Sunday, September 12, 2010

Panoramic Photograph of the Coliseum in Rome, c. 1859-60 by Tommaso Cuccioni (1790-1864)

Five-Foot  Photograph of the Coliseum in Rome, attributed to architectural photographer Tommaso Cuccioni (1790-1864). Documented in the collection of the Providence Athenaeum 1860

Tommaso Cuccioni is an important early architectural photographer working in Rome and noted for his very large format photographs.

I have based my Cuccioni attribution of the Athenaeum’s Coliseum photograph on information such as that included below, particularly noting the size of the Cuccioni photographs exhibited in Paris in 1859 at the important early French Photographic Society (FPS) exhibition held alongside the 1859 Salon, the description of his work included in a long review in the prestigious 1859 Gazette des Beaux-Arts (exhibited here) and also the descriptions of Cuccioni’s large-format photographs in the 1858 and 1864 Murray’s Handbook of Rome. (1858 exhibited here.)

The Photography Conservator, Paul Messier, who is working with the Athenaeum on a plan for preservation, estimates that as few as twenty of these prints might have been made. It appears likely this is the only large-format Cuccioni surviving from the 1859-60. 

The Coliseum is constructed of three prints expertly seamed. The negative process is either a paper negative or an early wet-plate collodian. The printing process is either a late salted paper print where the silver is embedded in the paper, or an early albumen print where the silver sits above the paper. Mr. Messier speculated that more precious metals than silver might have been used to account for the warmth of the coloration. This kind of scan testing is also possible during treatment. A high quality reproduction photograph would also be taken at that time.

The donor: It is relevant to consider the purchaser/donor. Albert Jones was a young expatriate sculpture critic for the New York Times who likely bought the Coliseum photograph from Cuccioni. Jones had been in Italy since 1854 and would have known Cuccioni from the circle of artists who gathered at the Caffe Greco in Rome. Throughout 1859, Jones was in Rome and Florence with his close friend from Providence, Thomas Tefft, who was on a Grand Tour planned for the three years from Dec. 1856 to Dec. 1859. Not nationally known today, Tefft was antebellum Rhode Island’s most beloved and precocious young architect from whom much was expected. In 1857, at age 31, Tefft was one of the few architects invited to join the just-formed AIA (American Institute of Architects) in New York. It is reasonable to assume that this ambitious, exuberant young architect would seek out Rome’s most remarkable architectural photographer. But Tefft died unexpectedly on December 11, 1859 at the home of the sculptor Hiram Powers, attended to by Albert Jones. Tefft’s body was buried, then exhumed and shipped back to RI in Feb 1860, possibly with the Coliseum photograph.

This Athenaeum exhibition (Sept 1-23) develops the iconography of the Coliseum photograph within the context of the developing art world in 1850s Providence. Both Tefft (died 1859) and Jones (died 1887) left the majority of their estates to the development of art culture in Rhode Island, based on their shared efforts founding the Rhode Island Art Association (RIAA) in Providence in the early 1850s. It is within this context that we should consider the Athenaeum photograph, which was most likely purchased, or a gift, sometime from 1859-spring 1860.  It was not sent back as merely a souvenir, or an archeological document. Its valence is that of photography as a new art media. The subject matter of the Coliseum, I argue, is a reference to Tefft’s final projects in Rhode Island that tried (unsuccessfully) to mediate the arena of culture and the tensions between culture, commerce, and the state.

Large-format exhibited in Paris 1859: In 1859 Tommaso Cuccioni exhibited large views of Rome at the important "Exposition de la Societé Francaise de la Photographie" in Paris (1859). One of these photographs was 160 x 68 cm requiring three plates of 55 x 70cm each. Note this is almost exactly the size of the Athenaeum Coliseum print, which is also made of three plates and arrived in Providence, RI from Rome by October 1, 1860.

Exhibited Paris: 160 x 68cm
Coliseum visible: 150 x 68.6
Coliseum framed: 169 x 86cm

Cuccioni also exhibited his large-format photographs at Expositions in London, Edinburgh, Dublin, and Paris (1855, 1859).

Cuccioni’s work is praised in both the 1858 Handbook to Rome exhibited and the next edition published the year of his death. In 1864, the British guidebook noted: “Cuccioni’s photographs are excellent, and the large ones of the Coliseum … are unique for their size and execution.”

Also: “Cuccioni’s magnificent views of the Forum, St. Peter’s, the Castle of St. Angelo, and the Coliseum, in 2 and 3 pieces which join perfectly, [are available at his shop near the Spanish Steps for the price of] from 5 to 10 scudi.” 

[A Handbook of Rome and Its Environs, 8th ed. (London: John A, Murray, 1864: Section 21.]

Gazette des Beaux-Arts (1859)
This important French art journal reviewed Cuccioni’s large-format  photographs at the 1859 SFP exhibition of photography held in Paris alongside the 1859 Salon.

“The huge photographs taken in Rome by M. Cuccioni, representing the views of the Coliseum and the Forum, the Laocoon, and the Arch of Constantine, are as significant in their scale and their success as in the grandeur of the memories they arouse.  We remained long in thought before the calm and sober aspect of the last one.  Roman art appears in these half-gnawed bas-reliefs, with its searching of physiognomy and its knowledge of historical anecdote.  You would think you were seeing a worn old print of the arch of Trajan, or of Marc Antony.  The View of the Forum, whose three joined parts form a whole of 1 meter 60 centimeters in length by 68 centimeters in height, presented—in taking the picture and in joining the proofs—difficulties which have been overcome with the greatest happiness.”
[Translation courtesy of Providence Athenaeum Trustee, Stephen Coon, Ph.D.]

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