At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Felice Beato – war photographer

Venetian-born adventurer captured some of first images of conflict


Felice Beato's graphic pictures from the Second Opium War in China shocked western audiences
Felice Beato's graphic pictures from the Second Opium
War in China shocked Western audiences
Felice Beato, who is thought to be one of the world’s first war photographers, died in Florence on this day in 1909.

He was 76 or 77 years old and had passed perhaps his final year in Italy, having spent the majority of his adult life in Asia and the Far East. 

Although he was from an Italian family it was thought for many years that he had been born on the island of Corfu and died in Burma. However, in 2009 his death certificate was found in an archive in Florence, listing his place of birth as Venice and his place of death as the Tuscan regional capital.

Beato photographed the Crimean War in 1855, the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion in 1857 and the final days of the Second Opium War in China in 1860, later travelling with United States forces in Korea in 1871 and with the British in the Sudan in 1884-85.

He also spent many years living in Japan and then Burma, where his photography introduced the people and culture of the Far East to many in the West for the first time.

Felice Beato, pictured in about 1872, when he was based in Japan
Felice Beato, pictured in about 1872, when
he was based in Japan
In addition, he developed photography techniques that put him ahead of his time, despite the crude nature of equipment compared with today’s technology.

These included adding colour using methods learned from Japanese watercolour artists and creating panoramas by carefully making several exposures of a scene and joining them together for pictures up to two metres (6½ feet) long.

Although not born in Corfu, Beato lived on the island from a young age after his parents moved there from Venice.  Corfu was a British protectorate at the time, which made him a British subject.  Later the family lived in Istanbul.

Equipped with what was thought to be the only camera he ever used, bought in Paris, he formed a partnership with the British photographer and his future brother-in-law James Robertson and began his travels by heading to Balaklava in Crimea, where his photographs captured the destruction of the Crimean War, including the fall of Sebastapol in 1855.

From there they went to Calcutta to observe and photograph the country in the wake of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and in 1860 on to South China to photograph the Anglo-French military expedition in the Second Opium War. Beato’s pictures there were the first to document a military campaign as it was unfolding. His pictures of dead Chinese soldiers brought home the horrors of war as never seen before.

After travelling to London in 1861, where he raised funds by selling many of his photographs, he ventured to Yokohama in Japan, where he formed a new partnership with Charles Wirgmann, an illustrator with whom he had worked previously.

A street scene in Nagasaki in Japan in around 1868
A street scene in Nagasaki in Japan in around 1868
The move began a new chapter in Beato’s career. He compiled albums of Japanese photographs, including portraits, cityscapes and landscapes, and despite restrictions imposed by Japan’s military dictatorship was able to reach parts of the country into which few Westerners had been.

Unlike his work in India and China, which tended to underline the might of British imperial rule and paid little attention to the indigenous population, he was keen to introduce the Western world to Japanese people and culture and many of his photographs were of local people going about their daily life.

At the same time, Beato was expanding his horizons in a business sense, acquiring several studios, venturing into property, investing money in the new Grand Hotel in Yokohama and setting up a business importing carpets and women’s handbags, although he is said to have suffered big losses on the Yokohama silver exchange.

Later, after selling his business in 1877, he settled in Burma, where he continued to focus on photographing local people, while again developing money-making sidelines, in this case an antiques and curios business.

It is thought Beato spent time in Belgium towards the end of his life before returning to Italy to live in Florence in about 1908.

The ancient Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello
The ancient Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello
Travel tip:

Venice is a very different place today from Felice Beato’s era and many visitors find the number of people concentrated on the area around Piazza San Marco in high season rather daunting.  But by venturing towards the outlying parts of the city it is possible to escape the crowds. Better still, try a trip to one of the islands. Murano and Burano still attract tourists but in smaller numbers, while Torcello – just a few minutes further on from Burano – is more or less undisturbed.  Once home to upwards of 20,000 people, albeit in the 10th century, there are now fewer than 100 living on the island, yet relics of the past remain, such as the oldest church in the Venetian lagoon, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, founded in 639 and with Byzantine mosaics still intact from the 11th and 12th centuries.

The Chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti in Borgo Ognissanti in Florence
The Chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti
in Borgo Ognissanti in Florence
Travel tip:

A 10-minute walk west from the centre of Florence, the the Franciscan Chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti – usually known simply as the Ognissanti – is a church worth venturing away from the main sights for. Once the parish church of the wealthy Vespucci family, including the explorer Amerigo, the church is rich in art treasures, including Ghirlandaio’s Madonna della Misericordia and his Last Supper, which was believed to have been the inspiration for Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. There is also a Madonna and Child With Angels by Giotto and works by Sandro Botticelli, who is buried in the south transept.






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