Alinari History of Italy
Università IULM Fratelli Alinari Università degli studi di Milano with the contribution of
Fondazione Cariplo


Cameras aimed at the city

Since its very origins, photography has focused on architecture, the main subject of photographs mainly because its immobility suited the lengthy exposure time needed for early photographic procedures. The oldest photographic image we have in fact is of architecture: Joseph Nicéfore Niépce's first heliography, which took an eight hour exposure and shows the houses of his neighbourhood, was made by placing the darkroom on the windowsill of his estate in Le Gras, France. This wasn't the kind of photography we are used to today: the picture, because of its very long exposure time, captured the light and shadows of the entire day. Moreover, the first city views produced by photographers were uninhabited, appearing like ghost towns: this is because the long exposure time did not allow moving images of people or objects to be imprinted in the emulsion, and just "faded out" of the picture, leaving a faint trail resembling a photographic "ghost". These evanescent shapes would sometimes be deleted by retouching the negatives and adding pigments that concealed their presence. All these "ghost towns" were characterized by a clear, white sky, which was the result of the pigments added to the negatives. Sometimes painters were asked to add a cloud, the sun or maybe a moon, changing a daytime picture into a nocturnal one.

In Italy, the Alinari brothers started photographing the entire peninsula in 1852, taking pictures of a great number of cities: after Florence and other Tuscan towns and following the unification, they photographed almost all the Italian regions in a methodical and structured manner and subsequently also moved abroad. The photographs were collected in catalogues with captions and a brief historical and cultural description of the subject, very similar to a guidebook. It is in fact the main guidebooks and historical publications that inspire the Alinari brothers in the choice of suitable subjects for their photographic campaigns and catalogues. The editorial genre of the national and international tourist guides that influences Alinari's work, contributes at the same time to identify the principal legs of the Grand Tour. Alinari photographs, perfectly attuned to the artistic culture of their time, appeal to art historians, tourists and simple "lovers of beauty" and thus contribute to the success of the family business. The finest reproductions, sold through an organized network of stores opened to respond to a growing demand, fully express "the Italian culture of the Risorgimento as it seeks its national identity". The printing plant, that in the second generation develops into an industrial enterprise, broadens its core activities adding the publication of art books and travel guides dedicated to "art tours" of Italy: if originally the archive photos were used by other publishers, the Alinari brothers would eventually establish a successful publishing activity dedicated to art and history and curated by famous art critics. Schoolbooks too were soon filled with Alinari pictures, that soon became well known to a broad public and projected every reader into a virtual journey around Italy's art treasures. It is in the urban landscapes that the so-called Alinari style is expressed: the frontal perspective of the monuments is always at a high angle, to avoid deforming the buildings and in order not to show the road with its "distracting" elements; the volumes are described very clearly, every detail is always perfectly focused, giving art historians fundamental information and the picture an almost metaphysical flavour.

The Alinari operated when Florence was the capital of the Kingdom: during this period the city will undergo a substantial urban transformation, partly abandoning the medieval and renaissance characteristics to move towards the 19th century style. The three brothers also contributed, more or less directly, to those urban transformations: they had a large palace built that they used as a home and a photographic laboratory, they took part in the animated debate over the completion of the façade of Santa Maria del Fiore's (hosting the public presentation of one of the projects and photographing the inauguration of the new façade) and actively participated in the documentation of the Poggi plan for the extension of the city of Florence. The architect, as was customary, used photographs as a support to his work: in fact Poggi used Alinari photographs to verify the various stages of his work while the Alinaris produced an extraordinary photographic documentation of the old town centre before it was knocked down to give space to the new urban reconstruction. As well as the Alinari brothers, other photographers also played a very important role in the redefinition of Italian cities, creating a photographic map of the country.

Following the indications in the workshop you can try the fascinating experience of the darkroom yourself.


Workshop 1
  • John Brampton Philpot, Piazza Santo Spirito a Firenze, c.1855, Fratelli Alinari Museum Collection (RMFA), Florence.
    The city looks uninhabited. If you look closely at the lower part however, you can see the so-called "photographic ghosts".
Workshop 2
  • Carlo Ponti, Piazza San Marco in Venice, 1870 ca., Fratelli Alinari Museum Collections-Favrod Collection, Florence.
    A person, who has posed at length in front of the camera, is well represented in the photograph, allowing us to have an idea of the scale of the buildings.
Workshop 3
  • Gioacchino Altobelli, Nocturnal view of the Fori Imperiali (Imperial Forums) in Rome, 1865 ca., Fratelli Alinari Museum Collections (RMFA), Florence.
    In this photograph the sky has been heavily retouched.
Workshop 4
  • Fratelli Alinari, the Arno river and Ponte Vecchio Florence, c.1890, Alinari Archives, Florence.
    A retouched negative film transforms the picture into a night view. Where the dark pigments have been added a white area surfaces creating the illusion of lights shining in the night and their reflection on the water.
Workshop 5
  • Marino Sterle, A photograph turned into a lampshade.
    A horse pulling a cart in Piazza della Signoria, where among the many statues we see the equestrian statue of Cosimo il Vecchio. Photography and sculpture, each in their own way, document the strong relationship between man and horse.
Workshop 6
  • Heidoscope, Stereoscopic camera, Germany 1925.
    The double lens on the camera enables the photographer to shoot two different images simultaneously at a distance corresponding to the human eye. Fratelli Alinari Museum Collection (RMFA), Florence.
Workshop 7
  • Viewer for observing stereoscopic photographs, that separates the vision of the two eye to give a 3D perception. Fratelli Alinari Museum Collection (RMFA), Florence.
Workshop 8
  • Fratelli Alinari, Alinari store in Via Tornabuoni, Florence, c.1910, Alinari Archives-Alinari Archive, Florence.
    The Alinari printing plant sells photographs of Italian cities, exteriors and interiors, like its rich collection of photographs of churches, museums and palaces, through its own shops and other retailers in Italy and across Europe.
Workshop 9
  • Pantheon Nadar lithograph by Felix Nadar with the caricatures of 249 French personalities, 1854, Fratelli Alinari Museum Collections-Favrod Collection, Florence.
    19th century cities change their image. Photography is part of this process as it documents the urban form and also shapes it.
Workshop 10
  • Marino Sterle, In front of the historic Alinari plant of Largo Alinari in Florence: a comparison between the historical image and the direct view.
    In the 19th century, photo studios open almost everywhere and the most famous ones, such as the Alinari in Florence and the Nadar in Paris, display giant reproductions of the same signatures that appear on the photos on the facades of their buildings.
Workshop 11
  • Marino Sterle, MUMO workshop. Montiamoci la testa! (Let's get big-headed!) at MNAF. Alinari National Museum of Photography.
    Architecture is transformed into a picture with MUMO – designed by Gabriella de Polo and Avatar Architecture – a darkroom to wear as a helmet.
Workshop 12
  • Valentina Capitini, MNAF's "Shoot in Florence!" workshop. A tour of Florence through photography of MNAF. Alinari National Museum of Photography.
    During a walking tour of the city centre, you can compare the historical images with the contemporary photos shot by the workshop's participants.
Workshop 13
  • Marino Sterle, "Shoot in Florence!" MNAF. Alinari National Museum of Photography workshop. A tour of Florence through photography.
    Photographs presented during the tour should be observed in detail as they can reveal the artful retouching of the Alinaris back in the 19th century.
Workshop 14
  • Marino Sterle, "Shoot in Florence!" MNAF. Alinari National Museum of Photography workshop. A tour of Florence through photography.
    Photographs of buildings and the buildings themselves offer the possibility to play games that will help understand Florence's transformation.
Workshop 15
  • Marino Sterle, "Shoot in Florence!" MNAF. Alinari National Museum of Photography workshop. A tour of Florence through photography.
    During the workshop, various different materials will be provided to decode the city's features.
Workshop 16
  • Marino Sterle, "Shoot in Florence!" MNAF. Alinari National Museum of Photography workshop. A tour of Florence through photography.
    In the final part of the workshop, a game is played to help compare different parts of Florence that have undergone important changes.
Workshop 17
  • Marino Sterle, "Shoot in Florence!" MNAF. Alinari National Museum of Photography workshop. A tour of Florence through photography.
    The old medieval ghetto of Florence was destroyed by the Poggi plan which gave the city an 19th century makeover. The column of abundance, shown here, placed where anciently the cardine and the decuman met, has always kept the same position throughout the centuries.
Workshop 18
  • Marino Sterle, "Shoot in Florence!" MNAF. Alinari National Museum of Photography workshop. A tour of Florence through photography.
    Other monuments instead have changed location: like Michelangelo's David, which was moved in 1872 from Piazza della Signoria to the Galleria dell'Accademia.
Workshop 19
  • Fratelli Alinari, Florence. Loggia del Pesce in the Mercato Vecchio area, 1880 ca., Alinari Archives-Alinari Archive, Florence.
    Here, rather than just a statue, an entire building was moved: the Loggia del Pesce which was dismantled and rebuilt.
Workshop 20
  • Fratelli Alinari, The Loggia del Pesce, by Giorgio Vasari, in the Piazza dei Ciompi, Florence, 1955, Alinari Archives-Alinari Archive, Florence.
    The Loggia del Pesce was dismantled in the ancient ghetto, transported and rebuilt in Piazza dei Ciompi.
Workshop 21
  • Unidentified Author, Porta San Gallo in Florence, 1880 ca., Fratelli Alinari Museum Collections-Aranguren Collection, Florence.
    The Alinari documented Florence's landscapes before architect Poggi pulled down the walls. In those days photographers and architects often worked in collaboration.
Workshop 22
  • Brogi, Piazza della Libertà in Florence. On the left of the picture, the Triumphal Arch of Francesco Stefano Lorena can be seen, across from the massive Porta Sangallo, 1875 ca., Fratelli Alinari Museum Collections (RMFA), Florence.
    The piazza completely changed its aesthetic appearance after the 19th century redevelopment which was followed in the 1920s by the realization of the Parterre exhibition centre.
Workshop 23
  • Unidentified Author, View of the "Giardino di Tivoli" in Florence.
    This park, constructed in 1871, was located in the Poggio Imperiale area, 1890 ca., Fratelli Alinari Museum Collections-Aranguren Collection, Florence.
Workshop 24
  • Fratelli Alinari, View, from the bell tower of Santa Croce, of the San Niccolò gate, Piazzale Michelangelo, the Church of San Salvatore and the Basilica of San Miniato; Modern printing from old negative, 1890 ca., Alinari Archives-Alinari Archive, Florence.
Workshop 25
  • Fratelli Alinari, The Saracen Tournament in piazza Santa Maria Novella, Florence, 1902, Alinari Archives-Alinari Archive, Florence.
Workshop 26
  • Fratelli Alinari, The church of S.Maria Novella and the piazza by the same name in Florence, 1890 ca., Alinari Archives-Alinari Archive, Florence.
Workshop 27
  • Fratelli Alinari, Photographers at Luigi Bardi, The bell tower of Giotto (the facade of the cathedral are still visible ancient frescoes from the seventeenth century, now covered by the new facade of the nineteenth century), Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, 1880 ca., Fratelli Alinari Museum Collections (RMFA), Florence.
Workshop 28
Workshop 29
  • Fratelli Alinari, View of the ancient Bridge of Graces. The Chapel of Santa Maria delle Grazie and the cells the nuns built on the edge of the bridge are visible, 1870 ca., Alinari Archives-Alinari Archive, Florence.
Workshop 30
  • Fratelli Alinari, The Ponte alle Grazie (formerly Ponte Rubaconte), in Florence. The hill with the Church of San Miniato is seen in the background, 1940 ca., Alinari Archives-Alinari Archive, Florence.


    1. Photographs taken along roads and squares capture many still subjects, buildings for example, but they also capture moving objects like vehicles. Cars were rare in those days and photographs from the second half of the 19th century only show carriages, carts, horse drawn trams, this is before electric trams were invented. The strong relationship between man and horse is testified by photography as also by the many equestrian statues you can find walking along Italian streets. Have you ever seen tourists on a horse drawn carriage? Did you know that in some countries it is quite common to find statues of important figures riding an elephant?
    2. Aiming the camera at the city means to photographically represent an entire microcosm – or better macrocosm – that is quite articulated and difficult to define: public and private buildings, kiosks and temporary structures, fountains and statues, city walls and gates, interiors and exteriors, urban and suburban transport, trees and flowers, rivers and lakes, periods and events and last but not least, animals and people. The list could be longer or shorter, one could invent new categories and sub-categories: but in the relationship between city and photography however, it is interesting to follow a transversal perspective, one of transformations. The reproduction of a certain place is strongly conditioned by the apparatus used to capture it, by the perspective, the stylistic choice of the photographer and so on, but at the same time it is often the same urban environment that changes. It is also true that it is not always easy to identify a place in a photograph without a caption. Can you try to imagine what a picture of your city will look like when photography will be 300 years old instead of the current 150?
    3. Space has three dimensions. Photography has two. Built up space can be captured and observed through stereoscopy, which is not something to do with music but rather concerns the visual arts. Stereós, in ancient Greek means volume, a solid figure, and evidently stereoscopic photographs, which were largely used in the 19th century because of the idea that it made the image more realistic, are those that give a 3D illusion. Have you ever visited MNAF, the Alinari National Museum of Photography, to observe the old stereoscopic viewers and try the modern ones? Did you know that you can learn about the origins of 3D movies by visiting a photography museum?
    4. In Alinari architecture photographs, which for the benefit of the "lovers of beauty" tend to describe every detail of a monument, excluding everything else, you sometimes find an isolated figure. To appear clearly in the photograph, the person, passer-by or the photographer's assistant must not only freeze in front of the camera, but also remain in the same position for a very long time, possibly sitting down. Where do you think the need to represent a person next to a monument comes from? Have you ever thought that like in a geometrical design, the photograph replicates a building in a certain scale? Have you ever considered the common elements shared by Photography and Perspective? Do you know what photogrammetry is?

    Suggestions for further activities:
    perform the tasks suggested in the workshop. Answer the questions, take part in the didactic workshops at MNAF Alinari National Museum of Photography in Florence.

    For further information:
    Gabriella de Polo
    Didactic Coordination
    Fratelli Alinari. Fondazione per la storia della Fotografia


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