BMCR 2008.03.19

Ruines Italiennes. Photographies des collections Alinari

, , Ruines italiennes : photographies des collections Alinari. Paris: Gallimard, [2006]. 155 pages : chiefly illustrations, map ; 24 x 29 cm. ISBN 2070118665. €35.00.

[The reviewer apologizes for the delay.]

Since its invention, photography has had a close relationship with archaeology. Whereas the usefulness of the new medium and specific technical questions were often discussed by archaeologists, the discipline recently shows increasing interest in exploring photography beyond its pure documentary value.1 The history and holdings of the Alinari Archives in Florence instead have been subject of many publications over the last decades. This very attractive volume by Vincent Jolivet is in line with both trends, although not programmatically. To my knowledge, it represents the first selection of Alinari pictures dedicated exclusively to ancient sites in Italy. It assembles over 160 reproductions of photographs that were taken in the second half of the 19th and the early 20th century, either by the brothers Alinari and their collaborators, or by other photographers working in Italy at the time, such as Giacomo and Carlo Brogi, James Graham, Robert MacPherson, Romualdo Moscioni or Giorgio Sommer, to name but a few.

The foreword, entitled “Le musée imaginaire” (pp. 6-9) after Malraux, is by Charles-Henri Favrod, founder of the museum of photography in Lausanne.2 It sketches how photography developed in the context of and contributed to tourism on the one side and history of art as a discipline on the other. “Il fallait évidemment la photographie pour que commençât vraiment l’histoire de l’art” (p. 8). One could add that, originally, many art historians did not approve of photography: it mercilessly rendered every detail and was thus considered to be “chatty”, preventing a serious appreciation of a work of art.3 The major technical improvements developed by the brothers Alinari in the photographical rendering of buildings and spaces assured their success in a systematic inventarization of important monuments. The project that Favrod sees at the origin of the “Musée imaginaire” (p. 9) goes along with the rise of an Italian national identity after the country’s reunification and a subsequent institutionalizing of its national monuments’ administration.

Following Vincent Jolivet’s “Invitation au voyage” (pp. 10-11), the reader can travel from Northern Italy to Sicily in five chapters or stages. A map added to the table of contents visualizes the itinerary that reflects the rhythm of a well-arranged journey of the time. Whereas chapters 1, 3 and 5 are characterized by a rich sequence of places and monuments (“La descente vers Rome. De Suse à Ancone”, pp. 14-33; “Campagne romaine et Campanie heureuse. De Tivoli à Herculanum”, pp. 62-83; “L’Italie grecque. De Paestum à Ségeste”, pp. 116-147), chapters 2 (“Rome. La mégapole et ses faubourgs”, pp. 34-61) and 4 (“Pompéi. La cité ensevelie”, pp. 84-115) allow for a pause to examine single sites more closely.

In his short commentaries, Jolivet, member of the École Française de Rome and by his work familiar both with Italy’s Etruscan as well as Roman past, focuses on the archaeology and history of the sites with an outlook on their fate and exploration in medieval, baroque and modern times. The texts are informative and pleasant to read. Occasionally, quotations from ancient or 19th- and 20th-century sources — travel guides, diaries, novels, excavation reports etc. — are inserted. Names of the sites are given in their modern and Latin forms. While the text only occasionally mentions modern identifications of specific monuments, the captions to the photos keep the old denominations, such as “Temple of Minerva” at Assisi (pp. 30-2 with reference to its actual identification as Temple of the Dioscurs); “Temple of Vesta” for the round temple at the Tiber (p. 37, without quotation marks) or the so-called “Arch of Drusus” (p. 58, with quotation marks).

The volume’s body is followed by a short general bibliography for the French reader (p. 148), a very useful biographical index of the photographers (pp. 148-151) and a detailed plate of tables with all necessary technical data and inventory numbers of the photographs (pp. 152-155).

It lies in the very nature of this kind of book that they are hybrids. This always has a good and a bad side to it. The informed reader and tourist would like to hear more about a monument’s modern transformations and (mis)uses, such as the specimen of a fasces, found at Vetulonia, which the fascists later modeled their symbol on (p. 27); Rome in Pasolini’s or Fellini’s films (p. 36) or the restaurant at the base of the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli (pp. 73-4).

The archaeologist would have appreciated an updating of identifications — the photograph on p. 103, for instance, labeled as “maison à atrium tétrastyle” shows the atrium of the House of the Nozze d’Argento prior to the reconstruction of its roof — and more information about how these photographs can serve as primary evidence, as for instance in the documentation of Etruscan tomb paintings (p. 29), the Basilica Iulia immediately after excavation (p. 46), the Meta Sudans destroyed under Mussolini (p. 52-3; 55), parts of the Villa Hadriana (p. 66), excavation work going on at Herculaneum (p. 83), a bakery in Pompei (p. 108) or the so-called Temple of Hercules at Agrigento prior to its anastylosis (p. 140).

Art historians would want to know why the volume focuses on ruins and excludes famous works of art that were also objects of the Grand Tour or middle-class tourism, especially since the Alinari photographers systematically took pictures of museum collections. More references to the remodelling or reception of ancient monuments by later architects and artists would certainly have been welcomed, such as the ones given for the so-called Temple of Clitumnus at Spello (pp. 32-3), the restoration of the Arch of Titus (p. 47), the history of ancient obelisques in Rome (p. 59) or artistic renderings of Greek temples in Sicily (pp. 118-25).

Finally, historians of photography and those involved in Visual Studies would certainly be interested in a more thorough exploration of the production and perception of these images, especially since other volumes published earlier in the same series combine the visual history of sites with the history of their photographers or photographies.4 Jolivet himself points out the fusion of art and science in both archaeology and photography (p. 55), but does only occasionally follow up. As has often been noted, the staging of the ruins as remnants of a glorious past follows the same visual strategies as earlier etchings or paintings, as in case of the Colosseum (pp. 54-5). It would have been interesting to see how, when and where nature comes into play. So for example, Giovanni Crupi’s picture of the theatre at Taormina (p. 128) offers a double spectacle. The ruined scaenae frons opens up to a view on fuming Mount Etna observed in awe by a local whom we are looking at. The depiction of people is also telling and seems to reflect a sort of inner-Italian colonialism. Visitors rarely appear in photographs of ancient sites of the country’s North, Rome and the bay of Naples, and they are usually recognizable as belonging to an urban society. Sicily on the other hand is much more populated with women in folkloric or peasant-like attire or youths dressed up as antique figures, mostly in Crupi’s or Wilhelm von Gloeden’s shots (pp. 134-5; 138; 140).

The good side to the volume’s hybridity and the very reason for its charm is — as all the examples listed above can show — that it will appeal to a very diverse audience. It is full of the various stimuli an exciting journey has to offer. The book’s album-like landscape format and the beautiful reproductions make it a fictitious, but all the more delightful “souvenir de voyage”. In an academic milieu it will hopefully inspire different disciplines to cross departmental boundaries and interact.


1. Recently, Claire L. Lyons, John K. Papadopoulos, Lindsey S. Stewart, Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, Antiquity and Photography. Early Views of Ancient Mediterranean Sites (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum 2005).

2. The text is an abbreviated and modified version of an earlier contribution by the same author: Charles-Henri Favrod, “Il museo immaginario,” in: A. C. Quintavalle, M. Maffioli (eds.), Fratelli Alinari. Fotografi in Firenze (Florence: Alinari 2003) 137-44; and the English version: M. Maffioli (ed.), Fratelli Alinari. Photographers in Florence (Florence: Alinari 2003) 7-10. Both volumes were published on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Alinari.

3. See for instance Carl Bernhard Stark, Systematik und Geschichte der Archäologie der Kunst (Leipzig: Engelmann 1880) 372; or the art historian Moritz Thausing in: Wolfgang Kemp (ed.), Theorie der Fotografie, vol. 1 (München: Schirmer-Mosel 1999) 137-8.

4. See for example Omar Khan, Du Cachemire à Kaboul. Les photographies de John Burke et William Baker, 1860-1900 (Paris: Gallimard 2002); Jean Vercoutter, L’Égypte à la chambre noire. Francis Frith photographe de l’Égypte retrouvée (Paris: Gallimard 2002).