Visiting Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion?

You must join the virtual exhibition queue when you arrive. If capacity has been reached for the day, the queue will close early.

Learn more

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Rise of Paper Photography in Italy, 1839–55

In the nineteenth century, Italy became an important destination for photographers eager to use the new medium to capture the peninsula’s distinctive topography, ancient ruins, and famed works of art in all their realism and detail. The early history of photography in Italy was characterized by its international flavor, a mixing of local and foreign practitioners, predilections, and points of view that fostered a flourishing experimentation and exchange. This international community created photographs of great variety of aesthetic, subject matter, and purpose. Although these photographs often reflected a desire to hold on to the notion of Italy as bel paese—a beautiful and timeless place of living antiquity—amidst increasing modernization, at the same time they also made visible a shared patrimony—and thus identity—among Italians. Local practitioners benefited from the presence of their foreign counterparts, learning firsthand about new developments the French brought to the technique of the daguerreotype (a highly detailed, one-of-a-kind image on a polished metal plate) and the English invention of the calotype (a paper-based negative/positive process that allowed for multiple prints) that were happening during the 1840s and 1850s.

For foreigners, the allure of Italy rested in its ancient monuments and its status as the cradle of classical culture. Working outdoors, or en plein air, amidst archaeological ruins presented numerous challenges to the photographer, who had to transport all of the necessary equipment, including heavy wooden box cameras and costly and volatile chemicals, to each location. For this reason, many photographers preferred calotypes, or paper negatives, which were much lighter than metal daguerreotype plates, and could be prepared in advance and developed in the studio rather than in situ. Paper negatives also held the advantage of producing multiple positive prints from a single negative, a boon for commercial photographers. For travelers and artists, paper photographs fit neatly into albums and portfolios compiled on journeys and admired as souvenirs and artistic studies.

One of the earliest employments of paper photography anywhere is conserved in the Album di disegni fotogenici (Album of Photogenic Drawings), which contains thirty-six photogenic drawings (both photograms and prints from negatives made in a camera) alongside related correspondence sent by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) to his acquaintance Antonio Bertoloni (1775–1869), the Chair of Botany at the University of Bologna. Bertoloni compiled these photographic “specimens” into the album and reported the method to Italy’s scientific community. Remarkably, the album also contains three photogenic drawings of plants made by Bertoloni’s protégé, a chemist named Sebastiano Tassinari (1814–1888), that are the earliest examples of paper photographs made in Italy (36.37 [44b]).

During the 1840s, improvements to Talbot’s calotype process made by Louis-Désiré Blanquart-Évrard (1802–1872) and Gustave Le Gray (1820–1884) were introduced into Italy through translations of technical treatises. At the same time, interactions between local and foreign photographers fostered experimentation and exchange within a burgeoning photographic community. The watercolorist and amateur photographer Calvert Richard Jones (1802–1877), who had learned the calotype process directly from Talbot, traveled to Italy and Malta in 1845–46. Jones employed innovative techniques such as joining multiple photographs to attain panoramic views of Italian scenery (2005.100.947a,b), and intended to sell his photographs through Talbot’s printing establishment in Reading. While in Italy, Jones met George Wilson Bridges (1788–1864), another of Talbot’s correspondents, who was documenting the Mediterranean region for a planned publication (2013.159.2).

Beginning around 1847, Rome emerged as a photographic caput mundi. An international group of photographers congregated at the city’s famed Caffé Greco to socialize and exchange information about their medium, becoming known in period accounts as the Roman School of Photography, or the Circle of the Caffé Greco. These photographers went on excursions together in the countryside outside of Rome, and helped train amateurs and artists passing through the city. Among this group, the sculptor and medalist Frédéric Flachéron (1813–1883) became an important contact for French artists (2005.100.863). He sold photographic equipment and prints from the art supply shop that he operated on behalf of his father-in-law, a close friend of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Rome’s artistic—and photographic—community flourished in the area around the Spanish Steps near the French Academy’s Villa Medici, where both the Caffé Greco and Flachéron’s shop were located.

Winners of the prestigious Prix de Rome—among the prominent names to have received the honor are Ingres, Jacques Louis David, and Achille-Etna Michallon—were awarded scholarships by the French Academy to live and study in Rome for a period of two to five years. During this time, they copied masterpieces of paintings and sculptures, recorded elevations of ancient monuments, and produced oil sketches in the Roman Campagna. The artistic studies they made during their time in Rome provided the raw material for their careers in France, and photographs soon took their place alongside sketches in their portfolios. Many notable French photographers including Maxime Du Camp (1822–1894) and Gustave Le Gray, though not recipients of the prize, traveled to Rome to partake of the artistic climate fostered by the French Academy. Le Gray may have made his first experiments with photography as a young painter living in Italy from 1843 to 1847. It was during this trip that he met Firmin-Eugène Le Dien (1817–1865) and Léon Gérard (1817–1896), two artists traveling together through Rome and Naples, who later learned the technique of waxed paper negatives from Le Gray in Paris and returned to Italy to produce a series of large-format views using that medium (2013.954; 2005.100.51).

Another painter-turned-photographer, Giacomo Caneva (1812–1865), supplied studies to the city’s vibrant artistic community from his studio near the Villa Medici. A leading figure of the Roman School, Caneva also published the first treatise on photography in Italy, Trattato pratico della fotografia (Practical Treatise on Photography, 1855). He also pioneered the peasant genre in Italian photography, posing models on his sunlit balcony (2005.100.57). Caneva carefully composed these studies of costume and physiognomy, using masses of shadow to convey the mood and character of his sitters. His sensitive portraits appealed to the popularity of peasant themes among artists of the French Academy, and influenced other photographers working in Rome, including the Italian Carlo Baldassarre Simelli (1811–1877) and Frenchman Edmond Lebel (1834–1908). Lebel, also a painter, collected photographs by Simelli and Caneva, and later learned photography in order to make studies for his own paintings.

Among the Roman School, the Frenchman Eugène Constant (active 1848–55) was the first to master glass negatives. He sold his albumen prints of Rome’s ancient monuments and Baroque palaces through the bookseller Édouard Mauche et Cie (2005.100.799 [1–30]). Likewise, the British painter-turned-photographer James Anderson (1813–1877) also used glass negatives (1983.1018), and distributed his large-format views of monuments and sculptures through the shop of Josef Spithöver before opening his own studio. This commercial approach was based on the existing trade in vedute, souvenir views of architectural sites. Travelers could purchase either an entire series depicting Rome and its environs, or select individual photographs to have bound together in an album.

The Scotsman Robert Macpherson (1811–1872), a former physician and painter, also took up glass negatives, producing exquisite photographs of the Italian landscape and Rome’s artistic treasures that were especially prized by British travelers. The oval framing of some of his landscapes harkened to the traditional formats of watercolor landscapes (2005.100.909). John Murray’s tourist guide A Handbook of Rome lauded both Macpherson and the Roman photographer Pietro Dovizielli (1804–1885) for the high quality and artistry of their compositions (2005.100.1095). Dovizielli’s family operated an art supply shop specializing in reproductions of the city’s artistic masterpieces. He began his photographic career using paper negatives, and had continued success with glass negatives, producing vedute and large-format art reproductions. His views of Rome received a bronze medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855.

The 1850s marked a transitional moment in Italian photography, as the artisan productions of painter-photographers gave way to the industrial processes of collodion on glass negatives and albumen printing employed by large photographic firms such as those established by Giaocchino Altobelli (1814–1879) and Pompeo Molins (1827–ca. 1893) in Rome (2005.100.1113), Giorgio Sommer (1834–1914) in Naples (2012.111), the Fratelli Alinari (active 1854–1920) in Florence, and Carlo Naya (1816–1882) in Venice (61.568.9). These photographers’ business methods accorded with Italy’s own modernization. Their work standardized and codified a repertoire of images of Italy—including monuments, views, and peasant subjects—that appealed to an increasing number of middle-class tourists from Europe and America traveling on railroads and steamships, as well as a growing Italian bourgeoisie.