The Photographic Archive of Milan, Sforza Castle


By Giorgio Zaccaria. A circus artist, ca. 1880, silver bromide print

I just have to write about the Photographic Archive of Milan, not only in aid to those who may need to do research there, but also because it is such a great metaphor for Italy in general. Located in one of the wings of the magnificent Sforza Castle, a brief walk from the Duomo, it is really a pleasure to wander around its vast cobblestone yard before venturing inside.

But, the first surprise: it’s open only in the morning. And materials are available by prior appointment. You need to go in person first and explore the card catalog, arranged by subject matter.  Said catalog is only partially digitized and can be found online along with all other public photography collections in Lombardy. Then you can place an order for what your heart desires. However, the staff is so extremely Italianly nice that they offered, in case I needed it in the future, to do any research for me and even send me scans of the images.


Anyway, your patience and skill in navigating the system will be richly rewarded. Established at the beginning of the 20th century and a bit smaller than its more famed older sibling, the Alinari in Florence, the archive is priceless in knowing Italian society, especially before the big changes that transformed the country in 1907. You can witness inaugurations of now historic projects and spaces that don’t exist anymore. You can meet circus artists and street beggars as well as important personalities from politics and cinema. And especially, you can touch and admire old prints done in historic processes: daguerreotype, salt, bromide, albumen.

Besides the historical information, though, exploring this archive has been a deja-vu first-hand insight for me on the nature of photography. It is difficult to recognize it in recent photographs, but by looking at lots of old photos at a time you can’t help but notice their constructed nature. While recent pictures seem to present what’s around us in a seemingly objective, natural way, the aesthetics and bias of older images becomes apparent as your eyes distill the cliches of poses and angles. But it’s not that old photographs are just prone to that. All photos are constructs, but we don’t notice that in recent images since we are steeped in the very culture they come from and have imbibed the same biases and aesthetics.

Also, the choice of subject matter. I wish we had more images of interiors and family life of ordinary people, for example, but photographers of a hundred years ago have given priority to architecture and studio portraits instead, because to them, that was important or worthy of documentation. Makes me wonder what subject matter we are neglecting nowadays that will be of interest to people in 50 or 100 years.  Or is there such a thing as visual neglect today at all, if each and every thing around is being captured in pixels?

Here are two more recent prints from the archive:


By Mario Dondolo, “The man who wanted to reach the moon” (Mayfest in the village of Accentura, Lucania), 1993

Ferdinando Scianna, from his series Advertising Landscapes

By Ferdinando Scianna, from his series Advertising Landscapes (1975)


3 responses to “The Photographic Archive of Milan, Sforza Castle

  1. Just met the author of a book of selected photos of Solomon Butcher called “Light on the Prairie”. Photos of sod houses and other scenes on the Nebraska prairie from about 1880-1917. Really interesting. The whole photo collection can be browsed at : Enjoyed this post and yes I am jealous. I live vicariously through my friends. Thanks.

  2. Gene, thank you for the link – it’s a precious collection. I am wondering if photographers’ interest in common people – and not just random, unidentified subject on the street but people represented within their personal environment and histories – was more pronounced in the US than in Europe in the 19th century.

  3. Pingback: Dangerous Heights | Parasol Photography

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