Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World




Working on this digital monograph confirmed what I have known for a long time, ever since I embarked with my students on our earliest digital venture, the Decameron Web, more than twenty years ago: that any scholarly enterprise is an exquisitely collaborative affair, and a digital project is so to a magnified degree. Not only do scholars want their own voices to resonate in a choir comprised of all the scholars who have written about the topic before and after them, but they rely on the precious expertise of many others to help their individual vision take shape. During a pandemic, virtual interactions have shown their value and their limits, making me appreciate the collaborative nature of this work even more.

Besides the obvious historical giants in the field on whose shoulders we all try, albeit unsuccessfully, to stand (I’ll mention Walter Benjamin for all), I’d like to remember here the scholars who have taught and inspired me with their seminal books about the history of optical spectacles, virtual reality, and other kinds of artful shadows: Richard D. Altick, Gian Piero Brunetta, Roberto Calasso, Donata P. Compagnoni, Jonathan Crary, Ernst Gombrich, Erkki Huhtamo, Martin Kemp, Jaron Lanier, Laurent Mannoni, Victor Stoichita, Marina Warner... and the list could go on. I should also mention here the artists whose visions pulled me under their spell when it comes to “shadows” as both a medium and an idea: William Kentridge at the top of the list. David Hockney triggered my curiosity with his provocative suggestion of a “secret knowledge” based on optical tools (with the contribution of Charles M. Falco). The late and much missed Paolo Rosa, one of the founders of Studio Azzurro, aroused my interest in narrative museum installations during several conversations I had with him and our common friend Luigi Di Corato, both in Siena and in Providence, when both spent time as Brown resident scholars.

Among the many scholars, collectors, and artists who not only taught and inspired me with their work, but have directly contributed to this project, I must mention first and foremost Alberto Zotti Minici and his amazing mother, Laura Zotti Minici, who welcomed me into their magic kingdom, the Museo del Precinema in Padua, freely sharing their knowledge and passion and reproductions of the many marvels housed there. Alberto Zoina, a longtime friend since our college years at the University of Florence and a gifted painter and puppeteer, turned an abstract scholarly idea into a real, magical performance (Casanova’s shadow play). Daniela Picchi, curator of the Egyptian collection at the Civic Archaeological Museum in Bologna, liberally shared with us the preparatory materials for the visionary Belzoni exhibit she curated with Mauro Tinti in 2007.

Speaking of collaboration, I am deeply grateful to the Brown University Library's team of editors, digital humanities librarians, designers, and research assistants at the Brown Library Digital Publications Initiative who have contributed to bring our “Italian Shadows” (as the book was originally titled) into the light and onto the Scalar platform. Valiantly led by our digital scholarship editor, Allison Levy, the team included: Crystal Brusch (our skillful designer), Lindsay Elgin, Elli Mylonas, and Ben Tyler. Dashiell Wassermann and Julia Hurley provided insightful editing suggestions at various stages of composition of the chapters. Rebecca Szantyr indefatigably researched and collected the trove of images and reproductions included in the project. Valeria Federici was my creative research assistant in the early stages of the project. Finally, Cosette Bruhns Alonso provided assistance in the final revisions stage. To use a cliché, I could not have done it without them. Peter Harrington deserves special mention for his invaluable contribution to researching the Garibaldi panorama since he acquired it for the John Hay Library’s Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection that he curates. Beyond Brown, an exceptional team of digital designers managed to patiently translate my sketchy ideas into full-fledged simulations: Barnaby Jackson, Matt Melone, David Viznick, Emily Dale, and their collaborators at Focus Vision Media. They literally set our shadows in motion in a series of memorable brainstorming meetings in their high-tech Pawtucket atelier. Studio Rainwater helped give the monograph its elegant layout on the Scalar platform. Adriano Sforzi and his crew in Bologna helped me stage and produce the interviews included in the book. I also wish to extend special thanks to the Stanford University Press editorial and production team, Friederike Sundaram and Jasmine Mulliken in particular, for their deep commitment to the project and for a most efficient and speedy production process.

Back at Brown, I am indebted to Harriette Hemmasi, who in her capacity as our former university librarian, along with our then provost and Italian Studies colleague David Kertzer, enthusiastically supported the Garibaldi project and its spin-off, this monograph, at its outset. Indeed, I greatly benefited from being one of the first scholars at Brown to be selected as part of the Mellon-Foundation-supported Digital Publications Initiative that Joseph Meisel, our Joukowsky Family University Librarian, and Kevin McLaughlin, our dean of the faculty and a distinguished Walter Benjamin scholar and translator, have spearheaded. I also wish to acknowledge the generous support of the Office of the Vice President for Research at Brown. Looking back at my journey as a digital humanist, I cannot neglect to mention my distinguished senior colleagues at Brown, Robert Coover, George Landow, and Andy van Dam. Most of what I’ve learned about (digital) writing and interactive visualization—scholarly, scientific, and poetic—including HT and NUI—I absorbed as an apprentice in their classrooms, workshops, and labs. I am also grateful to my younger colleague Fulvio Domini for educating me in the psychological mechanisms of 3D visual perception as part of the experimental course we designed and now team-teach, with the generous support of the Cogut Institute for the Humanities. I wish to thank my Italian Studies colleagues and our graduate students at Brown for their friendly and provocative criticism on the two occasions in which I presented my work in progress at our always stimulating and cordial departmental colloquium.

Producing this monograph focused on virtual travel has also been a proverbial real-life journey, and it would be impossible to list all the remarkable people I’ve encountered on the road to its completion. I am grateful in particular to François Binetruy, who showed me around his amazing collection at his home in Versailles and most kindly provided some of the images featured in the book. The visit I paid to Adam Lowe and his Seti I team, Aliaa Ismail and Pedro Miró, at the Factum Arte Foundation studios in Madrid was one of the highlights of my personal learning tour (thanks also to Guendalina Damone and her team at Factum Italy who provided the scanning of the ushabti from the Civic Archaeological Museum in Bologna for our simulation). Donata Pesenti Compagnoni and Raffaella Isoardi welcomed me at the Museum of Cinema in Turin and kindly provided assistance with the acquisition of visual material from the museum’s unique collections. Sue Giles, the curator of the Belzoni Collection at the Bristol Museum, graciously showed me some of the wonderful items from the collection and shared with me some precious insights. Although we could not meet in person, Andre Wiese enabled my visit to the remarkable Seti I exhibit he helped curate at the Antikenmuseum Basel. Joanna Tinworth showed me around the Belzoni sarcophagus exhibit she curated at the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. Katia Pizzi graciously facilitated my residence at the Institute of Modern Languages Research of the University of London and helped me organize a well-attended workshop on open access and digital publishing. Finally, Mary Miller personally escorted me through the tunnels of the Getty mountain during a fire evacuation that temporarily interrupted my research in the institute’s collections.

Among the colleagues and friends who kindly invited me to present my research in progress over the past five years, I’d like to mention: Francesco Borghesi, who in the fall of 2017 hosted me along with Dino Buzzetti, doyen of Italian digital humanists, for a cycle of seminars at the University of Sydney, Australia, where my academic career began many decades ago; Federica Pedriali, who hosted me at the University of Edinburgh in the winter of 2017; Federico Luisetti, Giuliano Migliori, and all the graduate students at the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill who gave me a chance to present and test my ideas very early on as a keynote speaker at their graduate conference in the spring of 2017; Massimo Ciavolella, who hosted me twice in 2017 and 2019 at the Italian Studies department and the Center for Medieval and Early Modern studies of UCLA; Giacomo Manzoli and Luca Barra, who over the past five years welcomed my presentations in various seminars at the Department of the Arts of the University of Bologna; Marina Bondi and Elisabetta Menetti, who since 2018 kindly and repeatedly invited me to lecture on digital publishing at the University of Modena and Reggio; Federica Pedriali, who hosted me (again) at the University of Edinburgh, in the winter of 2017; Alessandro Vettori, Paola Gambarota, and their students at my American alma mater, Rutgers University, who gave me the opportunity to refine my ideas in a graduate seminar based on my work in progress, in the spring of 2018; Clodagh Brook, Eleonora Lima, Florian Mussgnung, Emanuela Patti, and Giuliana Pieri, who welcomed me in their Interdisciplinary Italy network and invited me to lecture at Royal Holloway University in 2019, and again virtually at Trinity College in Dublin in 2020; Ana Stefanovska who invited me to share my digital monograph experience with her postdoctoral colleagues at University College Cork, also in 2020; finally, Katia Pizzi and Emanuela Patti (again) who invited me to present the final result of our efforts at the Italian Cultural Institute in London and the University of Edinburgh, respectively. I’m certainly forgetting a few names, and I apologize to all.

For as long as it will last, this intangible book is dedicated to my wife (and éditrice extraordinaire), Lesley, and my beloved daughters, Arianna and Sofia—with more than just a tinge of nostalgia for our always entertaining domestic shadow play.