Raffaella Carrà, Canzonissima 1970 (1970) (courtesy Rai Teche)

MILAN — Italy, 1978. TV personality Raffaella Carrà reaches the top of several European and South American charts with her hit “Tanti Auguri,” a song extolling free love, whose most famous line can be translated into something like, “It’s fantastic to make love, all the way from northern to southern Italy.”

In May of the same year, the Red Brigades, a left-wing terrorist organization, kidnapped and murdered Christian Democratic politician and former Prime Minister Aldo Moro. Images of his corpse found on a street in the center of Rome are broadcast on television.

Between the radical 1960s and the hedonistic 1980s, Italy went through a traumatic period of political turmoil and social change. The decade known as Years of Lead (Anni di Piombo) was marked by many heinous acts of terrorism, from the bombing of Piazza Fontana in Milan (1969) to the massacre at Bologna’s train station (1980). Going against a traditionally patriarchal and catholic society, feminists fought many difficult battles during this period, obtaining a divorce law in 1970 and achieving the legalization of abortion in 1978.

Throughout it all, Italian television informed the public about all the news, as well as providing endless entertainment to the masses.

Filmmaker and artist Francesco Vezzoli has rounded up the contradictions of that decade as seen through the television screen in the exhibition TV 70: Francesco Vezzoli Guarda la Rai, currently on view at Fondazione Prada, Milan. In his characteristically playful way, the artist has brought together works of art and archival material from TV programs of the 1970s, melding them into a personal narration of the culture, politics, and entertainment of the period.

Although the first private TV stations were starting to emerge, during the 1970s Italian TV was still dominated by Rai (Radiotelevisione Italiana), the country’s national public broadcasting company. Rai stood out for its high-quality content as well as excellent production values and a great deal of experimentation. The company hired some of the best intellectuals and film directors of the time as authors and collaborators, from poet Giuseppe Ungaretti to directors Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. It was a television network that benefited from a rare freedom of expression, opening up subjects and themes that had previously been excluded from representation, such as women and young people, physicality and sex.

Oreste del Buono, Federico Fellini, and Vittorio Bruno at Cinema 70 (1970) (image courtesy Rai Teche)

In the exhibition catalogue, Vezzoli describes his exhibition with an acute statement:

This project has been a voyage into my past but also into the collective memory of a generation whose sensibilities were shaped in front of a television screen. In Italy, 1970s television was like a sung mass in the cathedral: In an era without video tape recorders, it was an event you either showed up for or missed. And this was true as much for the news as for entertainment.

Conceptually, TV 70 is divided into two gendered halves. The first part, visually dominated by black-and-white — color TV would not come to Italy until 1977 — showcases the male dominance of culture and information of the time. Visitors enter the show by stepping into a sanctuary dedicated to the established 1970s art world. Dramatically lit works by the likes of Giorgio de Chirico, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Alighiero Boetti, and Alberto Burri are spaced out amid projections of historic documentaries about those artists. In a tongue-in-cheek move, these films — one for each artist — are all playing at once, creating a cacophony that well represents the struggle for attention, the egocentrism, and the machismo that distinguished these men and their milieu.

TV 70: Francesco Vezzoli guarda la Rai, installation view (photo by Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti; courtesy Fondazione Prada)

Vezzoli reminds visitors of the extremely experimental character of Italian TV during the 1970s through Fabio Mauri’s Il televisore che piange (The Crying Television, 1972). In what Mauri calls a “happening,” the artist leaves the TV screen blank for 12 seconds, accompanied only by the sound of crying and lamentations. At the end of it, the artist appears to explain the performance, in a very didactic way, as a symbolic action addressing the importance of the television screen, giving a great lesson about clarity to any TV art critics to come.

Moving forward through the exhibit, the heavy atmosphere of the Years of Lead is represented by a black corridor full of monitors transmitting news of the tragedies and terrorist attacks that marked 1970s Italy. One after another, the viewer is assailed by news of kidnappings, killing of magistrates, jurists, and journalists, and train bombings. This time, the overlapping audios enhance the sense of claustrophobia and disorientation of the time. One can’t help but notice the markedly male presence on the TV screens — not only because the broadcasters were all male, but because the objects of all these atrocities were male as well, from former Prime minister Aldo Moro to writer Pier Paolo Pasolini.

TV 70: Francesco Vezzoli guarda la Rai, installation view (photo by Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti; courtesy Fondazione Prada)

Leaving this corridor, the exhibition continues to its second half, which is distinguished by a strong female component and a lighter tone. After a room where TV extracts about Italian feminists and civil rights are accompanied by a selection of works by Carla Accardi, one of the few female Italian artists to reach a certain degree of notoriety, Vezzoli gives space to Italian TV’s historical divas. From this point on, TV 70 becomes a joyful and colorful reunion of personalities who are still dear to the public today.

An extract from a popular episode of Milleluci (1974), the first Rai variety show to be presented by two women, shows hosts Raffaella Carrà and Mina next to the Kessler twins, singing a song making fun of male sexual appetite. Only four years later, Ilona Staller, a.k.a. Cicciolina — the first woman to bare her breasts on Italian national TV — entertained her public dressed up as a provocative nymph.

Vezzoli draws deeply  from the wealth of Rai’s historical archives, setting mental associations and recollections free, unapologetically mixing high and low culture. More importantly, he gives space to forgotten or lesser-known female artists who tirelessly worked to affirm themselves in a hyper-masculine culture.

Singer Patty Pravo appears in all her androginity in a music clip from 1978 that feels very contemporary. In the same room, Lisetta Carmi’s photographs from the series I Travestiti document the life of transgender people in Genoa as early as 1965, Grace Jones showers in a bikini while singing the popular Neapolitan song “Anema e core,” and photographic portraits of famous actresses, writers, and socialites by Elisabetta Catalano make a photographic catalogue of female personalities of the time.

TV 70: Francesco Vezzoli guarda la Rai, installation view (photo Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti; courtesy Fondazione Prada)

At the end of the exhibition, Vezzoli’s tribute to Italian TV sublimates channel-surfing in a surreal crafted video collage featuring, among others, Mina, Raffaella Carrà and Mother Teresa, French singer and onetime Salvador Dalí muse Amanda Lear, actress Gina Lollobrigida, and the late theatre actor Paolo Poli, famous for his witty performances in En travesti.

While it’s clear that Vezzoli had fun working on this exhibition, the message behind it is less immediate. With his video montages, the artist has created not only a powerful homage to the history of Rai but has also left some hints to his personal poetics and system of beliefs. TV 70 samples society in a particular place and time, showing the established worlds of art and politics, rigid in their structures of power and representation, in total contrast with entertainment, the key to accessing the underground and progressive elements of culture.

Ilona Staller, C’era due volte (1980) (courtesy Rai Teche)

Certain revolutions happen slowly, far from the centers of power, at the margins of established culture. Concealed under the label of “entertainment,” Carrà’s moves, Mina’s song lyrics, and the myriad other similar expressions on TV were, in truth, absolutely radical and forcefully subversive, contributing to changing and shaping Italy’s modern sensibility.

TV 70: Francesco Vezzoli guarda la Rai continues at Fondazione Prada (Largo Isarco, 2, 20139 Milano) through September 24.

Francesco Dama is a freelance art writer based in Rome, Italy. He regularly writes for several print and online publications, and wastes most of his time on Instagram.