Discovering a talent for drawing at a very early age, Ippolito Caffi began studying art in his native city of Belluno, later moving to Padua to pursue his studies in the field of painting.
He completed his artistic training at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice between 1827 and 1832, studying perspective under Tranquillo Orsi (1771–1844) and figure drawing under Teodoro Matteini (1754–1831). During his time in Venice he fell under the spell of the 18th century vedutisti in general and of Canaletto in particular.
Caffi moved to Rome in 1832, joining the workshop of his cousin, the "historical" painter Pietro Paoletti (1801–47), and publishing the first edition of his Lezioni di prospettiva pratica in 1835. In 1837 he painted Carnival in Rome: The Feast of the Little Candles which was to become his best-known painting and was revisited on fully forty-two occasions. After travelling to Trieste, Venice and Padua, where he painted four pictures for the Caffè Pedrocchi, Caffi was back in Rome by 1843.
His travels in the Middle East were to have a major impact on his art: driven by a desire not only to see new places but also to discover little-known peoples and cultures considered different from those in Europe, Caffi sailed from the port of Naples on 5 September 1843 on a journey which was to coincide with the most fertile and promising period in his entire career.
The clear, bright light and perfect geometry in his views of Athens gives way to more liquid images shrouded in a golden atmosphere, such as those that he painted in Constantinople – for example his splendid View of the Sweet Waters of Europe (1843) –, and to the burning light and lyricism of the pictures that he was to paint in Egypt, including The Simoon Wind in the Desert and the Isthmus of Suez (1844).
Caffi went on to visit Jerusalem (A View of the Mount of Oliveso), Ephesus, Laodicea and Hierapolis, which he captured in a masterpiece swathed in a softly magical and dreamlike light.
He painted in Rome from 1844 to 1848, also showing his work at the Mostra dei Cultori e Amatori di Belle Arti. He remained in Venice in 1848 and '49 to fight against Austria until the city capitulated. Outlawed, he fled to Genoa, only returning to Rome in 1855 and residing there until 1858.
He was in Venice from 1858 to 1860, remaining in the city with only a few short breaks until the fateful year of 1866, when he decided to embark as an interpreter on the flagship Re d'Italia and took part in the Battle of Lissa. His plan was to record the bloody naval battle from close quarters, but tragically he lost his life when the flagship was sunk.
His work may be admired today in the Museo di Belluno; at the Museo dell'Arsenale, Ca' Pesaro, the Museo Correr and the Galleria d'Arte Moderna in Venice; at the Pinacoteca di Treviso; at the Gallerie d'Arte Moderna in Turin and in Rome; at the Museo Rivoltella in Trieste; and at the Palazzo Reale in Naples.