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