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Gioacchino Altobelli was born in Terni in 1814. He moved to Rome and between 1833 and 1841 completed his artistic studies under the guidance of the painter Tommaso Minardi. In 1847 he was enlisted with the degree of sergeant in the General Command of the Civic Guard.
The guide "L'Almanacco Romano 1855" lists him as a "Painter of history and genre" with a studio in Via Margutta 48. In the English volume "Guide to the studios in Rome" he is listed as "Altobelli Gioacchino (of Terni), historical and portrait painter, 48 Via Margutta, 1st floor."
As with other contemporary painters there was a declining demand for paintings as photography became increasing important for the tourist souvenir trade and he, whilst not completely abandoning painting, saw the opportunity. Partnering with his friend the painter, Pompeo Molins of Spanish origin, they opened a studio in the Palazzotto Fausti in Via di Fontanella Borghese.
Pompeo Molins had married the daughter of Ludovico Fausti, pontifical forwarder, and this eased the path of the two partners in obtaining the nomination of "Official Photographers of the Imperial Academy of France and the Works of art for the Roman Railroads."
During this period many portraits by them are known, especially “carte de visites”, and many beautiful Roman views survive. The artistic taste of Altobelli is shown by the formal elegance of his composition and use of people such as soldiers and high society gentlemen to animate the views.
The prints of Altobelli & Molins used the wet-collodion process and were mainly in the sizes, 21x26cm and 26x36cm. The red ink studio stamp was often engraved on the cardboard in the lower right. Typical of Altobelli is also a black caption with white writing, usually on the lower edge of the photograph. A similar caption was also used by the photographer Michele Mang.
At the end of 1865 the two painter-photographers divided and Gioacchino Altobelli moved to a studio at Passeggiata di Ripetta n.16 that had been used by the photographer Michele Petagna. A new company was formed "Photographic Establishment Altobelli & Co." which leads us to assume that Atobelli was working in conjunction with other photographers probably including Enrico Verzaschi.
In the beginning of 1866 Altobelli asked for a declaration of ownership (a brevet) to the Department of Commerce in Rome for his invention of the application of color to photographic images (a union of photography with chrome-lithography). The manager of the Pontifical Chrome-Lithography strongly opposed his application as they are already using such an invention from his own Company. Few months later Altobelli asked for another brevet that is granted him this time, "to perform in photograph the views of the monuments with effect of sky". His method, similar if not identical to that of Gustave Le Gray, consisted in taking a first photograph of a monument where the exposure was adjusted to highlight the architectural characteristics sought. Subsequently Altobelli took at another time one or more additional photographs exposed to capture strong sky and cloud contrasts. In the dark room Altobelli captured on photographic paper the double exposure of the two perfectly aligned plates - this resulted in a well illuminated monument contrasted with a strong sky that gave the feeling of "claire de lune". In November 1866 Altobelli obtained the brevet for 6 years. It is probable that he didn't know that in Venice the photographers Carlo Ponti and Carlo Naya were already using the "claire de lune" technique - moreover they tinted them with aniline giving their prints a beautiful blue tone as if the water of the lagoon was illuminated at night by the moon. However the brevet allowed the painter-photographer Gioacchino Altobelli to have great notoriety in Rome and this helped him to increase his work as a portraitist.
It is not certain but the 1864 photographs showing the camps of the pontifical troops at Rocca di Papa may have been taken by Altobelli.
Particularly famous are the photographs that Altobelli took the day after the conquest in Rome by Piedmontese troops as they recorded the decline of Papal power and the birth of the Kingdom of Italy. On September 20th 1870 Piedmontese troops broke the resistance of the Papal army and entered Rome through the Porta Pia. The following day Altobelli with the help of stand-ins and actors playing the role of soldiers reconstructed the scene of the final battle and took two "historical" photographs and asked for a brevet.
Until around 1874 he was the artistic manager of the Establishment Verzaschi. Enrico Verzaschi was a photographer in Rome active from around the mid-1860s until about 1880 but it is not clear if he was in an earlier partnership with Altobelli and they may have been associated since the breakup with Pompeo Molins in 1865.
News about Gioacchino Altobelli continued until December 1878 but the date and place of his death are not known. He remains one of the most elegant and profitable photographers in the Rome of Pope Pious VII.
[Kindly contributed by Marco C. Antonetto, Jan 27, 2008]