The cosmorama of Venice seen from afar is unique in the world…I cannot fathom if they have a heart or an intellect those who arrive for the first time on its magical shores, and dare to say, after having seen—or believed to have seen—I imagined more.
The visitor who crosses the panoramic second-floor gallery of the Ca’ Rezzonico—the imposing Venetian marble palace, now museum, facing the Grand Canal at Rio San Barnaba (fig. 1)—and enters the room known as the Portego del Mondo Nuovo is presented with one of the most iconic and enigmatic Carnival scenes from eighteenth-century Venice. Painted by Giandomenico Tiepolo in 1791, son of the more famous Giambattista, this work is known as Il Mondo Nuovo, or The New World (fig. 2). The detached fresco was originally located in the portego, or entrance hall, of the Tiepolo family villa at Zianigo in the Venetian hinterland; it is now surrounded by other paintings from the villa, as accurate a reconstruction of the original setting as possible within the rooms of a museum. The captivating work presents a colorful crowd of figures, dressed in fashions that would likely be seen on revelers at the time Tiepolo painted them:
There are individuals with wigs and tricorns, some of whom are garbed in long yellow gowns; others wear a red mantle and for headgear sport a mysterious black wig with two horns. Some women cover their shoulders and head with a white tonda [hooded female dress], while other people don a colored velada [waistcoat] (note the magnificent greenish tone of the velada worn by the man with his back turned). These are citizens and members of the popular classes, men and women, with their children.2
What are these people doing? What are they looking at? The strange assembly of characters is spread across the entire length of a shortened space, an effect reinforced by the absence of parallelism between the lines at the top and bottom of the wooden wall, on the left, and by that of the low clouds at the horizon and the shadows projected by the figures onto the narrow floor.
According to prevailing interpretations, Giandomenico Tiepolo’s Il Mondo Nuovo brings us deep into the crowded space of the piazzetta, the little piazza: the perpendicular, airy prolongation of San Marco Square that stretches along the colonnade of the Ducal Palace and opens onto the bacino, the San Marco basin. We seem to be facing the San Marco basin, our backs to the clock tower, the basilica, and the larger piazza. Judging from the narrow shadows pointing left—or eastward, if we have our setting and our orientation correct—it is sunset in Venice, perhaps an allusion to the twilight of the Serenissima.3 Indeed, an air of expectation, a state of foreboding informs the scene. Perhaps because of its dimensions, the painting has an unsettling power: it effectively reverses the perspective of many traditional views of Venice, such as Canaletto’s Piazzetta and Riva degli Schiavoni (fig. 3). Such scenes often depict the piazzetta and the Ducal Palace from an ideal point of view, suspended above the San Marco basin, “that great mirror of water which is encompassed by Venice proper, in the form of a crescent,” as the German poet J. W. von Goethe wrote on his first visit to the city in 1786.4 In Tiepolo’s painting, however, our view of the basin is obstructed by the crowd—we cannot see beyond their backs. As we stare at the painting, our gaze is slowly drawn in and then trapped in its constricted space.
In various suggestive interpretations, scholars have argued that Il Mondo Nuovo is “all about gazing,” as Darius Spieth writes in the most comprehensive essay to date on Tiepolo’s painting.5 Following their lead, we will explore the scene with all its enigmatic visual clues, intricate sight lines, and internal blind spots. Our exploration will be guided by one overarching question: What is this curious assortment of people, captured by Giandomenico as in a snapshot, actually looking at? Scholars have long debated the origin and exact meaning of the title of the painting. Though so evocative of geographic discoveries and distant lands, Il Mondo Nuovo here, in fact, refers to an optical device of the same name, a popular form of entertainment in eighteenth-century Venice, for it is this, an oversized version of a mondo nuovo, that the figures in the painting crowd around.6
The mondo nuovo device—also known as a cosmorama, a pantoscope, or, more popularly, a “peep-show box”—was a portable apparatus, shaped like a box, with small portholes through which the viewer could enjoy illuminated cityscapes and other curious scenes for a token. These optical boxes were a common sight in the streets of Venice, especially during the long Carnival season and other festive occasions, such as the annual Marriage to the Sea. Two mid-eighteenth century examples from the iconography of the mondo nuovo provide a snapshot of the scene that Giandomenico expands and elaborates on in his painting (figs. 4 and 5).
Mondo nuovo devices were also frequently found in the piazzetta, off Piazza San Marco, the setting of Tiepolo’s painting. The piazzetta itself could be described as a mirror—less of the sea, perhaps, than of society, like the foyer of a theater. In the second half of the eighteenth century, Venetian vedutisti, or painters of views, such as Canaletto, allow us to peer into this crowded fairground (figs. 6, 7). Indeed, with the construction of ephemeral shacks and stalls, called casotti, the piazzetta would from time to time play host to a variety of exotic attractions and performances, as seen in Gabriel Bella’s The Charlatans in the Piazzetta (fig. 8), which shows various casotti, with canvas signs hanging from their walls or displayed on poles, and hawkers calling for people to view the spectacle inside. One of these attractions, housed in a casotto, will be examined in Chapter Two.
Giandomenico’s painting provides the stage of our first foray into the realm of optical curiosities. As I will show in this chapter, this painting, representing a crowd of people waiting their turn to look inside a mondo nuovo, is itself a curious optical device that allows us to peer into the piazzetta as though into a time machine. In fact, as we shall see, the painting and the machine that is its subject reflect one another, creating a game of mirrors in which we, the onlookers, and the painter himself are all enmeshed.
Chapter 1 hero image: Giandomenico Tiepolo, Il Mondo Nuovo, ca. 1765, © Hasselblad H3D