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The Roman Photographic School
"Circolo del Caffé Greco"
In Rome from around 1847 until the middle of the 1850s there was a small and highly cultured group of passionate enthusiasts for the new science and art of photography. This group included Count Frédéric Flachéron, Eugène Constant, Giacomo Caneva, James Anderson and the architect Alfred-Nicolas Normand. It also included the many artists that came to stay in the Academy of France in the Villa Medici. This notable group of painter-photographers have taken their name from their meeting place at the famous Caffé Greco in Rome. The name of this loose group being the "Circolo del Caffé Greco" (the Greek Coffee Circle) also known as the Roman Photographic School. The key source on the group comes from an article by the chemist and English photographer Richard W. Thomas, who made a trip to Rome in 1852 where he spent time with the Roman artists. On his return to England he wrote the article "Photography in Rome" (The Art Journal, May 1852) on the activity of the Circle and besides the people already mentioned he gives the names of other two people, the Prince Giron des Anglonnes and the Englishman Robinson of whom nothing else is known.
1847 - 1855
Around the "Circolo del Caffé Greco" there were a number of other prominent Roman calotypists including Borrioni, Castracane, Matteo Bondini and the Abbot della Rovere. There were also Richard W. Thomas and Robert Eaton from England along with a diverse group of individuals - artists, photographers, professionals and amateurs - that visited Rome and came into contact with the members of the Roman Photographic School. These include the husband and wife couple Guilloz-Saguez (in Rome in 1846-47), Firmin-Eugène Le Dien (some months between 1852 and 1853), Louis-Alphonse Davanne, Henry de La Baume, Andrè Giroux, Thomas Sutton, Stefano Lecchi, Luigi Sacchi, etc. Among these, the Scottish physician Robert MacPherson stayed and took up photography professionally in Rome and became one of the foremost interpreters of ancient and modern Rome.
The stylistic spirit of "Roman Photographic School" was born from the artistic and pictorial culture of the individuals within the group: Frederic Flachéron was an engraver who specialized in designing medals, Eugène Constant and Giacomo Caneva were both painters, the first was described as an "artist peintre à Rome", and of the second some of his paintings of Roman views are known. Alfred-Nicolas Normand was also a "pensionnaire" at the Villa Medici, he was an architect and saw photography as a documentary tool and his rare photographs clearly show this.
Their photographic language was dictated therefore from their individual artistic perspectives and was inspired from the ancient landscape school of painting that had developed in Rome. They were influenced by this to photograph the illuminated and shaded romantic grandeurs using the characteristic Roman light that for centuries had influenced the painters and draftsmen of Europe.
Flachéron and his friends were also experimenters, they exchanged suggestions, discussed techniques and variations of their formulas and were united by a true spirit of shared pursuits. They loved to go together on their photographic excursions and later to share their results.
By the mid-1850s the group started to dissolve - possibly for personal reasons or it may have been because the period of "pensionnaire" at the Villa Medici, center of the Academy of France, had ended. Giacomo Caneva and James Anderson remained as two true photographic professionals and they started to widen their repertoires. Giacomo Caneva concentrated more on genre and country scenes as studies for painters while James Anderson systematically photographed the ancient monuments, baroque buildings and works of art bringing them together in a professional sales catalogue.
At the same time as they took photographs of Rome there were many other photographers active - both Italian and foreigners - including Pietro Dovizielli, Carlo Baldassarre Simelli, the phantasmal A. de Bonis and the already mentioned Robert MacPherson. Frequently the photographers of this period had their background and training in painting.
The members of the Roman Photographic School normally used the calotype which was simpler to use than the daguerreotype but was also more appropriate for the landscape scenes they were interested in. The warm tones and particularly the Roman light were best captured with a variation of the wet-calotype system, called the "Roman method" that they had perhaps learnt from Guilloz-Saguez. Eugène Constant used the albumen-on-glass procedure that he learnt directly from the inventor Niepce de St. Victor in 1848. This procedure seems to have been used for a limited period by James Anderson and then by Pietro Dovizielli. The very fine detail and particular tonal separation of the albumen-on-glass process puts it in contrast with the softness and grainy pictorial appearance of the calotype. The positive prints were always printed on salt paper and from around 1852 they are also found slightly albuminated or as coated albumen prints to increase the tonal depth.
The photographers used the same equipment as employed for Daguerreotypes and Caneva began as Daguerreotypist. Over the years the photographers increased the size of their works, initially modifying the hold-plate of the photographic equipment and then having larger cameras made. Caneva and Constant preferred whole plate transformed for the calotype while Flachéron, who himself had begun using this format, changed in around 1848 to a new larger camera that was made expressly for him by Charles Chevalier. Normand always made his calotypes with a simple whole plate Daguerreotype size camera equipped with a simple lens. The lenses were normally simple achromatic but these replaced from around 1850 by double achromatic or by special lenses adapted both for portraits and landscapes through the movement of the lenses.