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The crimean war
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The La Marmora family and the Crimean War (1853 – 1856)

Four members of the family were present at the scene of the Crimean war: Alfonso la Marmora, as commander-in-chief of the army of the Kingdom of Sardinia, his brother Alessandro, commander of the regiment of the Bersaglieri (Alessandro died there of cholera), their nephew Vittorio, naval officer in command of the port of Balaklava, and finally Jane Bertie Mathew, an English gentlewoman and Alfonso La Marmora’s wife. The La Marmora archives include substantial records of the Crimean war. Most importantly there are five collections of illustrations : the photographs of James Robertson, drawings and water colours by Vittorio, drawings by Jane Bertie Mathew, water colours by other artists and prints.

The photographs of James Robertson

The study centre Generazioni e Luoghi- Archivi Alberti La Marmora conserves photographic material consisting of about 8,000 photographs, of which the thirty photos by James Robertson, taken between 1855 and 1856 during the Crimean war (1853-1856) represent the oldest collection.

After the first War of Independence Alfonso La Marmora, who was Minister of War at the time , entrusted the artist Stanislao Grimaldi with the job of creating some engravings entitled “Acts of valour”, which were to play a significant role in consolidating the legend of the Risorgimento and revealed his considerable sensitivity in his portrayal of the war and the way he conveyed it. With this in mind, it is plausible to think that these photographs of Robertson’s were not sold by the artist to Alfonso La Marmora but were given to him in recognition of his role as commander of one of the European contingents present in the Crimea, just as he received many other gifts.

These thirty photographs constitute a rare and valuable collection: on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy in 2011 a selection of these images was displayed at the Festival of Historical Photography “Memorandum” (Turin section) and a selection will be shown in autumn at the Photographic Archives and Research Centre of Spilimbergo (PN)

Profile of James Robertson

James Robertson (Middlesex 1813 - Yokohama 1888)

As soon as James Robertson, a trained engraver, arrived in Istanbul in 1841 he became involved in the development of the Mint where he was chief engraver until 1881. His first photographic views of the city appeared in 1853.During his life he worked as a photographer in Athens, Jerusalem, Cairo, Malta, India and Japan. Between September 1855 and July 1856 he worked in the Crimea: his photographic images are estimated to number between 60 and 150.

James Robertson’s photography is regarded as innovative : in order to understand what this means it is necessary to remember the conditions in which a photographer found himself working on that first historic occasion, and also to outline briefly the work carried out by his British predecessor in the Crimea, Roger Fenton.

In the first place the novelty of the medium aroused so much curiosity that:” the majority of the negatives taken by Fenton are portraits of officers in full dress and soldiers. The photographer was continually assailed by requests for photographs which he could not refuse because it was thanks to the help of these soldiers that he was able to transport his “laboratory cart” from one place to another”.

Secondly, these photographs appeared empty and flat to a public “accustomed to the conventional fantasies of the Romantic painters”. The Times of London wrote:

The photographer who follows modern armies can only record situations of rest and that atmosphere of still life which follows a battle”. And Beaumont Newal writes: “The battle fields of the Crimea were huge, level plains : in Fenton’s photographs they seem flat and sad and it is difficult to realize that many of those views were taken at great personal risk, while under fire”.

Jeffrey writes:

What Fenton merely hinted at was fully achieved by his successor in the Crimea James Robertson(…) who reached the war zone in time to portray the fall of Sebastopol. Robertson photographed the interiors of the Malakoff and Redan forts after their capture and destruction by artillery fire. Cannons, rubble, collapsed wooden buildings and rush matting strewn everywhere. Here was the kind of incoherent , fragmentary subject where photography found its best expression. In normal times photography was an art of composition, but war was abnormal, a situation in which events piled chaotically one on top of the other.”

Mary Warner Marien also describes Fenton’s work at length but goes on to say that it was James Robertson who produced a more realistic record of the damage of war: “The public” says Marien “ does not seem to notice the difference between Robertson’s more explicit images and the tamer ones of Fenton.”


Francesco Alberti La Marmora, I fondi fotografici degli archivi di Palazzo La Marmora, in Studi e ricerche sulla fotografia nel Biellese - Bollettino DocBI, Biella 2003

A.A.V.V. Dizionario di Fotografia, Rizzoli, Milano 2001

Beaument Newhall, Storia delle fotografia, Einaudi, Torino 1984

Ian Jeffrey , Fotografia, Rizzoli, Milano 2003

Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History, Laurence King Publishing, Londra 2002 


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