Fashion photographer Andrea Blanch gave herself a very difficult assignment a few years ago: Go to Italy, find gorgeous men, photograph them and interview them about love and sex.
The results of her arduous task are in the book "Italian Men: Love & Sex." In it, she asks some famous men -- from designer Giorgio Armani to director Franco Zeffirelli -- impudent questions such as "Do you consider youself a generous lover?" and "Do you consider your sexual endowment to be small, medium or large?" and "How many times have you been in love?"
The answers are candid, egotistical, charming, sometimes humorous and often poetic. Count Roffredo Gaetani d'Aragona Lovatelli (described as "Ferrari dealer/former boxer") says to Blanch about the importance of love: "Like Dante used to say, it is love that moves art ... Love moves everything, moves stars, moves the moon, moves the earth." Then he adds, "If a woman loves you it means you did something good, so if many women love you it means you did a lot of good."
Salon talked to Blanch by phone at her home in New York.
What was the genesis of this book?
I watched a Passolini documentary where he, in the 1960s, went around interviewing Italians and was sanctioned by the church for his films. I think it was called "Love Meetings." He talked to Moravia, and church men, so that was an inspiration. Plus, I wanted to be over there. I thought it was time to do a book. Plus, I love men.
It took about five years, with some time off, between 1992 and 1997. I moved to Paris for a couple of years and then moved to Rome to finish the book. I couldn't find a publisher at first so I gave up. Then I read in the International Herald Tribune that a Swiss sociologist did a study on the most erotic men in Europe and she concluded that the Italian men were. I thought, I'm on the right track here. So I went to Rizzoli and they said yes.
You say in your introduction to the book that every photo you take, of a man or a woman, contains an erotic connection. Do you think that's true of all photography or just when fashion or beauty or sex is the subject?
I think it's true of every photo. My best photos have that connection. Even when I'm taking a still life. It touches something. You feel it in your gut, it's very visceral. I know that it's a good photo when I feel that.
You also write that the interviews were more fascinating than the photo sessions. Can you explain that?
That's because I'd never done an interview before. I have always been a curious person, and this was an outlet for my curiosity -- which I wouldn't have been able to do with just the photographs. About 98 percent went easily. The ones that weren't ready to talk didn't make the book -- mostly politicians, industrialists, [cinematographer] Vittorio Storaro was difficult. I didn't usually tell them the name of the book. I just said it was about Italian men. I interviewed over 100 men and most were very cooperative. One of the reasons they're so great is they're so narcissistic!
Do you think Italian men are truly different from other men or is that just a fantasy they like to have?
I am sincere when I say that one of the things I discovered is a tenderness about them, which takes the edge off the macho -- and macho is not necessarily bad if you're not married to them. If you're having an affair it's OK ... they really like women. They really know about love and seduction. They've been doing it forever. You don't really mind that it is a game because they play it so well. Once you know that's what it is, the dance is wonderful. When you don't know it's a dance, it's very dangerous. I wish there were more American men who could handle the dance.
I think that when they're with you and when they're seducing you, they are totally present, their attention is with you, they're paying you compliments, pursuing you. A lot of it has to do with their narcissism -- that they want to prove to themselves they can get you; on the other hand it makes a woman feel terrific. They're not afraid of the women sexually. I've had Italian women say that Italian men are terrible lovers. Maybe when they're witih a foreign women they're different. They are from a culture that really appreciates beauty. And they are very beautiful!
Are you still in love with an Italian?
Not anymore. I have been with a few of them. I don't think I could live with one unless he were well traveled, or had lived in America for a while. For me it would be a total impossibility. The man who inspired this book was a journalist, intelligent, you would think worldly, but he was very provincial.
I have to say that when I first got to Italy -- and I wasn't in my 20s -- I still had very American ideas about love, and I was really confused. I had friends with very sophisticated lives ... one was a man who lived two floors above his wife with his mistress -- in the same building. He was an accomplished man. They had a child together and she would be hostess at his parties. But they lived separate lives -- she had lovers too. They had it all worked out. An American woman wouldn't do that. I just think there's something not bad about that. They held onto a sense of family.
You say in the book that American women find three stages in dealing with an Italian man: swept away, learning the awful truth and saying "to hell with it." What is the awful truth?
The awful truth is when you know that they're just playing. Their attention span is two minutes long. They'll cheat on you. As soon as you have a baby, they're off and running. They're liars! I did an interview with one man and he told me a story about how his father told him, "If you get caught with a woman in the act, deny it!" That was very telling.
You ask some of these men: "Do you prefer to be first or unique?" Why that question?
I think because they have such an ego but at the same time are very insecure. I wanted to know what was more important -- to be unique or to do everything in a crowd [the way they do so many things].
You have a photo of Alberto Tomba's butt. Did he feel badly that his face wasn't used? Did he feel objectified?
He was a difficult interview -- they were going to confiscate the tape. I don't think he realized I had that shot. He signed off on it without seeing it.
How did you get away with asking them if their "endowments" were small, medium or large?
They were all OK talking about that. I asked American men and nine out of 10 blushed and didn't want to answer. In Italy they feel very easy about sex. For them, it's natural. One guy did say "small," but he didn't make the book!
So, you'd never get romantically involved with an Italian man again?
I'm still friendly with a lot of Italian men; I can still be seduced. I like their energy. They treat you in a way where you can get in touch with your femininity.
One time when I came back from one of my trips, I was in New York and no man was looking at me on the street. I thought I must look jet-lagged and haggard. Then I went to a shoot and my editor was Italian and she started talking about the men and how in Europe every man looks, and in America they don't know you're alive. Even in Paris, wherever you go you can always have a flirtation. I miss that. That's really part of life; it's what makes life exciting and fun and interesting. We miss that here. It's really sad. Whenever I think about having a romance, I leave.
Is there such a thing as a philosophy of love and passion that is Italian?
I just think it's very important to them. When I interviewed Franco Piersante, the piano player, about how many times he's been in love, he said "many, many, many times." When they have a chemistry with someone, to them that's love. To us it's infatuation. I talked to them about it and there is no difference between eros, that first look, and love. There are different levels of love, of course -- as the years go by it can get deeper and it changes, but that first feeling they consider love. This is what they sincerely feel. It might last for two days or for 20 years.
They also do not live to work. They work to live. If they don't have that passion they are sad. And they're right. They know it. We sublimate, we stay at the office forever. Their understanding of human nature is very complete. For them, love is like breathing.
I remember being with this one Italian man in bed. I think I was complaining. I know I was complaining. And he said "What do you want? You have a man in your bed. That's all you need." That's how they think!
How do their relationships with their mothers affect their love relationships with women later?
They expect to be taken care of the way the mother takes care of them. They take women for granted and love them more than anything. The mother lets them do whatever they want. They go out and then they come back and have their wonderful dinner. They expect that from their wives. I know this man who married this woman. I knew that as soon as she got pregnant he would be off and running. And he loved her.
What is the best quote that didn't get into the book?
I asked one guy: "Why does an Italian man have such a hard time making love to his wife?" He said something to the effect of "you don't want the mother of your children kissing them and then thinking of her mouth going other places" ... you know what I mean? It's the classic madonna/whore thing.
Who do you think is the sexiest man in the world? Is he Italian?
For me it is a man I met in January in Mexico ... It's whoever you're involved with at the time.