In pictures: Romance amid the rubble

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THE YEAR is 1946 and a couple are strolling; the man's arm is slung around the woman's shoulders and both have their backs to the camera as they make their way along a rough pathway through the rubble of Cassino, with bare-branched trees and the faint outline of the mountains providing a backdrop. It's such a poignant image – almost a metaphor for hope after the ravages of the Second World War – that it could be a still from the closing scene of a classic film.

Instead, it's one of a collection of "family snaps" taken by Dominic Scappaticcio, who documented a round trip through Europe that he and his younger sister Tolina took, from their home in Edinburgh to Sicily, for her marriage to Salvatore Milazzo – a man she'd met on a visit to Dalmahoy's Italian prisoner-of-war camp.

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Much of their visit was spent in Cassino (50km south of Rome), as the Scappaticcio family were originally from this region and had relatives still living there. The black and white images also feature their pit stops in Rome, Sicily and Milan, as well as their starting point – Leith Links in Edinburgh.

Back in those days, young women didn't often travel alone, so his family reckon that Scappaticcio was recruited to act as Tolina's chaperone on the journey. Rather than being merely a gooseberry, however, he made himself useful by keeping a photographic diary of the trip. The results can be seen at a new exhibition, Life Amongst the Ruins, at Edinburgh's Italian Cultural Institute, which was curated by Scappaticcio's great niece, Nicola Milazzo, and organised with the help of her family.

None of this would have been possible if it weren't for the serendipitous discovery of a package hidden under the eaves.

"It sounds like a fairy story, but it really is true," explains 39-year-old Milazzo, who works as a technician at Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh. "The originals were found in the attic, after the house that Scappaticcio and his son once lived in had been sold on. A friend of the person who was living there went up to check a leak in the roof, stumbled upon a box of negatives and, coincidentally, recognised my grandparents after holding the images up to the light. So he contacted their son, Frank Milazzo, to tell him what he'd found."

Up until then, Scappaticcio's extended family only had the tiny, contact-sheet sized images of the trip, which were pasted inside a little green notebook.

"We always had this album, but it was incredible, just sheer luck that the negatives were found," says 58-year-old Frank, who works in the box office of Brunton Theatre.

Shortly after this magical find, the eldest son of the couple, 62-year-old Victor Milazzo, Nicola's father and a warder at the National Gallery of Scotland, showed the photographs to experts there. They pointed out that these images were significant, not only from a historical point of view – they depict the postwar Italian landscape (as Nicola says, "Cassino was bombed to hell") and offer a cultural snapshot of the Scottish Italian community in the 1940s – but also because, artistically, they're the work of an expert eye. After this affirmation, the family soon had Life Amongst the Ruins lined up, with funding from the Italian Cultural Institute. So, while Scappaticcio died back in 1976, the results of his sojourn in Italy are at last on public display.

When curating the show, Nicola Milazzo arranged the photographs as chronologically as she could, in order to give a "circular" sense of the trip from its beginning to the culmination, which was a party to celebrate her father Victor's christening in Edinburgh. In fact, the aforementioned image is one of the most striking, as it features the family members gazing into the camera while sitting at a table which is scattered with lunch paraphernalia (another portrait shows Salvatore Milazzo preparing the food for the event, resplendent in a chequered apron). However, the first time that Nicola saw this image, which was one of the photos that hadn't been kept in the family's treasured little green book, was when she was using computer software to scan the pile of negatives in order to work out which of them should be in the exhibition.

"I was bowled over by that one," she says. "My relatives have such an intense look and the items on the table, including an ashtray and bottles, make the foreground seem like a still life. My dad's godmother is holding him, Granny is a dark figure at the back and Grandad's head has been cut off completely. However, it was one of the pictures that made me think of Uncle Dominic as a real photographer, because he was viewing the scene with a photographer's eye, not an uncle's eye."

Other elements of the scene help to build up a picture of the time. Where, for example, the family would usually have a bottle of Marsala wine on the table ("When we were little, my granny would always give us a glass of that," says Nicola) there's Tawny Port instead. "Perhaps they couldn't get their usual drink in wartime, so that might be the closest alternative," she wonders.

Like this image, many of the others feature some relatives (including those in the portrait of a collection of dark-eyed girls) who haven't been identified yet. As Nicola says, "They have the Scappaticcio look but, like so many Italian families, there are lots of us, and we're still not sure who's who."

The images of complete strangers are just as effective. For example, the exhibition features a documentary-style portrait of railway staff in Switzerland, two of whom are wearing uniforms that echo Mussolini's own. This image completely contrasts with the photograph of swarthy-looking musicians in Cassino, one of whom is playing the accordion and another playing what appears to be the Italian equivalent of bagpipes, the zampogna. The locals, who are lining the path to hear them play, smile and laugh – unlike some of the photographer's other subjects.

"I think there are some amazing-looking people in the photograph of the railway station in Milan," explains Nicola. "However, a few of them seem to be quite confrontational. They're staring at him and it looks as if they're thinking: 'What are you doing with that camera?'

"Back then, there were all these displaced people who felt suspicious and confused, and I think that this photo picks that up."

However, there are also a few self-portraits of Dominic Scappaticcio.

In one image, for example, he's standing in the garden at home, cigarette in hand. In another he has collapsed into the long grass, laughing, as his small nieces, Eva and Rina Valente – who helped organise the exhibition and are now in their late seventies – jump on his back.

These informal images are more like the traditional family snaps that we all have at home. However, they offer us a chance to meet the photographer who, according to his nephew, had a colourful career.

"He was quite a character," says Frank. "In the 1930s he lived in the United States and worked at the Ford Model T plant in Detroit. Then, when he came back here, he brought Edinburgh its first consignment of 'one-armed bandits'. Later on in his life he owned a marshmallow 'snowball' factory, and ended up giving the recipe to the famous Musselburgh ice-cream parlour, Luca's.

"Photography was always his hobby and he would be absolutely delighted about this exhibition."

• Life Amongst the Ruins runs until 30 June at the Italian Cultural Institute, 82 Nicolson Street, Edinburgh (0131-668 2232, Open Mon-Thurs 9am-5pm. Admission free.