Museums

Pompeii Before the Point-and-Shoot: The Earliest Photographs of Italy

The first photographic images seen in Italy were botanical prints by Henry Fox Talbot, beginning three decades of experimentation with photography in 19th-century Italy.

Pietro Dovizielli, “Temple of Vesta” (1855), salted paper print from paper negative (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Purchase, the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 2005)

Paradise of Exiles: Early Photography in Italy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art begins with the first photographic images to arrive in Italy, a delicate 1839–40 album of botanical negative images sent by William Henry Fox Talbot to botanist Antonio Bertoloni. The ghostly silhouettes of ferns, grasses, and other specimens, created with Talbot’s cameraless “photogenic drawing” technique, set a tone of experimentation for the small show on the inaugural three decades of photography in Italy.

While the dawn of photography may be more associated with England (where Talbot invented his salted paper process) and France (where Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype), Paradise of Exiles argues that Italy was integral as a place of exchange between travelers and locals working with the new possibilities of the photograph, these two techniques mingling at the same moment. Organized by Beth Saunders, curatorial assistant in the Met’s department of photographs, the exhibition stretches from 1839 to 1871, the year of Italian unification, through nearly 50 objects.

Joseph Philibert Girault de Prangey, “Ponte Rotto, Rome” (1842), daguerreotype (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. John A. Moran Gift, in memory of Louise Chisholm Moran, Joyce F. Menschel Gift, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 2016 Benefit Fund, and Gift of Dr. Mortimer D. Sackler, Theresa Sackler and Family, 2016)

Many of these early images aren’t that different from the popular tourist vistas of today, such as Italian photographer Pietro Dovizielli’s luminous 1850s salted paper print of the Temple of Vesta in Rome that takes in the stately monument and a couple of visitors seated at the fountain. Often the photographer was an expat on a tour of antiquity, shooting its monuments as visual souvenirs, or seeking some inspiration in Italy’s Mediterranean light. The title of the exhibition is taken from a poem by one of these famed Italy wanders, English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley: “How beautiful is sunset, when the glow / Of Heaven descends upon a land like thee, / Thou Paradise of exiles, Italy!”

Robert Macpherson, “The Valley of the Anio, with the Upper and Lower Cascatelle, Mecenas’s Villa, and Distant Campagna” (1858 or earlier), albumen silver print from glass negative (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Purchase, W. Bruce and Delaney H. Lundberg Gift, 2005)
Installation view of Paradise of Exiles: Early Photography in Italy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Another of these “exiles” was photographer Robert Macpherson, a tall Scotsman who persisted in sporting a kilt as he wandered Rome, capturing contrasts of the old and new, like the ancient Theater of Marcellus that was made oddly domestic by 19th-century apartments. An 1855 salted paper print of the Casa di Rienzi (today called the Casa dei Crescenzi) similarly juxtaposes a neat clothesline of laundry to this relic of antiquity. In an 1846 salted print by Calvert Richard Jones (part of a 2012 bequest to the Met from Maurice Sendak!), the Duomo of Milan towers grandly beside a line of shadowed homes.

Although the majority of the photographers were men, there is a photograph attributed to Jane Martha St. John from the 1850s, featuring the textural frenzy of a lush Mediterranean garden. Paradise of Exiles culminates with an 1860 photograph of Giuseppe Garibaldi, and images of barricades and fighters in the political turmoil of the country’s unification, another upheaval in the country’s layers of history that would for the first time be interpreted through photography.

Calvert Richard Jones, “Duomo Milan” (1846), salted paper print from paper negative (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Maurice B. Sendak, 2012)
Unknown British photographer, “Casa di Rienzi, Rome” (1855), salted paper print from paper negative (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, David Hunter McAlpin Fund, 1946)
Possibly by Jane Martha St. John, “Pincian Garden, Rome” (1853-56), albumen silver print (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005)
Léon Gérard, “Drawing of Christ from Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’) (1857–61), albumen silver print from paper negative (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Purchase, Denise and Andrew Saul Gift, 2005)
Installation view of Paradise of Exiles: Early Photography in Italy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Firmin Eugène Le Dien, “Pompeii, Pompey’s Lane, Tomb Monument of Mamia” (1853), salted paper print from a waxed paper negative (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. John A. Moran Gift, in memory of Louise Chisholm Moran, 2013)
Installation view of Paradise of Exiles: Early Photography in Italy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Firmin-Eugène Le Dien and Gustave Le Gray, “Pompeii, Pompey’s Lane, Tomb Monument of Mamia” (1853), salted paper print from a waxed paper negative (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. John A. Moran Gift, in memory of Louise Chisholm Moran, 2013)

Paradise of Exiles: Early Photography in Italy continues through August 13 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).

comments (0)