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The Genius of Félix Bonfils Volume 54 Number 3, May/June 2001
by Andrew Szegedy-Maszak

Rare images of the monuments of ancient Athens by a nineteenth-century virtuoso


Athens panorama made by Bonfils around 1870, shows the city's small size and now-vanished medieval tower on the Acropolis. (Courtesy the Princeton University Library) [LARGER IMAGE]

In 1867, Félix Bonfils left his home in the south of France and moved with his wife Lydie and their two young children to Beirut. Félix had some prior knowledge of Lebanon, having served there in the French army. He and Lydie believed that the country's hot, dry climate would be good for their boy, Adrien, who suffered from respiratory ailments. Shortly after their arrival, Félix and Lydie founded one of the best-known and most prolific commercial photographic studios of its time.

The Maison Bonfils, as it came to be called, ultimately made several sizable albums, as well as tens of thousands of individual prints and stereo cards (paired images mounted on a card that, when viewed through a stereoscope, produce a three-dimensional effect). In 1871, a scant four years after the family's arrival in Lebanon, Félix wrote a letter to the Société Française de Photographie, in which he reported that his studio had produced 591 negatives from various sites around the eastern Mediterranean, "principally pictures of Jerusalem," but also views of Egypt, Syria, and Greece. These negatives, moreover, had yielded 15,000 individual prints and 9,000 stereo views. One modern historian of photography has noted with admiration the Bonfils' "astoundingly energetic activity."

Thanks to the bequest of an early twentieth-century faculty member, Rudolf-Ernst Brünnow, the rare books collection of Princeton University's Firestone Library owns over 800 Bonfils photographs. Because Brünnow's scholarly specialty was the Roman province of Arabia, on which he published a massive three-volume study, most of the photographs in his archive are from the Near East. Along with numerous views of Jerusalem, Damascus, and Beirut, the collection includes 42 views of Athens. These latter were all made by Bonfils during two visits to the city, in 1868 and 1875, and they record the major monuments, particularly those on and around the Acropolis.

Viewed objectively, the Bonfils photographs provide valuable information about the condition of the ancient monuments and the urban landscape of Athens more than 125 years ago. In addition, they illustrate the most important stations on a traveler's itinerary and the preferred points of view from which the monuments and city were to be seen. Today we can appreciate such photographs both as beautiful compositions and as documents that help to illuminate nineteenth-century cultural history. In 1877, in the preface to Souvenirs d'Orient, an album of photographs published by Bonfils, the writer Georges Charvet proclaimed, "The philosopher and the scholar will wish to stop and reflect before these old traces of vanished ages, which relate history better than does history itself."

Andrew Szegedy-Maszak is a professor of classical studies at Wesleyan University and a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America