Friday, 3 April 2020

Rare books 4: Empty Italy

A solidly bound album of sepia photographs of Rome, place, maker, and date unknown. Notes: This delightful book is a pleasurable challenge for the cataloguer, being a set of images only, with no self-defining text or additional apparatus to help explain its existence. The most arresting initial effect of the photographs is the lack of people. They look like period pictures of the very scenes we are seeing today online: empty St. Peter’s Square, empty Pantheon, empty Colosseum, empty Appian Way. Those knowledgeable in Victorian photography may have explanations for how large cityscapes could be so absent of people in broad daylight. Did the photographers wait till the crowds dispersed? Was it always this quiet outside feast and market days? Was everyone inside and not about to go out? Well anyway, to work. First, place. The red cover suggests the book may have been a sale item for a gentleman on the grand tour or clergyman ad limina. On the other hand, it may have been custom-made almost anywhere. The maker? This is two questions really: who made the book? who took the photographs? The photographs are good prints mounted on hard card. None are signed by a studio or a photographer, but they are quality productions. So far, searches to match pictures with online Google Images, or in books, have been to no avail. Even then, it could be a coterie of cameramen, not just one. I’m keeping on the lookout, even after the bibliographical record is complete. Whoever constructed the book knew about tape binding, cardboard spacing, signature tying, photo mounting, and other skills known only to a bookbinder. My conviction is Anonymous. Date? Several of the photographs have faded captions in French explaining the views for sightseers. This is help only insofar as it means the pictures may have been cut from a French album, not that the originals are French. We need an expert in 19th century Rome graphic and civic history to date the photographs, if not the book containing them. My less than thorough analysis tells me that similar Roman images suggest they were taken any time immediately prior to the First Vatican Council (1869-70) until say into the 1890s. The Notes Field (Marc Tag 500) is bigger than the rest of the record.

The book in question contrasted with a similar mounted photograph of the Fountain in Piazza Navona found in my own copy at home of 'Le Grand Tour' by Italo Zannier (Canal, 1997), taken by Anonymous circa 1875.

A favourite view of fishermen beside the Tiber with the Fisherman's House in the background. Our problem, same view, different day.To the right and in need of a scrub, the Mausoleum of Hadrian.

The Spanish Steps: Vuoto! The marquees in the piazza are a clue, but what of?

The Claudian Aqueduct according to our red book and (above) according to Joel Sternfeld in his 'Campagna Romana : the countryside of ancient Rome' (Knopf, 1992)

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