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


Family album

Photo ateliers greatly increased their volume of business after the invention of a multi-lens camera that allowed more shots of the same model to be impressed on a single negative plate, introducing the so-called carte-de-visite, with which photography tends to become a mass product, available also to the middle classes. The diffusion of this photographic object, which coincides with a decrease in photography costs and with the interest in cataloguing typical of the 19th century, is due to the fact that people start exchanging photos and collecting them in family albums.

There are many kinds of photo albums: the travels album, the great events album, the monographic album on theatre, religion, medicine… Amongst these we also find the so-called family album. Although this kind of album can come in different versions, big or small, handmade or industrially produced, with a wooden cover or an ivory one, and so on, it is still possible to find some common elements. The first pages are dedicated to the sort of mythology represented by the greatest figures of the Risorgimento; the following pages are a photo gallery of family members and friends which are thus "mythicized also by the manipulation and the painter's finishing touches, by the pose chosen, by the clothes and accessories worn and by the backdrop which contributes to place the subject into a sort of wonderland"

Studio portraits follows the same rules of the stage therefore representing the subjects as they wish to be portrayed rather than how they are in reality. The photo studio, where models become actors on a stage lit by ample windows and decorated with voluminous draperies, looks a lot like a theatre stage. As well as the apparatus for taking the photographs – like the camera and a chair with a headrest, so the subject won't move – there would be a series of objects for staging the photo like, for example, a movable banister, bridge or column, a table dressed with a vase of flowers, a piece of furniture that turns into a buffet, a fake fireplace, a sophisticated looking desk, a slightly kitsch prie-dieu, fake grass carpets, papier mâché rocks; a host of armchairs, sofas and stools of the most different styles. The furniture and the backdrop, which can represent the interiors of an elegant home, a seaside landscape, a gothic castle, etc. are chosen by the photographer not just only to give dignity to the image but most of all to portray a flattering image of the subject's social class. Suggestions on how to pose and stage a photograph can be taken from the photos displayed in the studio as well as from the albums for the client to consult in the studio's waiting rooms. The subject's pose, which in those days had to be static due to the long exposure time needed – this is why the subject is often pictured sitting down or leaning on a prop – expressed the conventional meanings inherited from the past and from miniature portraits were very popular at the time. The model was undoubtedly influenced by the photographer who suggested the pose: sitting down with an arm resting on the side table, a straight back in haughty contempt, and one leg held slightly forwards as if he's about to stand up; or standing with one hand in his waistcoat pocket and the other leaning on a stick, one leg slightly bent forward; or else next to a table full of books with a hand on his forehead as in meditation, but in fact to best keep still in the long exposure time. Examples of women's poses were even more varied: they could wear a hat, hold a fan, wear a dress with a train, don jewels and gowns of all kinds. A typical characteristic of this genre is undoubtedly the neutral expression: it was obviously impossible to keep a smile under the bright studio lights for the long time needed for taking the photograph. Photographer Carlo Brogi, in his manual of photography in 1895 "The photographic portrait, practical suggestions for the poser", begins the ritual even before entering the studio, suggesting for example not to run before coming into the studio to avoid blushing, especially in the warm weather. One should not be in a hurry otherwise the portrait will show a bored, tired expression, and one should choose a good day in which your spirits are high and you're happy and in a good mood."

Following the suggestions in the workshop è create your own family album.


Workshop 1
  • In the Fratelli Alinari Museum Collection you can find more than 6,000 albums.
Workshop 2
  • A series of pictures from the album of the "Marquis Villamarina D'Azeglio and his family". Fratelli Alinari Museum Collection (RMFA), Florence.
Workshop 3
  • The album of the "Marquis Villamarina D'Azeglio and his family" collects photos in different places from 1860 to 1940. Fratelli Alinari Museum Collection (RMFA), Florence.
Workshop 4
  • The album of the "Marquis Villamarina D'Azeglio and his family" contains also precious hand written annotations. Fratelli Alinari Museum Collection (RMFA), Florence.
Workshop 5
  • The album of "Marquis Villamarina D'Azeglio and his family" contains photos made with different techniques (salted paper, albumin, bromide) in different formats, of various periods and by different photographers. Fratelli Alinari Museum Collection (RMFA), Florence.
Workshop 6
  • Italian album with ferrotype portraits, c.1869. Fratelli Alinari Museum Collection (RMFA), Florence.
Workshop 7
  • Alinari family albums made in the Alinari studio in Florence, c.1860-1880. Fratelli Alinari Museum Collection (RMFA), Florence.
Workshop 8
  • Alinari family albums: the photos are all albumin in cabinet format in pure Alinari style. Fratelli Alinari Museum Collection (RMFA), Florence.
Workshop 9
  • English album, c.1870. Fratelli Alinari Museum Collection (RMFA), Florence.
Workshop 10
  • English album, c.1870, some pages are decorated with floral designs. Fratelli Alinari Museum Collection (RMFA), Florence.
Workshop 11
  • English album, c.1870, some pages are decorated with animals drawings. Fratelli Alinari Museum Collection (RMFA), Florence.
Workshop 12
  • English album, c.1870: a page dedicated to the dogs of the English family's dogs. One must consider that taking pictures of animals was then particularly complex due to the lengthy exposure times. Fratelli Alinari Museum Collection (RMFA), Florence.
Workshop 13
  • English album, c.1870: this double page shows a number of small portraits arranged like a chessboard, the males on the left and the females on the right. The presentation and arrangement of the photos can be quite varied and original. Fratelli Alinari Museum Collection (RMFA), Florence.
Workshop 14
  • Photo by Marino Sterle. Liberty album with pockets for portraits, c. 1910, exhibited at MNAF. Alinari National Photographic Museum. Fratelli Alinari Museum Collection (RMFA), Florence.
Workshop 15
  • Photo by Marino Sterle. A group of young visitors observe a photo by Disdri exhibited at MNAF. Alinari National Photographic Museum.
Workshop 16
  • Photo by Marino Sterle. The photo booth produces a series of portraits similar to the carte-de-visite by Disdri.
Workshop 17
  • Photo by Marino Sterle. The business card, its name, size and use, is similar to Disderi's carte de visite.
Workshop 18
  • Photo by Marino Sterle. MNAF. Alinari National Photographic Museum the tactile images, allow people to "see" the photos with their habds. Fratelli Alinari Museum Collection (RMFA), Florence.
Workshop 19
  • The "Collected Photo" section of the MNAF. Alinari National Photographic Museum with the photo albums helps us to explore the photo album theme.


    1. In 1854 Andrè Adolphe Eugène Disdèri invented a camera with multiple lens - four or even eight - which allowed the photographer to put different shots of the same model on a same plate. Once the negative was printed the single portraits were cut out and glued on cardboard becoming the carte-de-visite, a small photo portrait, a bit like our passport photos. Some compare these to the modern business cards, because of their size and use: it was customary to hand them to friends and family during visits. Because of the accessible prices and a number of other concomitant reasons, photography became widespread and almost a mass product. Do you think there are other important technical changes before Disderi? If so, which ones?
    2. The carte-de-visite spreads throughout Europe during the 19th century: in England, Queen Victoria herself boosts the trend. In 1861, at the death of her beloved husband Prince Albert, more than 70,000 portraits were printed in one week. Did you know that in the fashion business there are people whose job is to create or spread trends?
    3. In the 19th century people had their portraits painted by artists, this took much longer than photography which, with the invention of the daguerreotype, replaced the miniature portrait. Because colours did not exist in photography, the portrait was coloured by artists - the same miniaturists of the past. Retouching and colouring were some of the many procedures entailed in photography of the past, which was much more complex than it is today. Did you know that to create a photograph in the 19th century various different professional skills required?
    4. In the 19th century a slogan recited: "we photograph in the shade" and showed a caricature of a photo studio seen as a dental surgery. What do you think the first photo studios were like?
    5. In the second half of the 19th century, the top photo ateliers in Paris were those of Disdèri and Nadar, true photo artists like the Alinari in their studio-palace in Florence. Nadar's atelier in Boulevard des Capucines in Paris had his name written in huge red letters in front of the large windows. In his book "When I Was a Photographer", he writes: "This man comes (I swear I'm not joking!), he chooses the kind of portraot he wants, he asks for the bill, pays and disappears! Without even turning… a great agitattion, someoe calls out: "Where's he disappeared to? He was here a moment ago! Run, quick, he can't have had the time to go all the way down the stairs!". They rush out, almost flying, they catch up with him and lead him back upstairs: "But sir, your photograph? You still have to pose for it". "Ah...I see. I thought that was sufficient". Can you imagine the scene?
    6. Amongst the portrait photo albums we find that of Garibaldi's "Thousand" collected by Alessandro Pavia between 1862 and 1867. This "iconographic monument", so much more evocative than a list of names on a tombstone, contains the carte-de-visite of all those who took part in the campaign that took off from Quarto. The album was made so that the pictures could be inserted in the pages as they were collected. The pictures were bought in packs of 12, 24 or 48. Does it not this remind you of sticker albums?

    Suggestions for continuing the activities:
    follow the activity proposed during the workshop, answer the questions, take part in the MNAF workshops in Florence.

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


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