A Shakespearian villain—and a character from Disney’s Aladdin (what do you mean, Disney didn’t think of it first?!)—Julia Margaret Cameron’s Iago, Study from an Italian, 1867, is one of my favourite photographs in our collection. We care for the only print of ‘Iago’ in the world.
Iago, from Shakespeare’s Othello, happens to be one of my favourite literary characters. Yes, he is a villain and a deceiver, but I admire him for his ability to use language to manipulate situations. For me, he is a reminder of the power of the written word.
Whether or not you’ve seen this photograph before, it feels instantly familiar. I have now seen it many times, yet every glimpse feels as though I’m seeing it for the first time. I find it intimate, comforting and haunting, and I want to know more about the man in the photograph.
Why he isn’t looking directly at the camera? What is his relationship with the photographer? Where did she find such a beautiful subject? And why did she call him ‘Iago’?
Interestingly (and unusually), this portrait isn’t of a client, a lover or a friend. He is, in fact, a paid model—likely the only one Cameron ever used. This seemingly intimate piece of art is, in fact, staged.
Angelo Colarossi (c.1838–1916) was an Italian, and from a family of professional models. His son later posed for the famous statue of ‘Anteros’ (more commonly known as ‘Eros’), in London’s Piccadilly Circus.
Back then, sitters would have had to keep very still, so using a professional model was a sensible way to avoid blurred edges. Photography critic, Francis Hodgson commented in the Financial Times that “It’s partly because Colarossi could bear the exposure time that the picture is so startlingly modern.” This photograph does indeed look like an incredibly contemporary image.
Hodgson goes on to say that he would prefer it if the sitter was not a professional model: “It would be wonderful to think this a literary or cultural figure whom we could imagine we knew better through the portrait.” I disagree with Hodgson; I don’t think I could love it more.
The actor Colarossi, playing the role of Iago, would have been directed by Cameron to shape the end result. The art and artfulness of the image is what makes it all the more powerful. It is exactly what Julia Margaret Cameron wanted us to see, and in reminding us of that Shakespearian manipulator, Iago, I think she might have been making a point about art. So, what do you want to see?