BRUNSWICK, Maine — Paris was the cultural capital of the 19th century. One can imagine 19th-century Romans shrugging that off and muttering “basta!” Rome had been, still was, and surely forever would be the Eternal City. Rome had been the capital of the West for centuries; and even if that status was long past, the city remained the capital of Roman Catholicism. It wasn’t as if there was something called Parisian Catholicism.
Testifying to Rome’s greatness were numerous monuments and other great works of architecture, some in ruins, others still very much in use, from the Colosseum to Saint Peter’s. The city may have been a relative backwater in the mid 19th century. In 1870, Boston had a larger population. But if Rome was a backwater it was a uniquely splendid one. The 110 photographs in “In Light of Rome: Early Photographs in the Capital of the Art World, 1842-1871″ make plain just how splendid.
The show runs through June 4 at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.
Having Rome as its axis allows “In Light” to be winningly varied. It includes the work of nearly 50 photographers. That many of them are little known adds to the sense of discovery the show has to offer. Among the photographs are cityscapes, landscapes, portraits, genre scenes, sculptural studies — more variety. Expect famous sites and familiar names: the Trevi Fountain, the Piazza Navona, the Forum, the Baths of Caracalla, the Spanish Steps, the Appian Way. But there are also images of daily life: a palm tree here, a soldiers’ encampment there.
What we’re witnessing is the happy tension produced when an ancient city is being documented and celebrated by what was then state-of-the-art technology. A Roman newspaper wrote in 1840, just months after the invention of photography: “This new birth of human intelligence, which aroused universal admiration, deserves to be propagated in Rome, as a mother and guardian of the arts and sciences.”
The result is a visual version of an archeological excavation. Except that one frequently finds the present emerging from the past — or even dominating it. Gioacchino Altobelli’s “Easter Mass in the Piazza of St. Peter’s Basilica” shows Bernini’s great space filled with carriages. Francesco Adriano de Bonis’s “The Altar Inside the Colosseum” is a triple layering. The title announces two of the layers, imperial Rome and Catholic Rome. The third? From the angle de Bonis uses, a crucifix towers over the altar in such a way that it resembles (to our eyes, if not his) a utility pole.
It’s not just a marmoreal city that “In Light” presents. Slow exposure times and the gravitational pull of architectural Rome mean that the city seen often appears evacuated. This adds to the sense of the city as something historical rather than contemporary. But that means when we do see Romans, or tourists, they stand out all the more: a mendicant monk, an American sculptor and her assistants, fishermen on the Tiber, a crowd of washerwomen, Pius IX and his papal court. How pleased with himself the pope looks: Papal infallibility meets papal imperturbability.
So many of the photographs here are handsome, measured, grave, with a surpassing sense of solidity. (A striking exception is Altobelli’s “The Roman Forum Seen From the Capitoline Hill with Moonlight Effect,” a rather showy study in the play of light.) Some of this gravity and solidity is in the nature of early photography. Even more, perhaps, it’s in the nature of the city being photographed.
Two images make the interplay of medium and subject explicit. The title of Altobelli’s “The Piazza of Santa Maria Maggiore With a Photographer” announces what we’re seeing. This is helpful, because that gentleman and his equipment are easy to overlook as against the basilica’s mighty bulk. So, too, with Giovanni Battista Altadonna’s “The Cloister of St. Paul Outside the Walls With Drying Glass Negatives.” The architecture is what the viewer notices, not the negatives. But it’s because of another negative that the viewer is able to see the architecture.
A very different show is also up at Bowdoin through June 4. “Human Nature: Environmental Studies at 50″ celebrates the anniversary of that academic program being established at the college. The show is at once very small, with just a dozen works, and sweeping, insofar as those works range in locale from Angola to Mexico to China to the coast of Maine.
The list of artists is both eclectic and impressive, including Romare Bearden, Graciela Iturbide, Lucas Samaras, and Dorothea Lange. Different as “Human Nature” is from “In Light” — different in size, theme, appearance, form, locus, you name it — at least two images chime with the larger show.
Pudlo Pudlat and Qabaroak Qatsiya are Inuit artists from Canada’s Nunavut territory. Their print “Aeroplane” strikingly renders the collision between technology and tradition. The delicate colors in Richard Misrach’s photograph “Diving Board (Salton Sea)” are ravishing, so much so they may obscure how that wrecked and empty swimming pool is as evacuated and derelict as any Roman ruin, if in no way monumental or ancient. The Baths of Caracalla this is not.
IN LIGHT OF ROME: Early Photography in the Capital of the Art World, 1842-1871
HUMAN NATURE: Environmental Studies at 50
At Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 255 Maine St., Brunswick, Maine, through June 4. 207-725-3274, firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.