February 2023


The Seductive Charms of Rome
for Early Photographers

Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold

In the Light of Rome: Early Photography in the Capital of the Art World 1842-1871,  a new exhibit at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art on display until June 4, 2023, offers a comprehensive look at the role The Eternal City played in the development of early photography. The 112 photographs in a variety of then-emerging media chronicle not only the developing technical capabilities of the art form and some of its early European practitioners, but also the seductive charms Rome continued to hold for artists, throughout the ages, but most especially in the 19th century.

Europe at mid-late 19th century was a world in flux with revolutions and republican movements rocking the ancient monarchies and industrialization rapidly changing economic and social norms.  In the years captured by the exhibition, Italy was in the throes of the Risorgimento – the social and political movement culminating in the consolidation of the various Italian states into the Kingdom of Italy, which celebrated its victory in 1871 with the capture of Rome and the designation of the city as the capital of a unified Italy.

The significance of Rome for the Risorgimento leaders, Mazzini, Garibaldi, Cavour, and Victor Emanuel (who became the united Italy's first King), was symbolic as well as historic.  Not only was it Italy's largest city, but it was its oldest, and with its roots in antiquity – in Etruscan and Roman civilization – it laid claim to a legacy of art, literature, music, science, philosophy, government, and social order.  Throughout the entire 18th. and 19th centuries, the Neo- Classcists and Romantics made pilgrimages to Rome to visit the ruins of Antiquity and to gather what lessons they could about harmony, proportion, beauty – precepts that were cornerstones of Western art and thought.  The Napoleonic Wars wreaked havoc across the continent, and in their wake, in the period covered by this exhibition, there was a brief rebirth of optimism and hope for a new Europe founded on more democratic principles. 

The photographers represented in the exhibition, among them James Anderson and Robert Macphersopn of Britain, Fr茅deric Flach茅ron, Firmin Eugene LeDien of France, Giocomo Caneva, Adriano de Bonis, and Pietro Dovizielli of Italy,  came from many different countries and artistic traditions.  But they all came to Rome as if on a pilgrimage, bringing with them their fledgling art form in the hopes of capturing images of a city whose architecture represented both greatness and decay but whose artistic spirit was as undiminished as ever.

In 1842 photography was an infant science/art form with the latest development being the Daguerreotype, a process that involved photographing the image onto a mirror-like silver-surfaced plate that had been fumed with iodine vapor, which reacted with the silver to form a coating of silver iodide. The result appeared as a positive when it was suitably lit and viewed.  The various photographs in the current exhibition experiment with these discoveries, using glass plates, chemical compounds of silver and salt, and various exposure lengths to light to obtain the desired results.

What is so striking about the collection on display is the painterly quality of the images.  The photographers are seeking to capture something more than a still image of architectural grandeur.  Rather they are imbuing the works with breath that seems to emanate from the light itself.


Robert Macpherson's Palazzo Altoviti on the Tiber (c. 1851-57) demonstrates this quality admirably. The building is a study in light and shade, its form reflected in the river's waters, its angles casting shadows on other buildings.  There is a palpable sense of time of day - late afternoon) and a vivid contrast between form and reflection.


The same sense of animation is felt in Eug猫ne Constant's Arch of Titus.  Images like these were favorites of the Neo-Classical and Romantic landscape painters, so it is not surprising that Constant should take up the theme of the aging triumphal arch, scarred by time yet imposing, still dominating the houses in the foreground and standing majestically erect in contrast to the pile of earth and stone on the left.


Through the arch one catches a tiny glimpse of the ruins of the Forum which offer a serendipitous segue to Giocchino Altobelli's The Roman Forum in the Moonlight. Altobelli's perspective, from the Capitoline Hill allows him to look down slightly and capture the architecture and the long, dark shadows the temple columns cast.  The sky moves in moody fashion across the  image with gray streaks obscuring parts of the distant dome.  The chiaroscuro of the work is stunning; Italian Renaissance painters developed the art of light and shade to its finest on canvas, but here a compatriot photographer uses a combination of nature and man-made chemical process to capture the same mysterious, haunting light.


Another photograph of the Forum by Fr茅d茅ric Flacheron is far more structural and less atmospheric.  The composition is bisected by the column – placed just slightly to the right of center with the Arch of Titus half visible over a wall to the left and Santa Maria Antiqua to the right.  The angularity and solidity of the forms gives a sense of peaceful strength.


A similar sense of architectural strength is evidenced in Firmin Eug猫ne Le Dien and Gustav LeGray's photograph of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli. The piazza is dominated by tall, draped figures on pedestals lining the entryway.  The light is late day with dark shadows on the fa莽ade of the church and in the foreground. The light catches the figures, which are seen from behind creating a sense of surreptitious viewing.


Calvert Richard Jones makes similar use of chiaroscuro in his photograph of the Temple of  Antonius and Faustina (1850) in which the colonnade of vertical Corinthian columns is set in relief against diagonal shadows of light .  The vivid interplay of shadow and highlight makes the otherwise stolid image a dynamic one.


The  image of a Palm Tree near the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli seen rising proudly above a wall is an unusual one, captured by the French photographer de Pierre Antoine de Vaulx. (c. 1852)  Nature in contrast to, or outstripping, the works of man is a frequent Romantic motif, and here the tree, which occupies center image, its leafy fronds spread in perfect symmetry, dwarfs the tiny campanile visible in the distance. The tonal quality of the photography is also appropriately softened  to render the foliage.


Another striking image that combines architecture and foliage by the French photographer Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey  is of Isola San Bartholomeo, (1842). It shows a Romanesque church occupying center with an arched stone bridge to the left.  In the foreground is the river and a tiny island filled with scrubby trees and brush.  The entire photograph is enveloped in a light haze which suggests the interplay of light and water, and the artist manages to create a strong sense of texture with the glass-like surface of the water, the various stone and tile textures of the buildings, and the crisp brush.

Though all these photographs are early specimens of the medium and though they are in black and white alone, these examples, together with the entire exhibition, convey the complexity and subtlety of the photographers' visions.  There is the soft caress of light – very specific Italianate light; there is the drama of shadow – deep, dark, soft or thrusting; together they combine for that inimitable Italian artistic device: chiaroscuro, the interplay of light and shade to create a sense of dynamic life.

The pictures in In The Light of Rome are filled with an animation. As one strolls through the exhibition, one hears in one's head Respighi's The Pines of Rome with its whispering fluidity. Indeed, in each of these images, though they focus on the iconic architecture of Rome, the stones, themselves, do breathe.  And there is music in interplay of light and shadow, form and insubstantial reflection.


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Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold 's new book is Round Trip Ten Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene 4. For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2023 Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold
 ©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine





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