Scarce and uncertain were the news about the "painter-photographer" Stefano Lecchi; even his first name has been ascertained only in 1989 by Piero Becchetti. But, today, thanks to the extensive research conducted by Roberto Caccialanza and Giovanni Bonello, we can say that Lecchi is no longer an unknown person, having also ascertained the date and place of his birth.
Born in 1803 in Senago and almost certainly trained in a Milanese environment, the date of his death is still unknown to this day.
A skilled photographer, in years of research and experimentation, he created a method for coloring daguerreotypes and a special focusing device.
After a long stay abroad, marked by numerous trips to different countries, he was in Italy in 1847. From that period are a view of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and evidence of numerous shots of the excavations in Pompeii.
From 1849 his activity in Rome, where he lived with his family, is attested. He was probably a member of the proto-photographers of the Roman School of Photography, which included Frédéric Flachéron, Eugène Constant and Giacomo Caneva, who used the calotype technique, the first to allow multiple positive copies to be made from a paper negative, and who made the earliest photographic views of Rome.
Here again in 1849 Lecchi made views of the city and the first war reportage on the sites of the ruins caused by the combats in defence of the Roman Republic, which, proclaimed on February 9th, fell after five months.
Until a few years ago he was thought to have died before 1863 but, thanks to recent studies, we know that in 1866 he was in Malta where he owned a photographic studio in Valletta. His is a portrait of Giuseppe Garibaldi taken during the hero's brief stay on the island in March 1864 as well as a portrait of a man from June 1866.
It is likely that he spent his last years of life in Alexandria, Egypt, where both his wife and son Achille stayed until their deaths.
Stefano Lecchi painter and photographer, pupil of Daguerre: life revealed.
Beyond finding out where and when Lecchi was born and died (an operation that proved very difficult to complete and thus remained unfinished for a long time) a great deal of information and anecdotes have emerged during investigations in Italy and abroad; extensive and difficult (given the frequency of his travels) researches have revealed-among other things-his activity as a painter and owner of a Cosmorama before that of a photographer.
In the course of his life Lecchi sojourned in Malta, France (there are records of his presence, among others, in Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, Lyon, Marseille, Nîmes, Paris, Toulon, and Toulouse), the United Kingdom (St. Helier and London), Belgium (Brussels), Germany, Switzerland (Geneva), Italy (Naples and Pompeii, Pisa, Rome) and finally-probably Alexandria.
In addition to the aforementioned 1849 reportage of Rome, he was particularly notable for having made improvements to Daguerre's Diorama, of which he was certainly a pupil and collaborator (another information of great importance), as well as for having invented an effective method of coloring daguerreotypes and a photographic apparatus with a periscope mirror, and even for having developed his own procedure for developing and printing photographs on paper.
In the official acts Stefano Lecchi claimed to be a native "of Milan" or at least "Milanese," but the place and date of his birth remained a rebus for a very long time: his Milanese origin was first declared in the act of his second marriage to Anna Maria (or Marianna) Rizzo of Palermo, celebrated in Malta in April 1831, and later in the birth records of his four children (Achille in Paris in c. 1838, Mario in Toulon in 1840, Antonia in Marseilles in 1845), with the exception of Adelaide (Rome 1849). However, not even a sweeping examination of the birth and baptismal records of 44 parishes in Milan inside and outside the walls, and other attempts in the outer ring of the Lombard capital, provided the solution to this enigma; until an annotation - at first thought to be of little importance - proved instead to be decisive in tracing the birth record, allowing the "case" to be solved: Stefano Lecchi was born on August 29th, 1803, in Senago, a town north of Milan, where the family lived for several years before disappearing into thin air.
In July-August 1836 and again in January 1838 Lecchi was in St. Helier, on the island of Jersey (British Crown dependent island located in the English Channel a short distance from Normandy), where he presented his Cosmorama with "magnificent views" that he claimed to have painted from life: the fire of the basilica of St. Paul in Rome, Naples and its environs, Catania, Mount Etna during one of the most impressive eruptions, the islands of Sabrina and Malta, Gibraltar, the burning of Moscow, Cairo, the port and city of Havana, the dungeons of the Inquisition in Seville, Madrid, Cadiz, Florence and its environs, Palermo, the port of Messina, Reggio Calabria, the Vesuvius in eruption. In June Stefano disembarked in London (the passenger list indicates "S. Lecchi - pitore [sic] - Milano"), but unfortunately no information about his presence on Anglo-Saxon soil has been found.
In June 1840, the "Italian painter" Lecchi had "just arrived" in Toulouse to display a Diorama show with some views already presented in Paris and in the major centers of France (three large scenes depicting the interior of the church of St-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris, the city of Naples with Vesuvius-first calm, then erupting-and the Temple of Solomon). In August the artist was in Nîmes, in September in Marseilles, and in December he moved to Toulon, where he presented the Diorama with an important variation: he had "reproduced on canvas, by means of the Daguerreotype, the wonders of nature and art. He defined the views in less gigantic proportions than those of the Paris Diorama, but on an adequate scale that makes it easy to distinguish all the details and all the contrasts of the images." From April 20 to Sunday, May 2, 1841 Stefano was in Geneva, still promoting the Diorama "painted with the Daguerre system."
Meanwhile, the March 1839 chronicles of the burning of Daguerre's Diorama on the Rue des Marais in Paris documented that Stefano Lecchi had been one of the "young painters trained thanks to the [...] erudite lessons" of this man who had just given the official impetus for the birth and spread of photography in the world. However, despite his prior relations with Daguerre, Lecchi did not open his first daguerreotype studio until March 1842, in Aix-en-Provence, but he did so by presenting an absolute novelty of his own making: the Courrier de la Drôme et de l'Ardèche stated that until then "attempts had been made in vain to color the products of the daguerreotype," and that this "great problem" now seemed to have been solved "by Mr. Lecchi, a Daguerrean artist, who has shown us some truly amazing specimens.... ". On October 10th François Arago-the same scientist who on Daguerre's behalf had announced the birth of photography-presented to the Paris Academy of Sciences, on Lecchi's behalf, some daguerreotypes produced with the new system, which were appreciated for the "coloration full of truth and the freshness of the objects represented" (the method was executed by depositing on each of the parts of the image successive and uniform layers of the suitable color, the excess of which after a short time was removed by washing the daguerreotype plate in hot water). From this time on, Lecchi's travels in France and several European countries, often hectic and always related to the work he was conducting, are punctuated thanks to notices published in periodicals and through documents testifying to his presence in numerous cities. In those months, the process of coloring daguerreotype plates had had a great resonance in France and in numerous European countries, including the United Kingdom, and in December 1842 the news was taken up with great excitement even in Brussels: "Lecchi, a Milanese painter, [...] has arrived in Belgium to reproduce our most beautiful paintings. He will thus be able to obtain faithful and authentic copies of the Rubens, the Van Dyck and our greatest masterpieces. Of an oil portrait he produces, in one day, a large number of admirable miniatures..."
Another important - as well as unexpected - discovery about Stefano Lecchi's life was his relationship with Vito Mangiamele (1827-1898), a child prodigy who became world famous for his extraordinary mathematical calculating skills: the two traveled together and landed in London on October 25, 1842. A second voyage is documented on May 28, 1843, when Lecchi and Mangiamele reached the port of Southampton: the jarring difference between Mangiamele's excellent handwriting ("Sicilian traveler") and Lecchi's very uncertain, almost shaky handwriting, jumps out at the eye in the passenger register. Lecchi writes his own surname, a word that is not easily understood ("viagato," meaning "traveler," as if he had by then forgotten Italian) and his city of origin, "Milan" in his own handwriting.
Meanwhile, on October 1st, 1842, the Paris-domiciled artist had filed an application in order to be granted a five-year invention patent for procedures of his own to color in watercolor the evidence obtained with the Daguerreotype (granted on December 2nd). In the dossier Lecchi included a description of the method and a "drawing-portrait" as a demonstration sample (now unfortunately untraceable), and in a note he specified that the discovery had been made in Avignon on August 18th of that year. On December 10th, 1842, Lecchi assigned the rights to use his invention to both the Parisians Jean-Thomas Rameye and Jean-Pierre Glenisson and to Edme Bailly and Joseph Belnot of the firm 'Bailly et Belnot,' who made use of it in some departments of France.
The original patent was followed by a certificate of addition and improvement, issued on December 31st. In the description Lecchi spoke of a "new discovery useful for rendering natural color to all objects that are reproduced by the means of the Daguerreotype, such as portraits, monuments, views, landscapes, etc., whether they are old or new; natural color is given to them, little matter whether they have been produced more or less recently; the sharper and more transparent they are obtained with the Daguerreotype, the more natural their color will be and will succeed at its best. With the process [...] all natural colors are obtained with a perfect, brilliant transparency, identical to that which came out of the darkroom. [...] The colors that are applied are: red, yellow, blue, green, paints of all colors, and all other colors used in painting. After applying the appropriate colors to the object to be reproduced, the image will be washed with cold and hot water, as is usually done...."
Paul Lacroix's January 10th, 1843 Bulletin de l'Alliance des Arts latest news column found that Lecchi, "known in Germany for some months now," would soon arrive in Paris to demonstrate the excellence of his method of coloring daguerreotypes; Noël-Marie Paymal Lerebours also spoke of him in the Traité de photographie.
The importance of Lecchi's figure in the field of photography in France in the early 1840s is also proven by the fact that the daguerreotypist Jean-Thomas Rameye mentioned him as his teacher along with Daguerre and Chevalier. But Stefano already had yet another discovery under study, which he submitted at the April 22nd, 1844, session of the Academy of Sciences: it was an innovative photographic apparatus, different from the ordinary ones for the fact that the camera obscura was deprived of the lens, but at the same time equipped with a periscopic mirror made of glass covered with "amalgamated tinfoil" that reflected the image on the plate, turning it upside down. Moreover, it became possible to operate by adjusting the plate itself and the mirror in order to obtain maximum sharpness and thus focus by acting on an indicator placed on the dial (which showed the measurements of the distances normally used for taking portraits). Edmond De Valicourt panned the new device, which-also for this reason-had no luck.
The indefatigable Lecchi, "one of the first popularizers of the Daguerrean procedure in Marseilles," continued to experiment until he perfected a chemical process of photogenic printing on paper whose effects closely resembled etching: the results astounded even the famous Anglo-Saxon amateur photographer Rev. George Wilson Bridges, correspondent of William Henry Fox Talbot. The invention made it possible to apply a sheet of chemically prepared paper directly over what was to be reproduced to obtain "a table of mathematical exactness," by which copies could be made at will. The first specimens created by this new process were exhibited in October 1844 in Aix-en-Provence and later in Marseille, where Lecchi had been living for some time with his family, while the first public demonstration was made in Lyon on November 30th, 1845: in a December 1st letter sent from Valletta to William Henry Fox Talbot, the Reverend Richard Calvert Jones claimed to have noticed in the windows of some photographers and shopkeepers in Lyon, Avignon and Marseille, calotypes very similar to talbotypes (produced by Lecchi) characterized by identical spots on different copies.
The return to Italy took Lecchi first to Naples-Pompeii (George Wilson Bridges met him in Naples in August 1847), then to Pisa (a view from 1848 depicting a portion of the apse of the Cathedral and the leaning tower is known) and later to Rome. The Lecchis resided in the Eternal City for more than a decade before moving to Malta, where moreover in the meantime Stefano also often went for legal matters (in this regard, see Giovanni Bonello's interesting in-depth study on Lecchi's presence in Malta); two portraits in carte de visite taken in the studio, one of Giuseppe Garibaldi and the other of a distinguished man leaning on a chair, document his photographic activity in Malta (Valletta) certainly in March 1864 and June 1866.
Stefano Lecchi's traces, for the time being, end there. It is possible, however, that he may have taken or followed his wife and son Achille to Alexandria, Egypt: the latter, who managed to build a reputation as a rather highly regarded painter in this city, died in 1898 after his mother had died there in 1882.
In March 2017, after a serious and rigorous evaluation process, the European Society for the History of Photography (ESHPh) decided to publish - in open source usability and in English - an excerpt of Stefano Lecchi's biography (Stefano Lecchi, from Milan, Pupil of Daguerre: the Last Biography), the result of a long and complex international research work that made public, for the first time, the personal life and professional activity of the photographer who became famous for documenting the damage caused by the siege of Rome in 1849. Further in-depth investigation led to the discovery of other extremely important data such as Lecchi's place and date of birth, the dates of his arrival and departure in Rome, as well as news about his stay in Naples and Pompeii. As a result of this in December 2020 the monograph Stefano Lecchi, pupil of Daguerre: the last revelations (“Stefano Lecchi, allievo di Daguerre: le ultime rivelazioni” - texts in English, French and Italian)," was published as part of the "Stories of Photographers” series.
The name means view, representation of the universe. It consisted of an apparatus that, by means of optical illusion, made it possible to show a series of images or panoramic pictures of cities and towns in different parts of the world, with a magnifying and relief effect. The Dictionnaire chronologique raisonné des découvertes en France, de 1789 à la fin de 1820, published in Paris in 1822, explains: "COSMORAMA - OPTICS - Invention - Around 1806 - With the help of various optical effects and artfully arranged lights, picturesque views drawn in watercolour and gouache are made to appear almost life-size. The inventors of this show offer the most curious sights in certain parts of the world each year. The Cosmorama is both a pleasant and instructive spectacle for travellers, artists and lovers of the fine arts.
A show developed by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (also inventor of the Daguerreotype) and Charles-Marie Bouton, and first staged in Paris on July 11th, 1822. It consisted of large painted canvases stretched at various distances from each other, with transparent parts that, by suitably adjusting the lighting, gave spectators the illusion of a diurnal or nocturnal perspective view of landscapes, buildings, people and objects. It worked like this: on the faces of transparent canvases, stretched vertically, different subjects were painted in transparency, in soft colours on the front faces, in strong colours on the back ones. Through windows invisible to the spectator, who was in the dark in a circular room whose floor could sometimes be rotating ("like a windmill"), the front of the canvases were illuminated and the subjects were seen in diffuse light, with an effect similar to daylight; if, on the other hand, the canvases were illuminated from behind, the subjects on the opposite sides became visible, so that the painted images appeared as if seen in night light.