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Immagine dal catalogo della mostra: Il Mediterraneo dei fotografi

D. Konstantinou
Tempio di Giove Olimpico ad Atene, 1861 ca.
Stampa originale all’albumina, cm 27,2x36,5
Museo di Storia della Fotografia
Fratelli Alinari - collezione Favrod, Firenze

The Mediterranean of the First Photographers

by Charles-Henri Favrod

It only thanks to photography that we have been able to examine the Mediterranean as a whole, from Seville to Constantinople, from the straits of Gibraltar to the Isthmus of Suez.

In March 1839, in France, Prosper Merimée and the Commission for Historical Monuments realized that the newly invented photography could be put at the service of archaeology. In describing the new procedure in a communication to the Academy of Sciences and Fine Arts, the chemist Arago stressed the fact that “To copy the thousands of hieroglyphs that cover the great monuments of Thebes, Memphis, Karnak, would require a score of years and legions of draftsmen.

With the daguerreotype, one man alone can carry out this immense work, without errors.” By November 6, 1839, the painter Horace Vernet was already in Egypt with Fréric Goupil-Fesquet and the first surveys were begun. Before the year’s end, Jerusalem had also been daguerreotyped, then Nazareth and Saint-Jean d’Acre. These views, engraved on wood, appeared in the Excursions daguérriennesthat the optician Lérebours began publishing in Paris in 1841.

The Grand Tour, the journey that began in Italy or Spain, and went on to Greece, Ottoman Turkey, the Holy Land, and Egypt, already frequently included North Africa. Photography, as soon as technical progress permitted, gradually became the best means for revealing the diversity, but also the deep-seated unity of the Mediterranean. Up to then the concept had been fragmentary and fanciful, to say the least. Indeed a late eighteenth-century English engraving shows Giza with twenty great pyramids.

Photography represented an irrefutable reproduction of reality, taken d’après nature. Not only the places but the light of the specific moment were depicted. And the spectator was astonished to discover that he could see these images both elsewhere, and at different times. In 1851, the Frenchman Eugène Piot published a book of photographs, L’Italie Monumentale, that was a sensation. After him any number of foreign photographers travelled from Venice to Sicily, including Sardinia, where the Swiss Edouard Delessert undertook a pioneer journey in 1854. In the same period the Englishman Calvert Jones, in the company of his fellow countryman George Wilson Bridges, embarked upon an interesting tour from Florence to Naples, before continuing to Palermo and Malta.

The French Academy in Villa Medici welcomed the photographers who met in the nearby Caffè Greco: Constant, Normand and above all Giacomo Caneva, from Padua, a gifted calotypist, and his pupil Tuminello. Nor should Spain be forgotten, where the pioneer photographers were active from 1839 on. This was where the great English photographer Charles Clifford worked. Connected to the court of Queen Isabella since 1852, he took any number of superb views, examining the landscape and the plants in detail, and proposing what can today be described as an exceptional modernity of vision and a technical perfection that was precocious for the times. Returning to Italy, ten years later, in Naples, Giorgio Sommer and Robert Rive began a systematic census of the monuments and daily life, in an amazing collection that provided information on Campania and Sicily. It was then that the pictures of Vesuvius and Etna proliferated and were added to the views so appreciated by tourists up to then.

Italy was unquestionably the springboard for the Grand Tour. But before long the journey continued eastwards. In 1839 Daguerre had said: “What requires at least twenty minutes of exposure in Paris, is accelerated ten times by the sun of Egypt.” In 1849 Maxime du Camp landed in Alexandria and Gustave Flaubert is the first travelling companion of a photographer to put in writing, and with humor, the interminable periods of waiting required for exposure and development.

It was Gustave Le Gray who taught the rudiments of the calotype to Maxime du Camp, as well as Alexis de Lagrange, passing on the latest improvements by Blanquart-Evrard, printer from Lille. Before long John Bulkley Greene also became a calotypist. His precocious admirable research was cut short by his premature death at the age of twenty-four in 1856. He had however succeeded in changing the method and manner of seeing, photographing the Colossi of Memnon from behind, at a time when everything was seen frontally. Other British citizens in the Orient included Reverend George Bridges, already mentioned for Italy, John Shaw Smith, Francis Bedford who accompanied the prince of Wales in 1862, and above all Francis Frith. With his assistant Frank Mason Good, Frith undertook numerous trips and produced a complete survey of Egypt.

The same was accomplished up to 1900 by the Venetian Antonio Beato, who settled in Cairo, and then Luxor, after collaborating with his brother Felice and with James Robertson, later to become his brother-in-law, whom he had met in Malta on his return from a trip to Crimea and Constantinople. The French also did their part, creating a gallery of personages that paralleled the panorama of monuments: Henri Béchard; Hippolyte Arnoux, habitual visitor to the building yard for the Suez Canal; Auguste-Rosalie Bisson and Adolphe Braun, invited to the celebrations for the opening in 1869, as was Félix Teynard who had already taken a trip to Egypt in 1851 as calotypist; Gustave Le Gray who arrived from Sicily where he settled and lived the rest of his life; Emile Brugsch, deputy conservator of the museum of Boulak, assistant to Auguste Mariette and Gaston Maspéro, the first to photograph the mummies of the pharaohs. Mention must also be made of the Italians Carlo Naya, Francesco Quadrelli and Alessandro Brignoli, the Greek Peridis, the Armenian Lekegian, the Turk Pascal Sebah, who worked together with the Frenchman Polycarpe Joaillier. Other Greeks such as the Zangaki brothers, other Turks such as the Horsep, Vichen and Kevork, Abdullah, brothers, official photographers for the sultan in Constantinople and, as such, active in Egypt and the eastern provinces of the Ottoman empire.

This list, incomplete as it is, may seem pointless, but refraining from it would be to ignore the work of the pioneers. Girault de Prangey, with his Monumenti arabi d’Egitto, della Siria e dell’Asia minore, precedes Maxime du Camp’s Egitto, Nubia, Palestina e Siriaby five years, superbly published with Louis-Désiré Blanquart-Evrard’s original proofs in 1852. At the same time various photographers depicted Syria and Palestine: Ernest Benecke in 1852, James Graham and Auguste Salzmann in 1854, Reverend Albert Augustus Isaacs in 1856, John Anthony in 1857, Wilhelm Hammerschmidt in 1859. Various photographers took part in the expedition of the duke of Luynes in 1864, including Jardin and Vignes, who did many views of the Dead Sea and Jordan. But the first to daguerreotype Petra, twenty years earlier in 1844, was George Skene Keith.

Of particular note is an expedition that by itself represents the itinerary of the Grand Tour. Gabriel de Rumine, a Russian noble who settled in Lausanne in Switzerland, accompanied the Grand Duke Constantine, son of Nicholas I, in a journey that lasted from October 1858 to July 1859, and that began in Nice, continued to Genoa, Naples, Palermo, Malta “Navel of the Mediterranean”, Athens, Constantinople, and lastly Jerusalem. De Rumine took admirable pictures, of which some subsequently appeared in instalments in the Paris journal La Gazette du Nord which he financed.

A few more words must be dedicated to the work of Félix Bonfils for his photographs are at the origins of a widespread iconographic diffusion. Protestant of Cévennes, born in Saint-Hippolyte-du-Fort, he was twenty-nine in 1860 when he took part in Napoleon III’s expedition to protect the Maronite Christians from the Druzes. With his wife, Lydie Cabanis and his son Adrien he settled in Beirut in 1867 and opened a photographic studio in the Bab el Driss quarter. It was to become one of the most important in the Orient.

In 1871, Félix Bonfils sent a communication to the Société Française de Photographieto let them know that he had already taken “591 negatives taken in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Greece, and also 9000 stereoscopies”. In his catalogue of 1876 he specified that his copies were taken in at least “three different formats”, proof that he had used several cameras even when he went into places as dangerous as Baalbeck or Palymra. In 1878 Félix Bonfils was homesick and returned to France where he settled in Alès. His wife and son remained in Beirut and for forty years continued the activity of the laboratory with three assistants: Rombeau, Sabounji and Hakim.

After the death of Lydie in 1918, an Armenian, Guiragossian, bought the archive and capitalized on it until the eve of World War II. Despite the fact that he was protestant, Félix Bonfils was on excellent terms with the Roman Catholic Church and, in particular, with all the Archbishoprics and Bishoprics in France which he furnished with pictures used for educational projections. His gigantic work was motivated by the desire to make an inventory of all the Biblical and Evangelical sites. It was his interest in history that animated him. Adrien was more of a proselytizer: the texts he edited bear witness to a burning faith and he often added captions to his father’s photographs, for example “Druze peasants of Mount Carmel” becomes “People resembling the twelve apostles of the Last Supper.” In one of the prefaces to the published albums he writes: “One would say that nothing has changed under this sky that has seen the first rays of the Sun of justice.”

The importance of Félix Bonfils’ work lies above all in the systematic census of the state of preservation of the sites that lasted for over ten years, and was continued afterwards by Lydie and Adrien. It must be kept in mind, once again, that up to that moment only rather sketchy engravings had provided a distorted idea of these regions that could hardly be called documentation.

The work of the photographers and the opening of the Suez Canal made the trip less arduous and profoundly changed the knowledge of these countries. In 1869 Thomas Cook proposed his first itineraries for wealthy tourists: the valley of the Nile, then Palestine and Syria. In Beirut, as indicated in the sign of the Bonfils studio, one could buy “photographs, curiosities from the entire Orient.” Words can never adequately describe the work of these pioneers, the difficulties they encountered and the risks they ran. Post cards, printing, the cinema, television, the inflation of color photographs have made sites otherwise difficult to reach available to the masses, and generalized the acquaintance with peoples who initially distrusted the photograph and refused to have their picture taken.

This exhibition and this catalogue show the miraculousmoment of the discovery of the Mediterranean through photography and the demonstration of the unity of a natural and cultural heritage.