Giacomo Caneva & the Genre Study

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The Rome of Popes and emperors, magnificent buildings, and romantic ruins of grand forums and piazzas, was as often the subject of 19th century photographs as it is today. But there has always been another Rome, that of the people, and while artists came to 19th century Rome to study the classical monuments and ruins, it was the everyday Rome in which they lived and worked.

Giacomo Caneva was born in Padua in 1813 and moved to Rome by 1840 where he stayed until his death in 1865. He began his career as a painter of "perspective pictures" but, once in Rome, he quickly developed an interest in photography and joined a group of photographers that met at the Caffé Greco from 1850-52 and included Count F. Flachéron, Eugène Constant, Alfred-Nicolas Normand, and James Anderson. Flachéron provided a wonderful environment for the rest of the members of the so-called 'Scuola Romana di Fotografia,' importing the latest technological improvements and even selling photographic equipment from his home. Undoubtedly, Caneva was introduced to the various photographic media through Flachéron and indeed he seems to have tried his hand at many. Account receipts from clients mention that he sold daguerreotypes and his photographs on paper include salt and albumen prints from paper and collodion negatives. 

Caneva's photographs of monuments and views of Rome and genre studies of the Pifferari (itinerant musicians) are perhaps his best known works, but it was only very recently that additional subjects in the present exhibition have been attributed to him. In 2002, Roger Taylor identified three photographs from collodion negatives by Caneva as having been exhibited in 1856.* The subjects of the photographs were all animals, a discovery revealing a whole new facet of Caneva's oeuvre.  This exhibition incorporates this newly-attributed work.

In the 19th century, Rome was an important destination for artists of many different nationalities. The French re-established the French Academy in Rome in the Villa Medici in 1803 and throughout the century Prix de Rome winners were rewarded with a four year stay in the Villa Medici, overlooking much of Rome. British and American artists and wealthy travelers also continued to make the requisite "Grand Tour" to Rome to soak in antiquity and copy the paintings of the Renaissance masters. Artists in the Academies often had strict time restrictions and were forced to work around the clock to produce their works. For those painters who wished to depict landscapes and outdoor life, weather did not always permit painting en plein-air. In these cases, the artists would turn to photographers like Caneva who sold both genre and view photographs as studies or models for easy use at home or in the studio.

The photographs in this exhibition also appealed to travelers in their quaint, rustic, and charming depiction of metropolitan life in Rome. While this view is only partial, and therefore not entirely accurate, Rome was in many ways much more provincial than other European capitals which had already undertaken major urban renovations in the 1850s. Caneva's pictures of goats roaming through the streets confirmed travelers' preconceived notions of Rome as one great pastoral landscape. These photographs could serve as reminders of this quaint and archaic lifestyle long after the visitor had returned to the hustle and bustle of a modernizing Paris, or a rapidly industrializing London.

These photographs, originally intended to serve as artists studies and souvenirs for visitors, perform a dual role for the viewer today. They not only provide us with a glimpse at the culture and appeal of 19th century Rome, but also give us insight into what visitors of the time expected to see. Sheep roam the cobblestone streets and oxen rest with their heavy loads still attached, while peasants go about collecting water from the well, and the Pifferari entertain passersby with their musical performances. In Caneva's photographs, the quotidian life of Rome remains alive.

* Roger Taylor, Photographs Exhibited in Britain 1839-1865, (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 2002), pg. 198. The three photographs were titled, "A Goat," "Bisons," and "Sheep," and were made using collodion negatives according to the entries found by Taylor. They were exhibited in the 1856 Photographic Society of Scotland exhibition in Edinburgh.


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