The first photographs of Trieste: the lost daguerreotypes of C. Fontana

04.01.2021 – 11.50 – Trieste, with its suggestive views and natural panoramas, has always been an irresistible subject for photographers, right from the infancy of this still young art having a little more than a couple of centuries.
The spectacle of the Karst, and even more so the gulf that embraces Trieste, have captured the imagination of artists; but to all this human action must be added, through the deliberate urban construction of streets and squares, which remain ‘scenic’ to this day.
The first traces of photography in Trieste date back to April 1839, when Giovanni Mollo’s shop displayed daguerreotype equipment for his visitors.
The invention of the daguerreotype – the world’s first photographic process – was presented in France that very year and met with great success.
A copper plate with a silver layer was sensitised to light with iodine vapour.
The development of the photo required an hour of exposure to mercury vapour followed by a final fixing.

Silver tarnished over time when exposed to light and therefore the photograph had to be stored with special care.
The use of vapour also risked poisoning the unfortunate photographer.
Italy didn’t make great use of daguerreotype photography, compared to France and England.
But Trieste was at that time part of Austria; and thanks to Austrian-German influences, the daguerreotype spread very quickly.
The son of a Triestine ‘merchant and numismatist’, Carlo Fontana, soon became interested in the technique. Today, his son Guido is remembered above all for his militancy with Garibaldi and for having become Mazzini’s secretary when he was in exile in London.
His father Carlo lived in Via Romagna 10, where he had set up a studio where he made portraits with a daguerreotype.

The first official photographs of Trieste therefore date back to the autumn of 1839; on 24 November, the liberal newspaper La Favilla described the exciting novelty of the daguerreotype, thanks to an exceptional journalist, Francesco dell’Ongaro.
He noted that “this singular and important discovery” could not fail to have “brilliant success in Trieste too, where the amenity of the contours, the serenity of the sky and the purity of the air are very suitable for such experiments, in which light is the first element”.
Carlo Fontana’s first attempts were disastrous, because “during the inspection of the apparatus, some of the fluid containers were found to be broken and the mercury scattered, with no small damage to the metal plates on which the admirable perspective was to be impressed”.

We therefore “began to despair of success”.
However, Fontana decided to try again the next day, and wonder! “Two perspectives were obtained, as beautiful and happy as we were happy to desire”.
It was truly a new and marvellous spectacle,” recalls dell’Ongaro, “when the foil already impressed by the invisible spectrum, exposed to the fumigation of mercury, began to show the image it had received. Here then are outlined “the slopes of the hill, the whitewashed houses standing out clearly from the field with microscopic precision; the most minute details of the scene appear to the naked eye, made evident and distinct by the mere gradation of chiaroscuro”.
The journalist describes it as “another Fiat Lux: in a few seconds the uniform surface of the foil came alive in a picture so complete that the most delicate steel engraving could barely imitate it”.

Like children grappling with a new toy, Fontana and his friends rushed to photograph the next day “the Borsa and the Theatre” which “surprised the most difficult and sophisticated observers”.
The journalist observes that the diffusion of the daguerreotype was only made possible thanks to “the liberality of the French government” thanks to which “this invention is no longer the privilege of a single person, but common property”.
Carlo Fontana soon turned this hobby into a job, producing daguerreotype portraits for gentle high society maidens and financiers in tailcoats. But these early daguerreotypes, flickering images of a bygone Trieste, were lost.
Seven years later, in 1846, Ferdinand Brosy came to Trieste for a short time: a Prussian living in Venice who worked as a travelling photographer with his wife and daughter, wandering between Padua, Rovigo and Verona.

For a nobleman like Fontana, the daguerreotype was a pleasant pastime, but soon photography became a real job.
The first to move in this direction were the German couple Gerothwohl & Thanner from Frankfurt.
According to an advertisement at the time, they received clients in a studio located at the Hotel de France, No. 7, third floor, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The two photographers did not produce daguerreotypes, however, but used “calotype”. This was a technique for developing images of lesser quality than the daguerreotype: the photograph was fixed on paper and there was mainly a negative with which to produce multiple images.
Photography was on its way to becoming mass market and affordable for everyone.
The German couple on the occasion promised that their works were “more acceptable to the eye than the same engravings and lithographs and can be coloured and even taken up to watercolour”.

[Sources: Italo Zannier, Fotografia e fotografi a Trieste, in La Bora, n.3, April-May 1980]

[Zeno Saracino]