Saturday, July 4, 2009

Photographic Views of the Forts of Venice, 1866

Austrian Fort 2

Austrian Fort 1

There ‘is now no ‘lonely isle’ in all the lagoons of Venice. Wherever you go, where once there were quiet little gardens among ruins of island churches, there is now a Sentinel and a powder magazine, and there is no piece of unbroken character to be found anywhere. There is not a single shore, far or near, which has not in some part of it the look of fortification, or violent dismantling or renewing, for military purposes of some kind or another. - John Ruskin writing to his father, 16 November 1851[1]

During the Austrian occupation of Venice, fortifications were built on many of the outlying islands of the lagoon. The two photographs above are from an album of prints created just before the Austrians withdrew in 1866 in preparation for the city’s annexation to the newly-created Kingdom of Italy. The album’s provenance is uncertain, but it was obviously made with the army’s co-operation, and may have been an official commission. With the troops about to depart, someone wanted evidence of their dispositions for posterity.[2]

The resulting images are quite unique in the Venetian context, although they bear a strong family resemblance to photographs taken by the employees of Matthew Brady’s studio during the American Civil War, or to photographs by Gustave le Gray of Napoleon III’s troops on manoeuvres in France in 1857. One difference from the work of Brady and le Gray is that none of the Venetian images commemorate individuals: they are all long shots in which the bodies of indistinguishable soldiers are distributed at regular intervals as a way of articulating the architecture of fortifications, or, in the background of the first example above, the space of an otherwise featureless impromptu parade ground. Indeed, the absence of individuation is precisely the point. These images are records of Austrian military power: apparently authoritative, but about to be rendered irrelevant by the fact of Italian unification.

Fifty years after these photographs were taken, the Lido was full of holidaymakers in bathing suits. One hundred years after that, there is now an association for preserving the remains of the forts as an aspect of Venetian heritage.

[1] Quoted in Sarah Quill, Ruskin’s Venice, 2003, p. 36.

[2] The album consists of 14 individual prints glued into a bound volume, which was until recently held in the collection of the Querini Stampaglia library in Venice. Several of its prints were reproduced in Immagini di Venezia e della Laguna nelle fotografie degli Archivi Alinari e della Fondazione Querini Stampaglia, exhibition catalogue, 1979 (a brief description of the album can be found on p. 94). In 2005, the album could not be located by the staff of the Querini Stampaglia when I tried to find it, so it is possible that the 1979 catalogue contains the only surviving evidence of its existence, just as the album itself contained the only surviving photographic evidence of the forts.

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