Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 4, 2019
Paradise of Exiles: Early Photography in Italy
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, March 13–August 13, 2017
Installation view, Paradise of Exiles: Early Photography in Italy, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, March 13–August 13, 2017 (photograph © Allison Meier; Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In 1839, shortly after publishing “Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing, or the Process by Which Natural Objects May Be Made to Delineate Themselves without the Aid of the Artist’s Pencil,” William Henry Fox Talbot sent a letter along with thirty-six examples of photogenic drawings to Antonio Bertoloni, a botanist in Bologna, Italy. Talbot undoubtedly desired to alert colleagues to his invention in the wake of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s announcement of his own photographic process on January 7th that year, and Bertoloni dutifully assembled the materials into an album for posterity, which the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York acquired in 1936. Known today as the Bertoloni Album, the object has accordingly been examined as a key artifact of photography’s early development and of Talbot’s achievements. Paradise of Exiles: Early Photography in Italy, which was on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from March 13 to August 13, 2017, took this rare document as the starting point for an exhibition that reoriented the conversation by exploring Italy as an important center of exchange during the first three decades of the medium’s history.

Organized by Beth Saunders, a former assistant curator in the department of photographs, this compact, single-gallery exhibition highlighted thirty-five photographs and albums from the Met’s outstanding collection. These objects, supplemented by eleven loans from a private collection, also explored the Risorgimento, the movement for modern Italian unification between 1815 and 1871. Saunders is an expert in nineteenth-century photography in Italy who had already published on the Bertoloni Album. As a result, while the exhibition was modest in scale, there was a copious number of thorough and thoughtful extended labels, and it made an important effort to expand the geographic reaches of photography’s early history, even if not leaving Western Europe. In this regard, it is similar to the National Gallery of Art’s excellent exhibition and catalogue, East of the Mississippi: Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Photography, which resituated the eastern United States, as opposed to the “American West,” as an important but often overlooked context for the development of landscape photography during the nineteenth century. Although it was not accompanied by a catalogue, Paradise of Exiles still contributed to a growing body of scholarship on photography in Italy, including Sarah Patricia Hill and Giuliana Minghelli’s edited volume Stillness in Motion: Italy, Photography, and the Meanings of Modernity (University of Toronto Press, 2014) and Maria Antonella Pelizzari’s survey book Photography and Italy (Reaktion Books, 2011), both reviewed in Pelizzari, who was Saunder’s advisor at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, explores the relationship between photography and Italy rather than starting with an essential or fixed identity for either the medium or the nation-state.

Like Pelizzari’s book, Paradise of Exiles focused on not just artists who were born in Italy but also on those who traveled there. Throughout the first decades of the medium, Italy served as an important destination for British and French travelers who used the new technology to record the region’s picturesque landscapes and ancient ruins. The title of the exhibition is lifted from a poem by the English Romantic Percy Bysshe Shelley: “How beautiful is sunset, when the glow / Of Heaven descends upon a land like thee, / Thou Paradise of exiles, Italy!” Many of the images were made by artists who traveled to the region. For example, there were several albumen silver prints by Robert Macpherson, a Scottish born photographer who settled in Rome during the 1840s and became part of an expat scene of painter-photographers at the Caffè Greco. He produced more than three hundred views of romantic landscapes and ruins that appealed to his fellow countrymen and other travelers. The exhibition also included recent acquisitions such as daguerreotypes by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, a French artist and historian who used his camera to record major archaeological sites such as the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum in 1842.

Italy was not just a paradise for exiles. The exhibition also featured daguerreotypes and paper prints by Italians who used these modern images to picture their cultural patrimony and contemporary history at a time when the nation was being constructed. Italian artists similarly gathered at the Caffè Greco, where they were able to exchange ideas and information about photography. Among them was Giacomo Caneva, a painter who not only made numerous daguerreotypes and salted-paper prints, including one of a young girl bathed in sunlight on a balcony, he even wrote the first text on photography in Italy. Others saw photographs on display at London’s Great Exhibition in 1851 and participated in the commercialization of the medium in subsequent years, as did Giacomo Luswergh in Rome. Other recent acquisitions were highlighted, including a group of hand-colored carte de visites depicting “Italian Types” from the 1860s. The French photographer Alphonse Bernoud, who was based in Florence and Naples, introduced the carte de visite in Italy shortly after André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri patented his version in 1854. These examples were made by Giorgio Conrad and Carlo Ponti, who portrayed occupational types in their respective cities, Naples and Venice. Such images, as Saunders points out, would have appealed to both tourists and the growing middle-class Italian consumers.

The exhibition did an excellent job of showing how photographers helped construct and disseminate a national discourse during the Risorgimento by producing images of monuments, sites, and figures that circulated widely. Gustave Le Gray’s albumen silver print from a waxed paper negative, Barricade of General Turr in Via Toledo, Palermo (June 1860), documents the new ruins of Italy in the midst of war. With the royal palace in the distance, a makeshift installation of carts and barrels blocks a street with a Sardinian flag. That same year, Le Gray also made a photograph of Giuseppe Garibaldi, a general and central figure in the movement for unification. The exhibition also featured a photograph of Vittorio Emanuele II, king of Sardinia and Piedmont, who became the first king of a united Italy in 1861. Cesare Bernieri, who made the albumen silver print, fought alongside Garibaldi and went on to establish a photography studio where he became known for his portraits of Risorgimento heroes and as the court photographer to the Italian royal family.          

While doubtfully conceived as a blockbuster—the simultaneous Irving Penn: Centennial exhibition was surely meant to provide the Metropolitan Museum of Art with greater attendance in spring and summer 2017—Paradise of Exiles was a model of the scholarly yet seemingly cost-effective, collection-oriented exhibition at a time when museums around the country were experiencing tremendous financial pressures. Recent years have shown that even large, well-funded institutions like the Met are not immune to financial woes caused by the growing costs associated with special exhibitions and general operations. Museums that are able to produce collection-based exhibitions by supplementing works with a few key loans, using endowed funds to purchase new works, and even cultivating potential gifts in the process (as seemed to be the case with Paradise of Exiles), will certainly realize the potential institutional benefits. 

Drew Sawyer
Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Curator of Photography Brooklyn Museum