With the invention of photography in 1839, our understanding of the cultural heritage of Italy changed radically. The exhibition See Italy and Die traces the evolution of our concept of landscape, architecture, art and the population of Italy, until then disseminated through the traditional fine arts: painting, drawing, sculpture and prints.
In the 1820s, Rome attracted a generation of painters who adopted the principles of landscape painting, revived at the end of the 18th century by the French artist Pierre Henri de Valenciennes and the Englishman Thomas Jones. These painters appreciated nature for itself without the need for any literary, religious or mythological pretext. They included Camille Corot and Léon Cogniet who brought back many sketches and small paintings from their rambles.
Daguerre's invention, revealed to the public in Paris in 1839, caused a great stir in Italy, as it did all over Europe. Drawings obtained by means of a camera obscura captured only the contours of the landscape, faithfully rendering proportion and perspective, but unable to reproduce the chiaroscuro. The daguerreotype's ability to reproduce nature "objectively", without the creative intervention of an artist, made it a valuable tool, combining efficiency and precision.
Sought after by amateurs, it also inspired several publishing projects. Between1841 and 1843, the French optician Noël-Marie Paymal Lerebours published Daguerreian Travels: the world's most remarkable views and monuments illustrated with aquatints based on daguerreotypes. However, some manual intervention was still considered necessary and views were "animated" with characters that could not be fixed on the daguerreian plate because of the long exposure time required.
The Italian photographer Ferdinando Artaria with his Views of Italy through the Daguerreotype undertook the same kind of project, whereas the British photographer Alexander John Ellis started a similar enterprise for which he collected more than one hundred and fifty plates produced by himself, or acquired from other operators. John Ruskin put together a major collection of daguerreotypes, some of which he used alongside his own drawings and watercolours in his famous work The Stones of Venice.