Subject over style for Italian collectors, as photography continues to be commodity of choice

Works of illustration and Italian genre photography have been market favourites since the seventies


In the history of Italian photography one of the key names is Lamberto Vitali who, around 1940, carried out some of the first studies in this field. He was also the first major Italian collector of old photographs. From the point of view of exhibitions, the shows in Rome during the Sixties, organised by Silvio Negro with the assistance of Piero Becchetti, and the show “Alinari fotografi” held in the mid-Seventies by Vladimiro Settimelli were the first to display material systematically and it was these which almost certainly triggered the widespread collecting of old photographs.

Prior to this, even photographs by the most well known names were sold off cheaply by dealers in the antiquarian book trade. The total lack of basic information and specialist texts (Gerscheim in his history of photography dedicated very little space to Italian photography in the nineteenth century), drove the few souls brave enough to embark on this type of collecting to base their collections solely on themes related to strictly regional imagery to complement their study of sociology, archaeology, town planning, industrial archaeology and so forth. The market in photographs from the very earliest period (1840-70) was practically non-existent: collecting daguerreotypes was done purely for decorative purposes and was considered somewhat kitsch.

Heightened awareness in the Seventies saw a new fashion for collecting photos reminiscent of the Belle Époque or associated with grand historical events in Italy. That decade saw the publication of Vitali’s books on Conte Giuseppe Primoli and the Risorgimento nella fotografia.

It was the major exhibitions, “Fotografia italiana dell’800" and “Fotografia pittorica” (1979), that pointed collectors for the very first time in the direction of hitherto totally unknown photographers and photographic techniques.

Collecting proper of old photographs in Italy can be dated from that point. The first conventions took place, such as the one at Modena and experts like Carlo Bertelli, Giulio Bollati, Marina Miraglia and Italo Zannier wrote the first articles on the history of photography in Italy. The direct consequence of this was evident in yet another increase in prices and the fact that many Italian photographs made their first appearance in the catalogues of major international auctions.

In spite of all this, Italian collecting continued to concentrate exclusively on illustration or genre pictures taken by Italian photographers. Only the Palazzoli collection, acquired by the Archivi Alinari, displays a definite aesthetic choice for photographers who were concentrating on print quality as much as the beauty of the picture.

In general the Italian collector of old photos still favours quantity over quality and, in this respect, differs from his counterpart abroad, particularly in America, where the beauty of the subject matters just as much as the preservation and clarity of reproduction.

Even today the market in Italy for old photographs of high quality remains, however, very rare indeed.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The triumph of subject over style'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 42 November 1994