For a man who spent much of three decades taking pictures of the first non-Italian Pope in centuries, Gianni Giansanti broke big into photojournalism by capturing one of the most indelible and traumatic images in modern Italian history. On May 9, 1978, Giansanti, then 21 and working for the Sygma photo agency, rushed to the scene in the center of historic Rome, on the Via Michelangelo Caetani, when the body of Aldo Moro was found in the trunk of a Renault, looking as if he were asleep but the victim of a cruel murder. The five time premier of Italy had been kidnapped by the radicals of the Red Brigade and, after 54 days in captivity, executed with 11 gunshots to his heart. Moro had been playing a pivotal mediating role between Italy’s Left and Right at a time of great tension between Moscow and Washington; he ended up a martyr of the Cold War. Giansanti’s color photograph was seen all over the world and splashed onto the cover of TIME’s European edition.
It was poetic justice — or perhaps fate — then that the photographer’s next historic subject would be a man credited with helping to end the Cold War: Pope John Paul II. Giansanti traveled the world with the globetrotting Pontiff and, while he was on the other side of Rome when the attempt was made on the Pope’s life, Giansanti was among the photographers at Rebibbia prison when John Paul went to forgive his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca. Giansanti’s large portfolio of images of the Polish Pope at work and prayer in the Vatican were integral to TIME when the magazine made the Supreme Pontiff its 1994 Man of the Year.
The Giansanti photograph that inspired that Man of the Year cover art would eventually become the cover image itself in 2005 to commemorate John Paul II’s death. It was not a posed shot. John Paul was visiting seminarians when someone made a joke and, recalled Giansanti, “that expression that he has, almost like a Mona Lisa smile, came across his face just as the light was striking him perfectly. It is the most beautiful photo I ever shot of him.” A couple of weeks after John Paul’s death, Giansanti’s work was on the cover of TIME again with the new pope, Benedict XVI.
Giansanti, of course, had other subjects: World Cup soccer stars, Formula One racers, African tribesmen. He also took searing photographs of the aftermath of the 1985 terrorist attack at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport. His last major project was a series of portraits of people he described as Italy’s unsung stars in such fields as law, education and geology. But he will be remembered for two things: the death of a premier and the life of a pope.
Gianni Giansanti passed away on March 18, 2009, at the age of 54, in his native Rome. He is survived by his wife Anna and their two children.
Mr. Giansanti had several books of photographs published, including “John Paul II, Portrait of a Pontiff” (1996), with text by Marco Tosatti; and “Vanishing Africa” (2004), translated by Richard Pierce.
Interviewers often asked Mr. Giansanti what made him return again and again to John Paul as a subject. Appearing on CNN in 1996, he answered the question in eloquent if not entirely grammatical English.
“I like and have a great respect for the pontiff,” Mr. Giansanti said. “I like in the pope the light that he have in the eyes.”