The Oldest Known Photographs of Rome (1841–1871)

The rav­ages of COVID-19 have been fol­lowed by the rav­ages of the post-pan­dem­ic tourism boom. If you’ve been read­ing recent cov­er­age of aggres­sive trav­el and its dis­con­tents, you may well assume that it’s too late to have a gen­uine expe­ri­ence of, say, the great cities of Europe. Paris, Vien­na, Barcelona: none are as they used to be, we’re told, and the same may even be true of the Eter­nal City. Lovers of such places were com­plain­ing about tourists decades and decades ago, of course, but how far back in time would one have to trav­el in order to take in the glo­ries of a Rome that had­n’t yet fall­en to the invad­ing T‑shirt-and-flip-flopped hordes?

One would have to trav­el back about 150 years, at least accord­ing to the pic­to­r­i­al evi­dence pro­vid­ed in the video above from Youtu­ber Jarid Boost­ers, who appears to have a strong inter­est in his­tor­i­cal pho­tog­ra­phy.

His most pop­u­lar videos include gath­er­ings-up of pic­tures of old Los Ange­les, of the lost archi­tec­ture of the Ger­man Empire, of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Iran. In this new episode, he presents the ear­li­est known pho­tographs tak­en in Rome, which date from the ear­ly eigh­teen-for­ties to the ear­ly eigh­teen-sev­en­ties. Most were tak­en by an ear­ly Ital­ian adopter of pho­tog­ra­phy named Gioacchi­no Alto­bel­li.

Soon after pick­ing up a cam­era in the eigh­teen-thir­ties, Alto­bel­li ded­i­cat­ed his career to “pho­tograph­ing some of the most ancient and most infa­mous sites through­out Rome,” says Boost­ers. “From 1841 through 1871, Alto­bel­li, along with a team of oth­er pho­tog­ra­phers, includ­ing Richard Jones, took it upon them­selves to doc­u­ment the most famous and ancient city of Rome as com­plete­ly as pos­si­ble.” Their sub­jects includ­ed the still-rec­og­niz­able likes of the Colos­se­um and Hadri­an’s tomb, nat­u­ral­ly, as well as the Arch of Drusus, the Tem­ple of Venus and Roma, and the Por­to di Ripet­ta. Hav­ing been demol­ished by the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the Por­to di Ripet­ta stands out as one of the fea­tures that sets the Rome of Alto­bel­li’s day apart from the Rome of today — well, that and the absence of self­ie-tak­ers.

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

New Dig­i­tal Archive Puts Online 4,000 His­toric Images of Rome: The Eter­nal City from the 16th to 20th Cen­turies

Some of the Old­est Pho­tos You Will Ever See: Dis­cov­er Pho­tographs of Greece, Egypt, Turkey & Oth­er Mediter­ranean Lands (1840s)

Behold the Pho­tographs of John Thom­son, the First West­ern Pho­tog­ra­ph­er to Trav­el Wide­ly Through Chi­na (1870s)

A Vir­tu­al Tour of Ancient Rome, Cir­ca 320 CE: Explore Stun­ning Recre­ations of The Forum, Colos­se­um and Oth­er Mon­u­ments

High-Res­o­lu­tion Walk­ing Tours of Italy’s Most His­toric Places: The Colos­se­um, Pom­peii, St. Peter’s Basil­i­ca & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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