Robert MacPherson, Piazza of St. Peter's (detail), ca. 1860

An Early Photographer in an Empty Rome

Object(s) of the Week

April 7, 2020

With so much of the world, including Italy, under lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, the news is filled with quiet images of usually bustling capitals. The normally tourist-thronged streets and piazzas of Rome now look eerily empty.

This imagery is strikingly similar to the nineteenth-century photographs of Italy’s capital by the Scottish-born, but Rome-based, photographer Robert MacPherson (1814–1872). Because of the long exposure times required by mid-century cameras to activate emulsion on a negative, MacPherson frequently set up his shots in the early morning when public places were deserted, like the Piazza of St. Peter’s pictured below. Those pedestrians that may have walked through the scene would register only as a blur or not at all.

In the 1860s, when Papal Rome was isolated from the rest of the newly established kingdom of Italy and defended by a French garrison, the city did seem unnaturally vacant. In a series of photographs from 1867 showing the gates of Rome closed and fortified, MacPherson documented this unusual moment in the country’s history.

MacPherson’s photographs will be featured in a future publication entitled Photographs of Italy and the British Imagination, 1840–1914.

Written by Scott Wilcox, Senior Research Scholar, Yale Center for British Art