Beyond: Envisioning Florence

The Cathedral group in Florence. Photograph by Benjamin Cawthra.

The Cathedral group in Florence. Photograph by Benjamin Cawthra.

This summer I am teaching in Florence, Italy. Like probably every other visitor before me, I went to get a look at the Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiori) on my first day here, and I took my camera with me. I’m not alone, of course—the place is full of visitors like me—but at least we are all in good company. The famously prickly James Fenimore Cooper, writing in 1838, declared that Italy and Switzerland were “the only two countries worth crossing the ocean to see.” We don’t think of Cooper as the type given to rapture, but “Italy . . . haunts my dreams and clings to my ribs like another wife,” he wrote to a friend. His actual wife seemed to understand. She said that Italy was the only country that he ever “quit looking over a shoulder.” In Florence, his first lodgings were “but a step from the cathedral square,” he wrote, “and I was no sooner dressed than I ran out to feast my eyes with its wonders.” While he did not care for the “mottled look” of the outer decor (before the new facing), the massive size of the cathedral group impressed him.

So here we all are, armed with devices descended from the earliest days of photography. The daguerreotype was invented the year after Cooper published Gleanings in Europe: Italy. Before long the monuments and vistas of Florence and Italy were not just the province of landscape painters. As the tourist trade to Italy developed after 1860, photographs became the way for visitors to take a piece of Italy home with them.

Some, such as American architect Russell Sturgis, collected them. His is a remarkable archive of photographic views of Europe in general and Italy in particular and is now housed at Washington University in St. Louis. You could get your picture taken next to the Colosseum in Rome, making a stock image much as today’s cliche of standing in front of Pisa’s tower while pretending to hold it up is now also a kind of ritual to be enacted—a stamp of authenticity whose inarticulate copy somehow makes the experience real. Later editions of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1860 romance The Marble Faun came with blank pages meant to be filled with photographs collected by tourists who walked Rome using the tale as a travel guide. (A character in William Dean Howells’s 1884 novel Indian Summer, set in Florence, sniffs at the practice: “he had his opinions of people who illustrated The Marble Faun with photographs; it surprised him that she seemed to find something novel and brilliant in the idea.”)

In her classic essay On Photography, Susan Sontag identifies a phenomenon among tourists: the desire to photograph everything they see. This is one reason why she is an intellectual patron saint for me. Even before reading her, I had stopped taking photographs during my travels. I had felt that putting the camera between myself and what I was supposedly there to experience had in fact become the experience, and I also noticed that I rarely looked at the photographs after they had been taken. Sontag articulated this back in 1977, years before a more “permissive” technology—as one photographer later described it to me—in the form of digital cameras created both ease and avalanche. But there I was with many others, cameras in hand, pointing it at that awe-inspiring mass of imposing bulk and delicate filligree, the Duomo, the Campanile, the Baptistry. Were we really going to “own” this, to take a piece of it by “shooting” it?

We often say that words fail, but we do not say often enough that photographs also fail. The fact is that the Duomo is such a monumental spatial and visual—and yes, spiritual—experience, even just taking the exterior of the complex into account, that it is well beyond the reach of writers as important as Giorgio Vasari (Lives of the Artists) and as popular as Ross King (Brunolleschi’s Dome). It is also beyond photography. The first thing I wanted to do when I finally saw it, scaffolding and all, was to sit down humbly and bow my head. Too sly by half, I had approached it from the east—that is, from behind—and at a time of day favorable to me, the shooter/photographer: the magic hour at dusk. And the power of the place, no matter how I tried to flatter my own sub-amateur talents by “artfully” cropping in-camera or waiting for “just the right” pinkish light to set off the marble, won so easily that the birds circling around and through the heights of the Campanile seemed to mock my poor powers, bolstered as they were by something far less than genius: a Canon digital camera. At least they could fly.


We’ve been here before: from the Russell Sturgis collection, Washington University Special Collections, and from me.

Of course, if we think harder about photography, we understand that the assumption made by so many from the beginning of its history–that the photograph is a faithful record of the subject–cannot be sustained by investigation into what seem to be even obvious and well-known photographs. Photographs conceal as well as reveal. But the promise of the camera seems to tap into something below consciousness–we want to believe that what we see when we shoot is what we get when we look at our creation. There is something so stubborn and persistent about this idea that in the presence of the Duomo, I am no more able to jettison the desire to “capture” the subject than anyone else. There is some solace, though. I will take home not a piece of the Duomo, but a shared sense of failure experienced by travelers—artists, writers, teachers, students, vacationers–for centuries. And the tourists, and the Gucci store on the corner, and the extraordinary pink limo snaking around the piazza with revelers aboard that I slow-wittedly “failed” to adequately photograph while idiotically running after it, and the long tradition of coming here from somewhere else to see what could not be seen in the far places from which we hail, none of it matters in the presence of the Duomo. Truly this is a place that overwhelms its own hype. It is beyond words. It is beyond photographs. It is beyond.

The One That Got Away. The most honest photograph in the bunch?

The One That Got Away. The most honest photograph of the bunch?

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3 thoughts on “Beyond: Envisioning Florence

  1. kathy sloane says:

    nice! i just gave a slide lecture about oaxaca, mexico, and talked about many of the issues of photography that you linger on here.
    also reading: believing is seeing, by errol morris. if you haven’t read it, do.

    • Kathy, I would love to hear more sometime (and would like to go to Oaxaca, too). I taught Believing is Seeing in Visual History class last fall. Morris’s obsessive efforts to get at the “facts” of a photograph reveal an unsettling greater truth: not only can we not quite trust what we see but we can’t be entirely certain of knowledge itself. An engrossing work, to be sure.

      • kathy sloane says:

        ben, “obsessive” is exactly the word that came to mind as i am reading morris. good god! and yet he is compelling.
        i’ve been thinking a lot about travel photography because of the oaxaca lecture. it’s interesting to go back to photographs i made in 1992-1994 and see what i noticed, not just what i saw. how does one depict a “foreign” place without exoticising it?

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