In their introduction to The Idea of Italy: Photography and the British Imagination, 1840–1890, editors Antonella Pelizzari and Scott Wilcox explain that the very idea of Italy was, for nineteenth-century British travelers, an amalgam of images, myths, and encounters enshrined in literary and artistic works. The eighteenth-century Grand Tour fulfilled a prescribed social obligation to see firsthand the remains of antiquity, symbols of a Classical past that was the foundation of an enlightened education, and of British culture of the time. To encounter Italy was, for Britons, to see oneself reflected in the mirror of Italian culture, however, the idea of Italy was just as potent a force in shaping Italian identity, and photography played a critical role in picturing a country in transition to a modern nation state.
The first British photographers active in Italy were primarily amateurs of the leisure class who sought out locales familiar from guidebooks, printed vedute, and Classical texts and artworks. For example, notations on the backs of daguerreotypes produced by Alexander John Ellis referenced points of interest listed in Baedeker’s guidebooks. Early professional photographers active in Italy also capitalized on the popularity of certain destinations. The Scots photographer Robert Macpherson, known for his large, high-quality albumen prints offered for purchase images of architecture associated with fictionalized accounts of Renaissance history including the home of Lucrezia Borgia and Hilda’s Tower—a reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Marble Faun (1860). Italy was a site where past and present, history and fiction, Romance and Classicism intermingled.
When the modern conveyances of the railroad and steamships made the journey easier and relatively less expensive, mass tourism expanded this cultural experience to the middle class and photography developed alongside to replicate and disseminate images of Italy to an ever-wider public. As the century progressed and photographic technology along with it, the difficulties encountered by early practitioners lugging cameras and chemistry to obscure destinations gave way to the ease of a Kodak snapshot. Despite following established routes, personal experiences also shaped imagery of Italy. The German publisher Tauchnitz offered editions of The Marble Faun and other novels to which photographs could be purchased and pasted in by travelers to create a sort of choose your own adventure within the text. Tourists recorded their experiences in diaries, added handwritten annotations to photographs, and preserved them within souvenir albums that enabled moments of reverie and armchair travel back home.
Although British travelers sought a particular idea of Italy, they encountered a country in the throes of modernization and a political movement known as the Risorgimento, which would lead to the unification of the peninsula’s patchwork of polities as the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. Among British audiences, the circulation of portraits of Italian heroes such as Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi fueled support for Italian nationhood and resulted in financial and political backing of the cause. These celebrity portraits demonstrate how Italian politicians used photography as a tool of self-fashioning as their famous figures became instantly recognizable through cartes-de-visite and wood engravings based on photographs that circulated in the British press. The visual culture of the Risorgimento also included some of the earliest war images ever recorded in photographs depicting the aftermath of battles to defend the Roman Republic against Papal forces in 1849.
Tales of Garibaldi’s heroic exploits during this campaign fed into Romantic ideas about the character of the Italian people. Visible among the classical monuments and tourist destinations in early photographs were images of Italians: picturesque peasants who posed as artists models, stereotypes such as lazzeroni and maccheroni eaters, and the banditi who posed a threat to law and order in both the aristocratic old world order and in modern governance. These figures were portraits of alterity that confirmed expectations of Italy as a primitive society (in contrast to Northern civilization) populated with characters both dangerous and alluring to foreign audiences. Viewed another way, those images also documented traditional ways of life that were disappearing due to modernization and that would paradoxically become a source of national shame and then pride as the modern nation state developed. The photographs of turn of the twentieth century everyday life in Abruzzo, made by sisters Agnes and Dora Bulwer encapsulate this latter view.
Julia Margaret Cameron’s striking portrait of an Italian model posed as Shakespeare’s Iago, suggests a fiery and passionate character through the intensity of its dramatic lighting and close framing. It is also shot through with an undercurrent of sensual titillation. Like the Pre-Raphaelites with whom Cameron associated, her photographs bear the influence of Renaissance artworks and project a protestant fascination with Catholicism. This theme is also apparent in scenes of Venetian clergymen captured by Scottish Pictorialist James Craig Annan during his travels in Northern Italy in 1894. These artistic interpretations explored the creative potential of the camera through potent Romantic tropes.
Photography greatly expanded the availability of images of Italian patrimony among those who, like Cameron, never traveled to Italy. The establishment of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the scholarly Arundel Society promoted the use of photography for the study of art and architecture, advancing the nascent field of art history and contributing to the technical training of artists and artisans in England. Early photographic campaigns supported by these organizations—and even by Prince Albert—employed British and Italian photographers to amass bodies of work that recorded and catalogued Italian history. Likewise, photographic firms such as Alinari and Brogi produced huge commercial catalogues of Italian sites that fed the interests of individual tourists and formed institutional collections in libraries, museums, and schools. These corpuses comprised a vision of Italy as a unified totality, a project that coincided with and contributed to that of Italian nationhood.
The reciprocal flow of travelers and photographs between England and Italy fostered networks of exchange and influence that impacted culture, politics, and society in both countries. For Britons, the idea of Italy reflected their own values and aspirations, while for Italians, seeing themselves reflected in a foreign lens brought focus to a shared past that united the country.
Beth Saunders is a Curator and Head of Special Collections at the Albin O. Kuhn Library, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).