RMG – Getting to know Don Bosco: the most popular photos used in the Salesian world

27 January 2023
Schemboche, Turin, 1880

(ANS - Rome) – In thinking about a person one has not known personally, but is familiar with, a specific, precise image immediately comes to mind. Which one? The one we like the most because it meets our own expectations or the one we have seen most often? One is not always able to answer and sometimes various images overlap in one’s memory. To understand which image of Don Bosco has been formed in us, it is appropriate to examine which ones have been most used and passed down through the generations.

From the analysis conducted by Fr. Giuseppe Soldà for his book "Don Bosco in the Photography of the 1800s (1861-1888), an image of Don Bosco emerged as humble, simple, illuminated by his smile and loving gaze. Even the photos that are published in early dissemination tools are those in which Don Bosco presents these characteristics of amiability and gentleness.

The image that most widely circulated initially was the one retouched by Giuseppe Rollini, a painter and former pupil of Don Bosco's Oratory, from the Luzzati photographs. It is a photo belonging to a series of shots taken in 1886, while Don Bosco was engaged in a journey to reach Salesian homes in Spain. On the way, he stopped, as he was wont to do, at another Salesian house, that of Sampierdarena, in Genoa, to encourage the Salesians and to resume contact with friends and sympathizers of his work.

On March 16 of that year, while Don Bosco was in Sampierdarena and about to leave for Varazze, Marquis Spinola arrived to meet him, with a photographer in tow. To please him, Don Bosco accepted, although he was already on the point of leaving. Although in a hurry, and while the train engineer, out of devotion to Don Bosco, had the departure of the convoy postponed, Mr. Angelo Ferretto, operator of the Gustavo Luzzati factory in Genoa, captured three poses, obtaining some of the most beautiful photos of Don Bosco.

Subsequently, as mentioned, Rollini executed both a portrait from the photos and a retouching of the third pose taken at Sampiedarena, the one in which Don Bosco with folded hands looks into the camera. And because the retouched copy came out very well, it was reproduced and circulated by Luzzati himself.

In this version the retouching had further embellished the shot, making it more artistic: the wrinkles are smoothed out, the eyes retouched, the smile softened, the face refined, two pierced arms were added to the armchair to give it more majesty, and the folds of the robe were also taken care of. The picture thus turned out to be extremely resembling, and at the same time fully met people's expectations. It had considerable popularity and circulation, and for a time remained the official image.

Then, about a century ago, in the 1920s, as the Beatification of Don Bosco approached, the need arose to represent holiness iconically as well, making people prefer shots in which Don Bosco appeared more imposing and charismatic. Thus, it was that a photo of those that appeared in the portfolio of Michele Schemboche, a Polish-born painter and pupil of Nadar, came to the fore. The photo in question was taken precisely in Turin, Italy, in 1880, and is sometimes also known as "Don Bosco in an armchair," although its most famous version then carries a half-length cut, and is also often framed in an oval.

The photo fully conveys the taste and culture that society demanded for the time: a more hieratic and solemn Don Bosco, and with modifications, in fact, became the official image of Don Bosco's Beatification and then Canonization, which inspired the painter Angelo Enrie.


ANS - “Agenzia iNfo Salesiana” is a on-line almost daily publication, the communication agency of the Salesian Congregation enrolled in the Press Register of the Tibunal of Rome as n 153/2007.

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