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La Camera di Canaletto? Posted by on Apr 4, 2009 in Culture, Italian Language

Speaking of misleading words (see my recent series ‘Misleading Word of the Day’), another word that I have often seen included in lists of so called ‘falsi amici’ (false friends) or false cognates is ‘camera’. I don’t however consider ‘camera’ a ‘false friend’ but rather a ‘helpful friend’ because it is one of the many Italian words which can help you to understand the Latin elements in English a bit better, and perhaps to learn a little history at the same time.

‘Camera’ in Italian means ‘room’, whereas the gadget that we use to take photographs is called a macchina fotografica (literally a ‘photographic machine’). But it is not really true that the Italian ‘camera’ and the English ‘camera’ are two completely different things, and to understand why that is, we need to delve into the fascinating history of photography.

For centuries artists and scientists had profited from the phenomena whereby an inverted image could be projected upon a surface, such as a wall for example, inside a ‘camera obscura’ (Latin for ‘darkened chamber’), by allowing light to enter through a tiny hole which acted as a simple lens. In 1545 the first published illustration of the ‘camera obscura’, commonly known as the ‘pinhole camera’, appeared in a book by the Dutch mathematician and astronomer Gemma Frisius.

In the 16th century the pinhole camera was enhanced by the addition of a convex glass lens. The Venetian author Daniele Barboro, in a perspective manual for architects and artists, described how to draw from an image projected by a ‘camera obscura’ onto a paper screen. The early ‘camera obscura’ obviously had many limitations, not the least of which being that, as you had to physically get inside it, it certainly wasn’t portable! The next logical development therefore was to place the ‘observer’ outside the camera and this was achieved by means of shrinking the room to the size of a portable box with the lens on one side and a ground glass screen, onto which the image was projected, on the opposite side.

With the development of a practical and portable piece of kit the possibility of producing works of art on an almost industrial scale appeared alluringly to many ambitious artists. One of the best known of these was the Venetian painter Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto (1697-1768). Canaletto would employ his ‘camera obscura’ in situ to make a detailed drawing of the view commissioned by his client. This preparatory ‘sketch’ would then be elaborated and ‘colored in’ in his studio. Canaletto’s use of this technique helps to explain two notable aspects of his work: firstly his incredibly accurate perspective and proportioning, and secondly his prodigious output. Canaletto’s original ‘camera obscura’ has been preserved in the Correr Museum, Venice.

The first ‘photographic’ cameras were developed directly from this later type of ‘camera obscura’ by Fox Talbot and the French pioneers of photography, Niépce and Daguerre, who invented light sensitive plates which were placed inside the ‘chamber’ or ‘camera’ in order to capture the image projected by the lens. These days of course the image is captured digitally, but nevertheless the basis of the digital camera is still a ‘camera obscura’, that is a darkened chamber with a lens on one side and a means of capturing the image on the other.

So now you see why I say that the English word ‘camera’ and the Italian word camera are not two different things, it is simply that the English name for the photographic ‘camera’ is a shortened version of ‘camera obscura’. In Italian we still use the word camera oscura (n.b. we drop the ‘b’ in Italian) to mean photographic dark room, although with the advent of digital photography this is of course gradually disappearing.

Just remember, next time you are visiting Italy if you tell the shop assistant ‘vorrei delle pile per la mia camera’ you might get some strange looks as you will be asking for some batteries for your room!

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  1. B Pratt:

    Very interesting, thankfully when I was in Italy I didn’t ask for battteries specifically for my “room”

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