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Secondo Pia

Secondo Pia (1855–1941) was an Italian lawyer and amateur photographer. He is best known for taking the first photographs of the Shroud of Turin on May 28, 1898. The image he obtained from the shroud has been approved by the Roman Catholic Church as part of the devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus.

Pia was born in Piemonte and although he was an attorney, he was interested in both art and science and as of the early 1870s began to explore the new technology of photography. In the 1890s he was a city councillor and a member of Turin's Amateur Photographers' Club.[1] He was a well known photographer in Turin and examples of his other photographs are now part of the historical collection at the Turin Cinema Museum.[2] He can also be considered a pioneer in the field of photography for using electric lightbulbs in the 1890s, given that lightbulbs were a novelty in the late nineteenth century, with Thomas Edison's reliable incandescent light bulb being invented only in 1879.


The accidental photographer

The circumstances under which Secondo Pia unwittingly took the first step in the field of modern sindonology were quite unusual.[3]

In 1898 the city of Turin was celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Turin Cathedral along with the 50th anniversary of Italy's Statuto Albertino constitution of 1848 in favor of the House of Savoy. As part of the celebration, a Sacred art exhibition was planned. Since the public display of the Shroud of Turin would have required permission from King Umberto I of Italy, plans were made for two artists to separately paint realistic replicas of the Shroud to be used instead. These paintings were made, but never used as part of the exhibition.

The head of the Shroud Commission, Baron Manno, petitioned the King for a public display and also asked for the right to photograph the shroud, with the help of Secondo Pia, to promote the exhibition. To the surprise of the artists who had painted the realistic replicas, the King approved the public display of the shroud for the exhibition, and later also allowed for it to be photographed. Two facts should be remembered: first that at that time the House of Savoy was based in Turin, and the Shroud was already in Turin since it belonged to the King. Secondly, at this point no one knew that the more clear reverse image existed on the Shroud, for the faint face image on the Shroud can not be clearly observed or recognized with the naked eye.

Secondo Pia was also surprised to be named the official photographer for promoting the exhibition at such a late date. The eight-day exhibition was just about to start, and it was too late for his proposed photograph to be part of the promotional campaign. Yet, he took the opportunity to take the very first photograph of the Shroud of Turin.

The famed photograph

Secondo Pia's negative of the image on the Shroud of Turin, associated with the Holy Face of Jesus devotion.

On May 25, 1898, after the opening ceremony of the exhibition, during the noon-closure of the exhibition, Pia set up equipment in Turin Cathedral. Two other people, Father Sanno Salaro, and the head of Cathedral security, Lieutenant Felice Fino were also present and took part in the photography. It was perhaps one of the earliest occasions where an electric light bulb had been used to take a photograph.

The logistics of organizing the photographic session and the required equipment were a challenge to Pia, but he managed to set up two electric lamps of about 1000 candelas each. Since there was no electricity in the Cathedral, Pia set up a platform and provided power from a portable generator. He barely managed to cope with the resulting heat for a few minutes to make a few exposures before the May 25th session was interrupted with the opening of the Cathedral doors after the noon-closure. The results of this session were not a great success once the plates were developed.

On the evening of May 28, 1898 Pia returned for a second session at about 9:30pm and this time managed to take a few more exposures. Based on his earlier experiment of May 25 he varied the exposure times and the lighting. At around midnight, the three men went back to develop the plates. Pia later said that he almost dropped and broke the photographic plate in the darkroom from the shock of what appeared on it: the reverse plate showed the image of a man and a face that could not have been observed with the naked eye. The mystery of the image associated with the Holy Face of Jesus started that evening.

Ongoing developments

On June 2, 1898 the exhibition ended and the shroud was returned to its casket in the Royal Chapel. Genoa's Il Cittadino newspaper reported Pia's photograph on June 13 and a day later the story appeared in the national newspaper Corriere Nazionale. On June 15 the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano covered the story.

The next few years witnessed a number of debates about Pia's photograph, with various suggestions of supernatural origin versus accusations of errors in his work, his doctoring of the photographs, etc. In the meantime, King Umberto I of Italy, whose permission was instrumental for the Pia photograph, was assassinated in July 1900 and did not see the full story unfold. Ironically, the key (and unrelated) event that set the King's death into motion also took place during the month of May 1898 with his support of the use of cannons against unarmed protesters (including women and old people) during riots in Milan over the rising price of bread.

Some definite support for Secondo Pia eventually arrived in 1931 when a professional photographer, Giuseppe Enrie, also photographed the shroud and his findings supported Pia. When Enrie's photograph was first exhibited, Secondo Pia, then in his seventies, was among those present for viewing. Pia reportedly breathed a deep sigh of relief when he saw Enrie's photograph.[4]

The scientific and religious discussions and debates about the origins of the image that Pia photographed continued thereafter.

On the religious front, in 1939 Pia's negative image was used by Sister Maria Pierina De Micheli, a nun in Milan, to coin the Holy Face medal, as part of the Catholic devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus. Pope Pius XII approved the devotion and the medal and in 1958 declared the Feast of the Holy Face of Jesus as Shrove Tuesday (the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday) for all Roman Catholics. On the occasion of the 100th year of Secondo Pia's first photograph, on Sunday May 24 1998 Pope John Paul II visited the Turin Cathedral. In his address on that day, he said that "the Shroud is an image of God's love as well as of human sin" and called the shroud "an icon of the suffering of the innocent in every age"[5]

On the scientific front, as recently as 2004, the optical journal of the Institute of Physics in London published a reviewed article [1] on new imaging techniques applied to the shroud during its restoration of 2002. The heated scientific debate about the image and the shroud continues to date with international conferences worldwide.


  1. ^ Joan Carroll Cruz, 1984, Relics OSV Press ISBN 0879737018 page 49
  2. ^ Turin cinema museum
  3. ^ Arthur Barnes, 2003 Holy Shroud of Turin Kessinger Press ISBN 0766134253 pages 2-9
  4. ^ Architecture for the shroud: relic and ritual in Turin by John Beldon Scott 2003 ISBN 0226743160 page 302
  5. ^ Pope John Paul II's Address of May 24 1998 in Turin

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