The reportage


Vittori Filippo, I bersaglieri lombardi e i lancieri della morte trasportano Luciano Manara gravemente ferito a Villa Spada (Museo del Risorgimento, Milano)

British photographer Roger Fenton is often, and mistakenly, credited with making the earliest photographic war reportage with his documentation of the Crimean War in 1855.

In fact, Stefano Lecchi, soon after the fall of the Roman Republic on July 3rd, 1849, took a series of photographs of the places where Garibaldi and other patriots, who had flocked from all over Italy, had strenuously defended the city, which was besieged by the French expeditionary force sent to restore papal power.

These invaluable photographs, made when photography was in its infancy, were widely circulated among Garibaldi’s patriotic followers as lithographs.

Lecchi’s reportage of Rome in 1849 is presented for the first time here on this website, combining the holdings of two cultural institutions: the Biblioteca di Storia moderna e contemporanea in Rome, Italy, and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, California.

For the first time, Lecchi's report on the 1849 siege of Rome is presented here by bringing together the holdings of two different institutions: the Biblioteca di Storia moderna e contemporanea in Roma and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

Parte centrale del quadro di Filippo Vittori che raffigura il trasporto di Luciano Manara morente, fotografia di Stefano Lecchi, 1851 (Museo Centrale del Risorgimento, Roma)


Full text

The photographic account on the ruins of Rome that Stefano Lecchi realized, plausibly as early as July 1849, represents the earliest example of reportage or, more exactly, of war reportage known so far. The images transcend the centrality of the subject represented to become a historical memory of an event fixed not in its occurrence (which was technically impossible at the time) but documented by its traces, ephemeral and soon to disappear, that it left behind.

Starting with Lecchi’s reportage, the coverage of war conflicts took advantage of photography as a new medium; although the poor sensitivity of the photographic materials of the time necessitated long exposure times that prevented the filming of fighting and moving actions in general.

Lecchi's reportage precedes by six years the one executed in 1855 in the Crimean War by Englishman Roger Fenton to whom chronological primacy was traditionally attributed.

The Hungarian Karol Szathmari in 1853 had taken hundreds of photographs, later lost, at the beginning of the Russian invasion of Wallachia-Moldova, a harbinger of what would be called the Crimean War.

Fenton was considered the forerunner of a particular genre, reportage, which would later find other illustrious representatives in Felice Beato who fixed the English repression of the Indian uprisings in 1857 and later the Second Opium War in China, and in Matthew Brady and the group of photographers including Garden and Timothy O'Sullivan who witnessed the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Fenton's reportage, commissioned by the British government and published in The Times, had an extraordinary circulation and was marked by numerous reprints of the originals. This wide circulation was intended to counter the press campaign against Britain's involvement in the war.

But earlier than that, immediately after the fall of the Roman Republic on July 3rd, 1849, Stefano Lecchi took a series of photographs of the places where Garibaldi and other patriots, who had rushed from all over Italy, had strenuously defended the city, which was besieged by the French expeditionary corps sent to restore papal power. He thus realized the absolute first photographs of a war event that constitute a precursor of 20th-century war reportage.

Known only through copies made in the early twentieth century owned by the Istituto per la Storia del Risorgimento Italiano and those belonging to the Archivio Fotografico del Museo di Roma, Lecchi's reportage is now known, we may assume, in its entirety.

Indeed, in 1997 Marina Miraglia found forty-one Lecchi salted papers at the Biblioteca di storia moderna e contemporanea in Rome. This was followed in 1998 by the discovery of twenty salted papers by Silvia Paoli at the Civica raccolta A. Bertarelli in Milan.

Following the publication in 2001 of the first catalogue regarding Lecchi's salted papers, researchers at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles identified Lecchi as the author of the forty-one salted papers bound in an album in their possession that had originally belonged to Edward Cheney.

In contrast to Fenton's reportage, Lecchi's images were handled by the publishing market without even mentioning his name but only pointing out that the lithographs were derived from what were generically referred to as "daguerreotypes."

We have no precise data on the number of photographs that constituted the reportage nor on their circulation and economic valuation: only a few but significant indications of the circulation of such images in a specific Garibaldian sphere thanks to the writings of Jessie White Mario and thanks to the discovery of photographs belonging to two men of 1849: Agostino Bertani and Alessandro Calandrelli.

While we cannot exclude a priori the hypothesis of a commissioned work, it is logical to assume that some direct witness had advised Lecchi in the choice of the places to be photographed or that the photographer himself was in a position to make his own reasoned and thoughtful choice.

Lecchi, a passionate and expert photographer, turned precisely to this technological medium to construct, through images, his own narrative of events and situations. In the photographs he records, documents, fixes what was before everyone's eyes: the defense works, the marks left by the fighting, the extent of the devastation.

The reportage is not, nor could it be because of the characteristics of the technical means of the time, an exhaustive account of the various moments of the sustained struggle; but it was aimed at recalling them by recording and highlighting their effects. For those who knew and wanted to remember, the places were inextricably linked to individual episodes of battle, valor, facts and to the memory of the men who had fought and often died there.

Lecchi's relationship to the traditional way of constructing images is clear in some photographs linked to tradition by an identical code of visual writing. This is especially true when he portrays views of Rome: emblematic is the photograph of the Casale Cenci at Villa Borghese, which is almost superimposable, in the setting of the scene, with the analogous image in the 1842 lithograph by Landesio and Rosa. This underscores the incidence, in the formation of his photographic taste, of what was the usual way of reproducing a particular place.

A punctilious preciseness is easily observed in Lecchi’s photographs, which led him to create images of certain buildings from different perspectives, almost as if the viewer could move around them, observing them from different angles, following in the photographer's footsteps, to the point of identifying himself with his observation and substituting himself for him.

At times one can immediately recognize certain places, but at others the difficulty of identifying certain subjects, often caused by the angle of the photograph, tends to emphasize certain details of a building, while omitting any visual reference to a particular place or to an already known building.

Lecchi also photographed “minor” buildings, evidently because they were related to battles which, although they were of lesser relevance, were significant for anyone with a deep knowledge of the various phases of the defense of the Roman republic.

Lecchi's primary purpose is documentation. He uses a flat style that avoided pedantry or spectacle. It lacks martial poses and the aestheticizing approach based on captivating images. His documentation is meticulous with extreme attention to detail.

What emerges from Lecchi’s photographs is the intention to organize a story via images. There is in fact connection between events and photographic sequences because the selection of events deemed relevant is followed by the narrative made through the image of places. Narrative and memory are thus joined by iconography.

Some of the images had a commercial value, reproducing places, ruins of villas whose former splendor had now irretrievably disappeared. Others depicted places that recalled specific events and therefore spoke only to those who knew and wanted to remember.

The image thus tends to become document-symbol, almost a monument of remembrance.

Lecchi's moral adherence to the ideals of the Republic seems to be further confirmed by another photograph of Stefano Lecchi that I found in the iconographic fund of the Museo del Risorgimento in Rome, marked "S. Lecchi 1851." This is a reproduction of the central part of Filippo Vittori's painting depicting Lombard bersaglieri and lancers of death carrying the seriously wounded Luciano Manara at Villa Spada.

(Maria Pia Critelli)