Giorgio Sommer was the ninth child born to Georg and Anna Margaretha Gauff Sommer on September 2, 1834 in Frankfurt, Germany. The senior Sommer was a prosperous innkeeper who provided a comfortable life for his family. He gifted his impressionable young son with a camera, which would become an early tool of the trade when his father’s excessive gambling debts required young Giorgio to help support his large family. After an apprenticeship with the Andreas and Sons studio, Mr. Sommer opened his own gallery in 1853, at the age of 19.
After enjoying early success in Germany and Switzerland, Mr. Sommer went to Italy, first to Rome and later to Naples, which became his home and later his center of operations. On a trip to Rome, he met fellow German expatriate Edmondo Behles, with whom he formed a seven-year partnership, in which the duo specialized in portraits. However, by 1862, Mr. Sommer shifted his focus to Neapolitan street life. In 1866, Mr. Behles decided to remain in Rome while Mr. Sommer focused on the Naples gallery he established at Via Mario dei Fiori 28. During this period, he developed close friendships with several German photographers working in Italy, including Alfredo Noack, Michael Mang, Gustav Reiger, and Wilhelm Osvald Ufer, with whom he exchanged photographic techniques and shared a passion for archaeology. Mr. Sommer's areas of expertise expanded to include artistic reproductions, topography, and ancient ruins, which attracted the attention of Sardinian King Victor Emmanuel II, who promptly proclaimed him official royal photographer.
Mr. Sommer's regional photographs combined creativity with historical authenticity as he chronicled the classical histories of Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius while documenting several important works of art. After several location changes, Mr. Sommer permanently settled in the fashionable Naples district of Piazza della Vittoria. His successful teaming with archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli generated additional income as employees also doubled as tour guides, who charged admissions at location sites, and sold historical photographs to tourists while earning commissions. The German transplant's dual status as a foreigner and aristocrat allowed him “to distill to its maximum extent the two opposite eighteenth-century tendencies of picturesque and documentary view.” His panoramic photographs required numerous wet-plate glass negatives that were developed on-site, and then later transferred to the studio for printing. He won several awards at various exhibitions throughout London, Nuremberg, Paris, and Vienna. He also wrote for the Philadelphia Photographer and provided the illustrations for Italy's Baedeker guidebooks. His unparalleled professional reputation led to several lucrative commissions, including the decade-long Switzerland railway network project, which required several mountain views.
When Giorgio Sommer died on August 7, 1914 at the age of 79, his photographic legacy appeared secure. When his studio closed two years later, his nephew gave Mr. Sommer's prints to a gentleman named Bruno La Barbera, who inexplicably destroyed them. Sadly, his once extensive plate archive no longer exists, and Mr. Sommer's scant remaining photographs only can only be found in limited public and privately owned collections.
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 1310-1312.
2017 Giorgio Sommer, Mt. Vesuvius, ca. 1880 (URL: https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/95.414).
2017 Self Portrait of Giorgio Sommer with His Son Edmondo 1864 (URL: http://www.luminous-lint.com/app/photographer/Giorgio__Sommer/A).
2010 Italy in Early American Cinema: Race, Landscape, and the Picturesque by Giorgio Bertellini (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press), pp. 7, 55-56, 63.
2012 The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection by Victoria C. Gardner Coates, Kenneth Lapatin and Jon L. Seydl (Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum), pp. 221-222, 226.
2005 The Villa Dei Papiri at Herculaneum: Life and Afterlife of a Sculpture Collection by Carol C. Mattusch (Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Trust), p. 114.
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