Restored 1896 Footage May Reveal New Details Of Pope Leo XIII, Earliest-Born Person On Film

[This piece was originally published in Religion Unplugged.]

A restoration project on YouTube has rendered a short piece of film depicting Pope Leo XIII into never-before seen quality.

David Martin, owner of the “” channel on YouTube, shared his restoration of the public domain film on Oct. 18. The colorized and refurbished video is made up of three segments: Pope Leo XIII on a red throne in the Vatican gardens, the pontiff arriving in a horse-drawn carriage and Leo XIII taking a seat — flanked by two regally dressed men whose identities had been forgotten over the course of more than a century, until now.

Leo XIII appears visibly confused but also joyful and curious, looking into the lens and then consulting with his attendants as he poses for the camera. He repeatedly motions apostolic blessings with his hand to the audience, patiently standing up, sitting down and walking to his next destinations.

Martin took the time to set the scene to Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Jesu, der du meine Seele,” giving the silent film a more powerful ambience and conveying the magnitude of the moment.

“I chose this particular film because of the historical fact of being the earliest-born person ever filmed,” Martin told “This video of Pope Leo XIII was indeed a bit more challenging, since the original footage was more deteriorated than usual and this implied further processing.”

Just as complicated as the process of restoration is the process of verifying the original film’s production: Who are these men posing with the pontiff? Who is behind the camera? How did this photoshoot — the first of it’s kind — come to be?

“Perhaps it would be a good subject for a journalistic investigation,” Martin said, “assuming that there is still someone interested in this matter.”

Cross-referencing contemporary publications, fact-checking production credits and searching through the personal testimonies of those involved, the information begins to come together.

Crucially, however, it was the restored film’s color that held key pieces of evidence that may now confirm a contested recreation of events.

Piecing together the facts, the untold timeline of this photo shoot and the people behind — and in front of — the camera offers a very human and sympathetic story of technology and tradition awkwardly joining hands to create something once thought impossible.

The photographer in his own words

Asked about the project, Martin said that the original raw footage was filmed in 1896 by Vittorio Calcina, who was an operator for Lumiere Brothers and the first Italian film director.

Indeed, it is not uncommon for websites to list Calcina as a director. However, any primary sources including him as a director or cinematographer of the photo shoot prove elusive.

In reality, the film appears to have been captured by William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, which can be verified via contemporary accounts and reports published in multiple countries around the world. Dickson was a right-hand man to Thomas Edison and one the fathers of primitive cinema.

Dickson made a name for himself traveling the world with his film camera — which he referred to as a “Biograph” — and documenting the lives of royalty, military commanders and world leaders. His technology was so novel and his artistic vision so forward thinking that he would become the first person to capture on film many of the world’s most important leaders — including, if we are to take his word, the Roman pontiff.

However, even the Vatican’s own website makes the claim that a Calcina film came first, putting Dickson’s films after his.

“On February 26, 1896, a worker named Vittorio Calcina, on behalf of the Lumière brothers, had obtained permission to cross the thresholds of the Apostolic Palace with his instruments to film Pope Leo XIII while giving his blessing,” the Pontifical Council for Culture states. “A short time later, an Edison collaborator was able to film the same elderly Pontiff as he strolled through the Vatican gardens, for the benefit of the American faithful eager to see the Pope ‘in person.’”

But this claim, that Calcina was the photographer responsible for the famous film of the pope giving his Apostolic blessing and that Dickson’s involvement came later, does not hold up well.

The following passage was written by Dickson for Royal Magazine in 1901. In it, the filmmaker recounted his time at the Vatican and his interactions with the pontiff. He also offered a unique glimpse into the enthusiasm and surprise of Leo XIII upon seeing the history-making result:

Some time ago, an exhibition of Biograph pictures was given before President McKinley and some specially invited guests at Washington. Among the latter were the Apostolic Delegate, Mons. Martinelli, Cardinal Gibbons, and others. It occurred to these gentlemen that if the Biograph could obtain some pictures illustrative of the daily life of the Holy Father, it would be an excellent thing for the Roman Catholics of America, thousands upon thousands of whom would never otherwise be enabled to receive the Pope’s benediction.

I found the Pope a most lovable man, and owe much to his kindness. He took a great interest in the pictures, and on one occasion, having received some prints from London, I showed them to him. He was delighted, and exclaimed ‘Wonderful! wonderful! See me blessing!’ — referring to the one representing him giving the Apostolic blessing — and turning to Mons della Volpa, he added, ‘How splendid you look!’ All the time he held my hand, which he pressed affectionately.

To my application for the last picture, the Pope demurred. “What, another!’ said he. I pressed my request, explaining that it would bring joy to the hearts of many of my countrymen if he would graciously condescend. And he did.

After I had taken the first picture I was asked to give a guarantee I would not photograph any of the Royal family in Rome. I offered my earnest assurance that I would carry our their wishes and this materially assisted me in the remainder of my task. A visit to the Vatican gives one a vivid idea of Papal state, with the Swiss, Noble, and Palatine guards. In taking the views I had to don a black robe. None of the views may be shown in a place of secular amusement, nor without the authority of the Church.
(Emphasis added.)

A monsignor tags along

The “Mons. della Volpa” referenced in Dickson’s account refers to Francesco Salesio Della Volpe, who — with distinct spectacles and a receding hairline — appears attending to the pope at every moment throughout Martin’s fragment of Dickson’s recordings.

Until now, della Volpe has gone uncredited in his appearance alongside the pontiff.

Photos of Pope Leo XIII as they appear in Harper's Weekly (November 26, 1898)
Photos of Pope Leo XIII as they appear in Harper’s Weekly, Nov. 26, 1898.

At the time of the recording, he was serving as prefect of the Apostolic Chamber. Not too many years later, Leo XIII would make della Volpe into a cardinal.

Dickson more intimately related the story of the iconic Vatican Garden photo shoot in a November 1898 issue of Harper’s Weekly, in which he once mentioned della Volpe by name. When discussing della Volpe, Dickson noted a key detail that, until now, would have been impossible for the average investigator to cross-reference — the color of the costumes on film:

At the close of the interview, I said, ‘Holy Father, will you not complete the sum of my indebtedness by giving me one more sitting in the garden by the Summer Villa?’ He laughed and shook his head. ‘Have you not enough?’ “No,’ I answered; but give me tomorrow morning, and I will promise to be content.’ His Holiness was silent a minute, and then said: ‘Well then, I agree, but not tomorrow morning. Tomorrow afternoon at six o’ clock.’

Next day, punctually at the hour agreed, the superb carriage was seen winding its way along the avenue. The guards fell into position, and Monsignor della Volpa and Count Pecci — the one glorious in robes of scarlet and purple, the other stately in blue and gold — advanced to meet his Holiness. Roar, roar, roar went the great machine, all fell on their knees, and the Pontiff walked to the stone bench beside the gate. After a brief interval, during which he conversed easily with his immediate attendants, his Holiness rose to complete the programme agreed upon, and began to cross the intervening space to the throne; but here an unavoidable contretemps occurred. My assistant had been so hurried he had not had time to replace another film, so I was forced to beg his Holiness to return to the bench while this was being done. — a request with which he cheerfully complied. I then threaded the machine in breathless haste, pivoting it in the direction of the throne after which I invited his Holiness to pass into the picture, which he did, scattering smiles and benedictions, and interchanging remarks with his nephew and the maggiordomo, and finally taking his seat right royally upon the crimson throne. Before leaving, the Pontiff gave me a special blessing, and laughingly demanded if I were at last satisfied. (Emphasis added.)

Photos of Pope Leo XIII as they appear in Harper’s Weekly (Nov. 26, 1898)

Cross referencing Dickson’s recollection of the event, his intimate knowledge of the behind-the-scenes production and his testimony down to the color of costume present, it becomes clear that this was indeed the pontiff’s first sit-down.

Della Volpe would continue serving Leo XIII until the pontiff’s death in 1903. He would go on to be the chamberlain to slip the Ring of the Fisherman onto Leo XIII’s successor, Pope Pius X.

The same year, della Volpe would be appointed as prefect of the Roman Curia. He would hold a variety of high-level titles for the rest of his life, including prefect of the Vatican Secret Archive, prefect of the Congregation of the Index and chamberlain of the Apostolic Chamber.

A family portrait

If, then, della Volpe was the mysterious clergyman sashed in purple, the same testimony from Dickson reveals another key identity — the regal-like figure in blue and gold.

To the right of the pope in the garden, we can then identify Count Giovanni Battista Pecci — the nephew of the pope and the man who is perhaps most responsible for turning Dickson’s proposition into a reality.

Dickson wrote:

“I was four months in Rome before I succeeded in obtaining the Pope’s consent. During that period I carried on constant negotiations with Count Sodarmi, the chief officer of the Papal Court. But I owe my eventual success to the friendly offices of Count Pecci, the Pope’s nephew, and an officer in the

Pope Leo XIII with Monsignor della Volpa and Count Pecci — “the one glorious in robes of scarlet and purple, the other stately in blue and gold”

Timothy Nerozzi is a writer and editor from northeastern Pennsylvania currently living in Washington D.C.. He covers religious issues with a focus on the Roman Catholic Church and Japanese society and culture.

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