy Father, here is Arturo,’ the Pope turned towards me and whispered, ‘Arturo, I wholeheartedly thank you for everything.’ In his eyes there was something special; he might have prepared for another meeting…

– When we talked a few days after the death of John Paul II you confessed that you wanted to finish your career in the Vatican when his pontificate had ended. But that did not happen. You stayed to serve the next Peter’s successor, the man whom you had known as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. What is Benedict XVI like?

– He is a very sensitive and delicate man, a real titan. In spite of his 80 years of age he never rests apart from short walks in the gardens or the break to say the Rosary. His desk is always full of documents. All ‘problems’ come to his desk! I think that people do not realise how much the popes work.

– Benedict XVI is said not to like film cameras, microphones, and cameras very much. In a word, he does not like being exposed to the media…

– Let us stop exaggerating. When he saw me just after his election he patted me on the shoulder as if he wanted to encourage me. He always ‘tolerated’ me and was patient with me. I will mention one story. On a summer afternoon in the mountains I told him, ‘Holy Father, the popes are never on holiday. And here is Arturo who wants to take some pictures of your Holiness for people.’ He did not object at all to take photos of him when he walked, worked at his desk, prayed the Rosary. At some moment, I asked jokingly, ‘Of course, Your Holiness plays the piano from time to time’… He smiled, took off his ring, sat at the piano and began playing for me.

– I have always wondered how many pictures you took in those 51 years. Perhaps millions?

– I do not know exactly how many but a lot. I remember the first visit of John Paul II to Argentina. I took 600 films (there were no digital cameras then). Before the end of his journey I ran out of films and the Apostolic Nuncio had to buy 20.

– So it means that during one visit you took ca. 25,000 photos. Not bad…

– I will tell you about one event. Once I sent my camera for repair. I did not know that my camera had a built-in meter. The laboratory phoned me asking whether I made a joke of them since they had never seen a camera with so many pictures being taken.

– Did you not feel the burden of taking pictures in similar situations?

– In order to have good results in this type of work one should work ‘with the heart’ and be ‘in symbiosis’ with the person you take photos of, in this case with the Pope. If I had not worked that way I would have taken meaningless pictures. It is not difficult to take photos of the popes. The secret is that one should ‘sense’ every pope and understand whom you deal with.

On 29 April 2007 Arturo Mari participated for the first time in a papal ceremony without his camera. He sat with his wife, Ecuadorian from Guayaquil, in the first row in St Peter’s. He was one of the invited guests. Benedict XVI ordained 22 deacons to the priesthood, including Juan Carlos from the Legion of Christ, Mari’s son. Another photographer Francesco Sforza who had worked with Arturo for many years took pictures during the ceremony. Francesco, very good professional photographer, very kind and always attentive, was appointed ‘capo fotocronista’ (chief photographer) of the photographic service of ‘L’Osservatore Romano’ after ‘the papal photographer’ had retired. Now we need to get used to this new ‘shadow of the Pope’ who carrying cameras discreetly moves around Benedict XVI to register the history of the papacy and the Church.

"Niedziela" 41/2007

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
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