Our Heritage Collections colleague Angela Mandrioli writes about seeing her native Italy through the stereoscope; looking at a set of cards in this original 3D format and an accompanying book from over a century ago held in our collections. 

The first time I looked through a stereoscope I wasn't very impressed. All I could see was a couple of almost identical photographs which looked out of focus. Then, later on, I stumbled on a collection of late 19th century stereographic views of Italy which was arranged in a set entitled ‘Italy through the Stereoscope, Journeys in and about Italian Cities’ and produced by Underwood & Underwood based in New York and London, c1903 [EXE BD 42649]. It was an interesting find for an Italian living in England and I already wanted to know more. Who took the photographs and what did Italians look like over a hundred years ago? So I asked for help and with a bit more advice from the cinema experts, a 'new' old world in 3D finally opened up in front of my eyes, directly from the past. It turned out that watching stereographs involved a couple more tricks than looking at a plain 2D photograph. A stereograph needs to be adjusted on a stereoscope until it is in focus and the eyes need a few seconds to adjust to the image. Due diligence in following instructions payed off and immersive scenes of Italian cities at the turn of the 20th century came to life, populated with people living over a 100 years ago. The illusion was working.

I wonder how viewers must have been surprised when watching at those same images for the first time, looking at scenes suddenly ‘very real’ indeed, thanks to the depth of perspective re-created by a stereoscope. It must have been an incredibly immersive experience. It was fairly affordable too and sold to customers in America and Europe. Underwood & Underwood, the publishers, made their fortune selling stereoscopes and stereocards door to door to the American public from the early 1880s. Box sets were subsequently introduced by the company, often around a specific theme[1]. Travel sets were also popular, promising the viewer the nearest substitute of a real journey to Italy at a fraction of the cost.

This particular set of stereographs, comes in a box including 100 stereoscopic views of Italy taken between 1894 and 1908 and a guide book with commentary to supplement the stereographs. Many of the stereoscopic images include a brief title under the image and in some cases a brief explanatory note on the back of each card. Instructions on how to best view stereographs are also given[2]. Almost half of the stereographs are about Rome, the Italian Capital. The remaining half covers South and North Italy or more precisely what looks like an idea of South and North Italy as seen by tourists and foreign travellers. Southern Italy for example stops by the Amalfi coast, and is geographically limited to the coast between Naples and Amalfi, including the Vesuvius volcano, Pompeii and Herculaneum. There is no mention of other southern regions like Calabria, Puglia or the islands, Sicily and Sardinia. Northern Italy is only slightly better covered, including mainly Tuscany with Pisa, Florence and Carrara, but also the cities of Milan and Genoa, the centres for business of the time, and Venice on the Adriatic coast. On a more personal level, I can't help noticing that all the main cities in Emilia Romagna, my own region, are missing, so no stereoscopic views of Bologna, Ferrara or Modena will come to light this time.

What is there and what is missing tells its own story.

The itinerary is a classic itinerary for foreign tourists. It recalls the Grand Tour, with its associated standard stops at Venice, Florence, Pisa, the key centres for Renaissance arts, Rome with its classic antiquities and Naples with its archaeological sites but with a few differences: Milan and Genoa instead of Turin; no mention of Bologna and Padua.

Turin being left out is a bit of a surprise at first for the city played a significant role in the recent history of the time, only 30 odd years before, resulting in the Unification of Italy in 1871 [and it even became its capital briefly after 1861]. But it is perhaps less so after reading Ellison's introduction to Milan as an 'attractive and progressive' city 'having a population of nearly half a million and constituting the financial and industrial centre of Italy'[3]. The focus here seems to be on modernity, industry and business, hence the preference. The reference to demographics is interesting too. Even if the figures are underestimated, still it indicates a population growing at a fast rate in the cities of Northern Italy. Milan alone will exceed one million people by the 1911 census[4], almost twice in size in just 30 years. Turin would soon catch up, with FIAT automobile company becoming a very successful industry. 

Genoa's presence might hint again to wealth and banks which might have been interesting for a foreign public attentive to the financial world and investment opportunities overseas.

The omissions of images of the South of Italy thicken the plot of the stereocard industry even more. Let’s focus on their market. It is increasingly evident to me that these stereocards were not meant for an Italian audience. It’s more likely they were made for tourists and in particular for an American audience. It would explain why commentary on the back on some of the cards appears in several languages (English, French, German, Spanish and Russian) but not in Italian.

Furthermore, it must have been a select part of the American public who were targeted through door-to-door canvassing, perhaps only people living in specific quarters and streets of the American cities and towns. There are social implications of course. Let’s think about the large scale emigration from South of Italy to North America from the second half of the 19th century. Where are the voices of all those emigrants? Their absence is a hint that the stereographic market boom might have targeted a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant audience from a middle class background rather than immigrants. Those were also potential tourists rather than homesick migrants from Southern Italy. Other chunks of American society, those at the margins, might have been equally excluded, because of class or skin colour.

What is there?

Looking through the stereoscope I see stereographs framing cityscapes and scenic views of the major Italian cities of the time. Famous buildings, and historical monuments are also abundant as it would be expected from a classic tourist guide.

Clearly focus here is on art and 'classic art' in particular. People are mostly used as picturesque props on the foreground. Not quite what I was initially expecting in terms of everyday candid shots! Even the bodies of the ancient inhabitants of Pompeii, buried in lava after the eruption of Vesuvio in 79 A. D. get more attention than the contemporaries in flesh and bones[5].

The Rome set for example almost feels like a tour of Ancient Rome, complete with Colosseum, forum, Pantheon, Capitol and aqueducts (see featured image EXEBD 62444) . The historical perspective is significant in the commentary as well. For example the comment on Roman card 33 reads 'Sacra via, over which Rome's triumphal pageants passed'. Past history, Kings, Republic, Empire, Papacy are all covered extensively in the 'Story of Rome', the fourth part of the book Stereoscopic Tour of Italy, whilst more recent history of United Italy is relegated to one mere page at the end of the section[6].


[EXEBD 62435]


The absence of most recent history in favour of classical history in Rome and Renaissance in the North of Italy isn't surprising. After all the set was arranged with commentary by classicists: Daniel James Ellison and his editor James Egbert, University professor of Latin, Archaeology and Epigraphy at Columbia University. Stereographs might have also been intended for students and possible use in teaching even though their audience was much wider. Indeed James Egbert writes in his introduction that stereographs are 'the most valuable means of obtaining a knowledge of that land, particularly when it is impossible for the student to supplement information obtained from books by an actual visit to the places themselves'.

Scenic views such as the image of the Tiber above are also abundant in this set. Again this is no coincidence.

William Darrah points out that stereographs of European cities tended to be 'within the frame of serene and picturesque views without hints of political turmoil that was happening in Europe'[7].

It would be interesting to learn more about how familiar American audiences were with contemporary events in Europe and by which sources did they get this news. More stereographs might come to light with further delving in the museum collections to help clarifying this aspect. Like the ones of the First World War, with vividly documented battles and life in the trenches. Stereographs would have helped in filling in a gap in the market of the time, from the 1850s when newspapers only used lithographs and engravings, until the 1930s when photographic images start being incorporated in the press and picture houses and cinema become popular.

Was the perspective filtered?

How did the stereographic views of Italy contribute to creating an American perception of Italy abroad? And they must have had an impact on people’s imagination as stereographs were popular, extremely so according to Ian Christie, who gave a talk on the topic at the museum in 2016[8].

Continental stereographs in America were mainly imported prior to 1890 - only a few were bought by tourists directly in Europe - so in fact they were produced by a few large publishers like Underwood & Underwood who employed stereographers for that purpose. The stereo views were mostly commissioned from American or foreign stereographers instead of employing local photographers. Freelance stereographers selling negatives to publishing companies were also foreigners. Sometimes publisher and stereographer would even coincide. This was the case with Bert Underwood, one of the two brothers who set up the Underwood Company for example and authored some of the stereo views of Italy in the travel sets[9]. If the publishers and the stereographers were both tourists, I feel I might be looking here at a filtered point of view, an American idea of Italy and ‘Italianness’. They would take all the photographs needed in one or more journeys instead of employing local photographers who might have portrayed a more realistic or genuine view of Italy. Staging people on the scene might also have contributed in reinforcing stereotypical perceptions of Italians as seen by an American audience.  


 EXEBD 62416

Beyond the surface

If we look closer however, more comes to surface. There are brief glimpses of Italy at the turn of the century, unintentional clues of a bigger socio-historical picture.

In particular, aspects of post-Unification Italy are gradually emerging, as I look at the stereographs.

Modernization and improvements in infrastructure for example. In particular new train lines, like the recently opened railway connecting Genoa with Rome, via Pisa, which is mentioned in the 1899 Thomas Cook's Tourist Handbook, intended for British tourists: 'Several new lines of railway have been opened lately in Italy, but none of greater importance than that which connects Genoa with Spezia and Pisa by the far-famed route of the Riviera, thus completing the connections of the Corniche Line with the coast route from Genoa to Rome'[10]. In the Genoa’s section of the same Cook's handbook, I also find a reference to trains being able to perform the 312 miles journey between Genoa and Rome in 'just' twelve hours for the first time. Quite an achievement for the time[11].

Our set includes stereographs of a few places along the same train line, Genoa, Carrara and Pisa, all images dating between 1897 and 1902. A train station building can be seen in card 69 right in the middle of a view of Genoa 'from the Rosazza Gardens', 1897, with coverage in the corresponding explanation in the guide[12]. Finally, there is a mention of the steamship Hamburg -American line connecting Genoa and New York in the adjacent stereograph[13], a detail which might have been relevant to any potential American tourists.

EXEBD 62483 Genoa Train Station

As tourist destinations gradually become more accessible, thanks to investment in infrastructures in the newly united Italy and with modernity initially driven by foreign capital or even foreign built trains, it is possible to see links with the beginning of a new phenomenon: mass tourism.

It would be interesting to find out to what extent business initiatives from foreign companies, such as British travel companies Murray from the 1840s-50s, Thomas Cook and Henry Lunn from the second half of the century[14], just to mention a few, played a role in boosting mass tourism in Italy towards the end of the 19th century.

In his 1911 ‘Gourmet’s Guide to Europe’, Lieutenant Colonel Newnham-Davis for example would pick up on this new phenomenon, describing the several hotels ‘which have risen at all the beauty spots of the Italian lakes’ like ‘huge new modern hotels’ and more emphatically as ‘much decorated monster neighbours’ in comparison to the ‘shabby old Italian inns and taverns’. ‘The cookery is French and the food has no national characteristics’ he finally remarks, suggesting that those businesses are aimed at foreign tourists[15]

Did factors like travel guides and travel agencies make Italy more accessible to a wider international public, in Europe and in America?

Did foreign capital in Italy influence the choice of investments in infrastructure and the routes which were prioritized, in the North rather than in the South?

Our set of stereographs aimed, as it seems, at a middle class American audience might give a few clues. The absence of stereographs in the Southern regions particularly send the message that venturing beyond the Amalfi coast might not have been a popular choice for foreign tourists. Travelling in the South even after the Unification of Italy was difficult due to issues like safety, bandits, lack of infrastructure and absence of a common Italian language, all elements of a bigger post-unification economic and social picture described by the contemporaries as the 'Southern Question'.

The linguistic barrier was a factor too. I knew that the lack of a common Italian language spoken by all Italians was already a well-known and debated issue by contemporary Italian intellectuals and politicians but I was surprised to find out that foreigners were also aware of it and its practical implications. The introduction to the Northern Italy section immediately touches on the several dialects: 'a man speaking the Neapolitan dialect cannot be understood by a man speaking the Milanese, and the Roman dialect is not intelligible to a man acquainted only with the Venetian'[16].

Contagious disease breakouts were also common and were therefore another element for consideration when travelling. In the guide there are references to epidemics like for example 'the ravages of the Roman fever' in the countryside between Rome and Naples[17] and precarious sanitary conditions in certain areas: increasing street cleaning cost is mentioned at Card 44, 'Along the Appian Way' and Card 46, about the 'Aqueduct of Claudius', points out that ‘Rome is still the best watered city in the world’, outperforming London and Paris for sewers, a comment which could perhaps be compared to ‘hygiene ratings’ of the modern times[18]; health reforms had been initiated during the 1880s by prime minister Crispi, who first introduced the concept of ‘public health’ with the state being held responsible for its citizens’ health. Crispi being mentioned in the guide as one of Italy’s ‘great statesmen’ might say something of what was known of Italian affairs abroad[19].

 EXEBD 62460 Aqueduct of Claudius

Poverty and a significant divide between what looks like 'Two Italys' also emerge: the South in extreme poverty in contrast with the richer, financial and industrial North. Ellison's introduction to Northern Italy is quite eloquent in this respect: 'We bid farewell to Southern Italy, with its wealth of history, its opulence of scenery and its burden of poverty, and turn with hearts eager and expectant to the famous and beautiful cities that lie to the North'. The choice of words in the commentary emphasizes the contrast: words like 'indolent', 'ignorant', 'hot-headed and impulsive', convey a negative connotation of Southern Italy in contrast with the North, described as 'progressive', 'intelligent', 'well poised and characterized by self-restraint'[20].

Comments and images are also loaded with assumptions of the time. For example the opinion that poverty is the Southerners' fault rather than the result of a wider social, economic and political context. It was the time of liberalistic and laissez-faire theories in business and politics; Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, first published in 1859, and social determinism. On the other side, socialist views were also gaining ground as social concern for the conditions of the poor and a push for social reforms to address inequalities increased and writers, like Charles Dickens, would voice those concerns in their novels.

Both sides are represented in our set of stereo cards. Hints at deterministic theories and possibly social Darwinism can be found in view 48 depicting Lazzaroni, the poorest people of Naples. The scene is described as ‘a scene for degenerate character study’ reminiscent of Darwin’s ‘Descent of Man’ and Shakespeare’s witches. The writer adds that ‘a large class of such people could be produced only in a city where the climate is conducive to laziness, making any effort wearisome and as a rule, idleness and crime go hand in hand’; ‘selfishness here as elsewhere is a prevailing characteristic’[21]. It also implies that it is the poor people’s choice to live ‘without the burden of house rent and taxes’ ignoring further contributing political, economic and social factors[22].

Attention for social inequality on the other hand can be found in the Naples commentary: 'The peasants of Italy are the hardest working people in the world and yet they are miserably poor'[23]; in Italy, as in America, taxation is unequal; ‘It is this excessive taxation, combined with the inequality of its distribution, that drives more than one hundred thousand people out of Italy every year’[24] hinting at widespread inequality and poverty as contributing to large scale emigration.

Charles Dickens, who lived in Italy for a while, is mentioned in the commentary to a stereograph depicting a boy working in the marble quarries of Carrara [25]. A foreign audience would have been still very familiar with the author and his most famous novels like ‘Oliver Twist’. Furthermore Dicken had visited America twice during his life time, and was still popular there.


EXEBD 62462 The 'Lazzaroni' of Naples

EXEBD 62487 Child worker in a quarry

This turned out to be a great set of images of Italy from the past, all in 3D. Thanks to this incredible collection of stereographs and other material in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum I was able to explore a few questions about how Italy and Italians were perceived abroad over a hundred years ago. Because of the immersive quality of the stereo views, Americans believed they knew Italy but this in return had implications about audiences themselves and their context.

Take a look at the catalogue of the museum's holdings on the website to find out more about material mentioned in this blog and much more.

[1] EXE BD 42666, William C. Darrah, The World of Stereographs, 1977, p 46-48.

[2] EXE BD 42649, p. 20, ‘Italy through the Stereoscope, Journeys in and about Italian Cities’, compiled by Daniel James Ellison and edited by James C Egbert, Underwood & Underwood, New York and London, 3rd edition.

[3] EXE BD 42649, p 468-469.

[5] EXE BD 42649, stereograph 61.

[6] EXE BD 42649, p 545.

[7] EXE BD 42666, ‘The World of Stereographs’ by William C Darrah, 1977.

[8] Notes from public talk 'The great 3D scandal: how stereoscopy got written out of history' by Professor Ian Christie, Bill Douglas cinema Museum, 5 Oct 2016.

[9] EXE BD 42666, William C. Darrah, The World of Stereographs, 1977, p 47.

[10] p 27, Cook's Tourist's Handbook for 'Southern Italy, Rome, and Sicily, London, Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co, 1899, accessed via ‘Historical Texts’

[11] p 27, Cook's Tourist's Handbook for 'Southern Italy, Rome, and Sicily, London, Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co, 1899, accessed via ‘Historical Texts’

[12] EXE BD 42649, p. 397-398.

[13] EXE BD 42649, stereograph 68; explanation at p 390 of the guide.

[14] ‘An Introduction to Italy’, section from The Travel Handbook & Calendar Winter 1910-11, Continental Travel LTD, London 1911, pp 144-163, including Italy as a Spring destination, complete with a map of travel routes from England to Italy and routes in Italy and comprehensive itineraries, costs and transport;
‘Murray’s Handbooks for Travellers’, published by John Murray, London, included several editions about Northern and Southern Italy through the 19th century: for example ‘A Handbook for Travellers in Northern Italy’; ‘A handbook of Rome and the Campagna’;
The ‘Cook's Tourist's Handbook’, London: Thomas Cook & Son, series included editions about Northern and Southern Italy.

[15] Lieutenant Colonel Newnham-Davis, The Gourmet’s Guide to Europe, Grant Richards LTD Publishers : London, 1911, p. 235.

[16] EXE BD 42649, p 387.

[17] EXE BD 42649, stereograph 46, p. 279 of the guide.

[18] EXE BD 42649, stereograph 44, 275; stereograph 46, p. 279.

[19] EXE BD 42649, stereograph 24, p 168; commentary to stereograph 46 mentioning past outbreaks of Roman fever and sanitary precautions, p279.

[20] EXE BD 42649, p. 387.

[21] EXE BD 42649, view 48, p. 296-300 of the guide. See the contrast with Milan in the commentary to view 89, Milan … 'constituting the financial and industrial centre of Italy… commercial capital of Italy' p. 469; ‘its chief manufacturers are silk and woollen goods, gloves, machinery, carriages and art furniture’ p. 469; ‘you may see a tourist gazing with wonder and amazement at all this vast wealth of beauty’ p. 473; 'in no other city in Italy can be seen such a display of fashion and jewels as may be witnessed here at any great social function' p. 474.

[22] See above.

[23] See above.

[24] EXE BD 42649, p. 307-308.

[25] EXE BD 42649, stereograph 73, p 407.

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