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Travels to the East
Photographs from Africa in Casa Martelli
Napoleon’s military campaigns brought to a peak the exotic and mysterious fascination that the Middle East and Mediterranean Africa exert on westerners. In the following decades travellers, artists, archaeologists and scholars traversed these unknown sands. The unusual and striking atmosphere of the regions and landscapes of the East thus became the favourite subject of photographers; between 1869 and 1900 there were over 250 in Cairo, 100 of them French.
There was an authentic boom in commercial production, winning over a clientele of tourists who began to throng to the East from the 1860s on; after the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, Egypt became the favourite destination of travellers.
An unparalleled contribution to this was made by the sensitive and talented French photographer Émile Béchard, who from 1869 to 1873 had a studio in via Mousky in the Ezbekiya district of Cairo, where he lived up to 1880. His name is frequently associated with that of another French photographer, Hippolyte Délié, and the prints were frequently signed: Béchard, E. Béchard, or H. Béchard. The latter signature has indeed led several scholars to suggest the existence of another photographer, an alleged Henri Béchard. It was instead Hippolyte’s brother, who never worked in Egypt, who was responsible for the broad circulation of Émile’s photographs, which led to his being awarded the gold medal at the Universal Exposition of Paris in 1889 for the work L’Égypte et la Nubie: grand album monumental, historique, architectural.
In addition to the impressive work on the great monuments of ancient Egypt, Émile Béchard also achieved a fine reputation for genre scenes and portraits of the peoples of north Africa, as illustrated by the photographs on display in the exhibition.
An affluent clientele, driven by the urge to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land or to discover the sites of Egypt, particularly appreciated the images of the streets of Cairo and the everyday life of the population.
The photo collection of Casa Martelli offers a perfect example of this: the 24 intense portraits were indeed purchased by Carlo Martelli (1850-1945), father of the last generation whose legacy we have inherited, during his travels in the Holy Land in the company of a group of Florentine friends. The caravan, which left from Livorno on 26 August and returned to Italy on 24 October 1879, took in Alexandria, Cairo Port Said and Jaffa, moving on to the hallowed sites of the Holy Land, including Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Emmaus and the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth and finally Damascus and Beirut, from where it returned by sea to Alexandria.
The young Carlo, fascinated by the colours, the light and the costumes of the peoples, relived with the greatest interest and attention the experience shared by the travellers, the painters and not least the photographers, who had sought with sensitivity and technical assistance to immortalise them.
Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali
Direzione Regionale per i Beni Culturali e Paesaggistici della Toscana
Soprintendenza Speciale per il Patrimonio Storico, Artistico ed Etnoantropologico e per il Polo Museale della città di Firenze
Museo di Casa Martelli
Curated byFrancesca Fiorelli Malesci
Exhibition ManagementMonica Bietti
6 June - 11 July 2013
5 September - 7 November 2013