Rome Comes to Life in Photochrom Color Photos Taken in 1890: The Colosseum, Trevi Fountain & More

1890 Colosseum

For almost two hun­dred years, Eng­lish gen­tle­men could not con­sid­er their edu­ca­tion com­plete until they had tak­en the “Grand Tour” of Europe, usu­al­ly cul­mi­nat­ing in Naples, “raga­muf­fin cap­i­tal of the Ital­ian south,” writes Ian Thom­son at The Spec­ta­tor. Italy was usu­al­ly the pri­ma­ry focus, such that Samuel John­son remarked in 1776, per­haps with some irony, “a man who has not been to Italy is always con­scious of an infe­ri­or­i­ty.” The Roman­tic poets famous­ly wrote of their Euro­pean sojourns: Shel­ley, Byron, Wordsworth… each has his own “Grand Tour” sto­ry.

1890 Trevi Fountain

Shel­ley, who trav­eled with his wife Mary God­win and her step­sis­ter Claire Clair­mont, did not go to Italy, how­ev­er. And Byron sailed the Mediter­ranean on his Grand Tour, forced away from most of Europe by the Napoleon­ic wars. But in 1817, he jour­neyed to Rome, where he wrote the Fourth Can­to of Childe Harold’s Pil­grim­age:

Oh Rome! my coun­try! city of the soul!
The orphans of the heart must turn to thee,
Lone moth­er of dead empires! And con­trol
In their shut breasts their pet­ty mis­ery.

For the trav­el­ing artist and philoso­pher, “Italy,” Thom­son writes, “pre­sent­ed a civ­i­liza­tion in ruins,” and we can see in all Roman­tic writ­ing the tremen­dous influ­ence visions of Rome and Pom­peii had on gen­tle­men poets like Byron. The Grand Tour, and jour­neys like it, per­sist­ed until the 1840s, when rail­roads “spelled the end of soli­tary aris­to­crat­ic trav­el.” But even decades after­ward, we can see Rome (and Venice) the way Byron might have seen it—and almost, even, in full col­or. As we step into the vis­tas of these post­cards from 1890, we are far clos­er to Byron than we are to the Rome of our day, before Mussolini’s mon­u­ments, noto­ri­ous snarls of Roman traf­fic, and throngs of tourists.

1890 Trumphal Arch

“These post­cards of the ancient land­marks of Rome,” writes Mash­able, “were pro­duced… using the Pho­tochrom process, which adds pre­cise gra­da­tions of arti­fi­cial col­or to black and white pho­tos.” Invent­ed by Swiss print­er Orell Gess­ner Fus­sli, the process involved cre­at­ing lith­o­graph­ic stone from the negatives—“Up to 15 dif­fer­ent tint­ed stones could be involved in the pro­duc­tion of a sin­gle pic­ture, but the result was remark­ably life­like col­or at a time when true col­or pho­tog­ra­phy was still in its infan­cy.”

temple rome

The Library of Con­gress hosts forty two of these images in their online cat­a­log, all down­load­able as high qual­i­ty jpegs or tiffs, and many, like the stun­ning image of the Colos­se­um at the top (see the inte­ri­or here), fea­tur­ing a pre-Pho­tocrom black and white print as well.

1890 San Lorenzo

Aside from a rare street scene, with an urban milieu look­ing very much from the 1890s, the pho­tographs are void of crowds. In the fore­ground of the Tri­umphal Arch fur­ther up we see a soli­tary woman with a bas­ket of pro­duce on her head. In the image of San Loren­zo, above, a tiny fig­ure walks away from the cam­era.

forum rome 1890

In most of these images—with their dream­like coloration—we can imag­ine Rome the way it looked not only in 1890, but also how it might have looked to bored aris­to­crats in the 17th and 18th centuries—and to pas­sion­ate Roman­tic poets in the ear­ly 19th, a place of raw nat­ur­al grandeur and sub­lime man-made decay. See the Library of Con­gress online cat­a­log to view and down­load all forty-two of these post­cards. Also find a gallery at Mash­able.

1890 Great Cascade

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Venice in Beau­ti­ful Col­or Images 125 Years Ago: The Rial­to Bridge, St. Mark’s Basil­i­ca, Doge’s Palace & More

Beau­ti­ful, Col­or Pho­tographs of Paris Tak­en 100 Years Ago—at the Begin­ning of World War I & the End of La Belle Époque

Behold the Very First Col­or Pho­to­graph (1861): Tak­en by Scot­tish Physi­cist (and Poet!) James Clerk Maxwell

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Terr says:

    “Shel­ley, who trav­eled with his wife Mary God­win and her step­sis­ter Claire Clair­mont, did not go to Italy, how­ev­er.”

    Shel­ley drowned near Leri­ci, in the Gulf of La Spezia, in 1822. Er, that’s in Italy.

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