photo essay /

Flight of Fancy

The footprint of an American air base in Italy

Alberto maserin grew up in the town of Maniago, in north-east Italy, 15 kilometres from the Aviano Air Base. As a teenager, in the early 1990s, he heard stories about the place. It had magnificent air shows, and stores that stocked American goods such as peanut butter. Some of the American servicemen stationed there lived with their families just around the block, and when reassigned elsewhere they would sell off clothes and trinkets on their front lawns. The locals clamoured for this American paraphernalia.

But, Maserin said, things have changed. “Nowadays … there are no more air shows, yard sales are forbidden and people who work inside the base are restricted on what they can buy” from outsiders.

The Aviano Air Base was established by the Italian military in 1911. In 1955, it became home to an American squadron, and a key Western outpost in the Cold War. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, it played a role as a NATO base in conflicts in the Balkans, in Iraq, and, most recently, in Libya.

Today, Aviano hosts two combat-ready fighter-jet squadrons of the United States Air Force, and also, it is thought, a sizeable number of nuclear bombs. With security tightened in recent times, the base has become increasingly isolated from its surrounding community. American personnel are stationed here for shorter periods of time, and more on-base housing has all but ended the practice of renting local homes. Now, instead of recounting air shows—the last public one was in 1996—the base’s neighbours wonder how many secret bunkers the facility hides. An air of myth and mystery prevails.

Alberto Maserin is a co-founder of the Belfast Photo Factory, a non-profit collective. His work has appeared in Source, Time, and the Irish Arts Review. He lives in Belfast, and works between Northern Ireland and Italy.

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