Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Journey into the New World: Tiepolo’s Cosmorama: Theater of the World

Theater of the World

I am lucky to live in such an illustrious and famous City as this, which no doubt could be called The Theatre of the World & the Eye of Italy.
—Francesco Sansovino7

“An Ingenious Little Machine”

Cosmoramas and pantoscopes were not unique to Venice; they were a common attraction throughout Europe in the eighteenth century, from Germany to the Netherlands, from France to Britain.8 However, mondo nuovo contains a reference that is distinctively Venetian. As the etymology suggests, what the mondo nuovo hawkers actually advertised, and sold, in the streets of Venice was both the “world” and novelty. This name for the machine explicitly promised novelty (i.e., a “new world”), as opposed to the other terms used to describe it: the “total view” of the pantoscope (from the Greek prefix παν) and the view of the “entire known world” of the cosmorama. Inside the little box, as the mondo nuovo barker cries, a view takes shape that is indeed entirely novel for the customer: “I show the New World in this little box / With distances and perspectives inside / I ask a coin per head, and I shall get it.”9 The New World thus connotes both the name of the device and the vision the device conveys, both the object and the subject of the illusion it provides. The attraction it exercises on the viewer is also dual: it is an attraction to both the new perspectival experience and to the “little machine,” the new technology, that conveys it. While the term pantoscope is specifically focused on the function and effect of the device, the term cosmorama, like the term mondo nuovo, instead indicates the object of the vision it provided, as illustrated by this definition of cosmorama in the nineteenth-century Enciclopedia Italiana:

Derived from κόσμος, world, and ὁράω, I see, this word means view or representation of the world. This name was given for the first time, in Paris, to an interesting show, conceived by the abbé Enrico Gazzera, Piedmontese, who opened it to the public the first day of 1808. It consisted in a rich collection of paintings representing the most important places and monuments of all the earth, composing a course of practical, historical, and descriptive geography. Around the room were positioned twenty-four lenses, through which one could see the seventy-two paintings…because from each lens one could look at three paintings. Every month, the views were replaced, completely or in part, and in a short time the number of paintings reached eight hundred, of which at least two hundred were the work of remarkable artists from various nations.10

Multiplying the vision offered by the mondo nuovo device, Abbé Gazzera’s optical gallery was in turn an early prototype of later installations, which allowed the user or spectator to travel the world through images, paintings, prints, or stereoscopic photographs, seen through a variety of ingeniously built apparatuses.11 Writing about Abbé Gazzera’s gallery in his sketch of a history of modern peep practice, Erkki Huhtamo rightly underlines the distinction between those popular attractions that had their place in the streets and those that migrated indoors, to architectural venues created specifically for them, like the rotundas that housed the panoramas and were themselves akin to large-scale visual machines.12 As we shall later see, the dialectic between a total, all-encompassing vision and a vision in motion, multiplied “at a glance”—similar to what we are nowadays familiar with as the aerial, satellite view, and street view of Google Earth—can also be connected to other technologies, namely the panorama and the stereoscope, as well as to fundamental social and political developments of nineteenth-century popular culture. Throughout the nineteenth century—the age of urbanization, mass mobility, nation-building, and colonial expansion—technologies of vision and immersive experiences accompanied, and contributed to, these major transformations and the shift from a local to a global viewpoint for larger masses of people. As an early commercial and military colonizer, and later as a popular international tourist destination, Venice has always been part of the shifting history of globalization.

What further distinguishes the mondo nuovo as a typically Venetian kind of street entertainment is its evocation of a social context that also inspired Tiepolo’s painting. In the mid-eighteenth century, the mondo nuovo was the subject of an amusingly ironic poem by the great Venetian author and playwright, Carlo Goldoni: also entitled “Il Mondo Nuovo,” it is the most influential literary source for an interpretation of this device. Published thirty years before Giandomenico painted Il Mondo Nuovo at Zianigo but, as we shall see, four years after he painted a prior version of the scene, the poem is even thought by some scholars to be the source for the title given to the painting.13 In Goldoni’s poem, an old, drunken gondolier named Pasqualino builds a macchinetta, or “little machine,” for Contarina Balbi, the young daughter of the governor of the Venetian island-colony of Zante. A playful link between Venetian territorial and colonial reach and virtual travel is thus implicitly established. Contarina is about to enter a convent, and Pasqualino’s machine is intended to amuse the noble daughter in the parlatorio, a semi-public space within the religious house where the nuns could entertain their guests and family members with games and popular pastimes, such as a puppet show, as shown in this detail of a painting by Giandomenico’s uncle, Francesco Guardi, The Parlatorio di San Zaccaria (fig. 9). Goldoni provides a detailed account of how the mechanism works and its spectacular effects, including the curiosity it provokes. “We often see such works, / multiplied by the inventors in the Piazza, / and especially during Carnival time,” Goldoni writes, “people come running / Around them and go crazy to see them” —a quote that could easily read as a caption for Giandomenico’s painting.14

In Goldoni’s poem the poet himself is on stage, and the gondolier Pasqualino gives him a demonstration of his invention. The surprising perception of an “immeasurable distance” is registered as the most remarkable effect of the device on the viewer; the poet himself experiences it, and we do as well, through his words (sound effects included). This perception provokes an amused sense of wonder, as does the fading in and out of the views, including the last transition that takes us from inside a church directly onto an opera stage, after a tour of Venice that includes a parade of many of its varied inhabitants:

To amuse the little saint
And her loving, saintly companions
He builds an ingenious little machine
Which reveals so many wonders to the eye,
And by virtue of optical crystals
Even makes flies appear to be the size of horses.


He drinks his coffee and then he goes.
He approaches his square machine.
He pulls some strings apart,
And opens a little window on the front.
I get closer to look inside,
And I see an immeasurable distance,
And I fancy I hear, here and there
The drums go tarapatà.


This good old man pulled the strings
And he began again
“Look now how many things.”
If the scene changes and the place you’ll see
Is the island of Zante


The island fades away, and you will see
The city of Venice and the Lazareto.


Suddenly, I hear a trumpet play
And the scene I enjoyed just disappears,
And in its place, a large church in the machine
Appears, filled with people,
It surprises, delights and amuses me
The beautiful sight of a musical stage.15

In the dialogue between the poet and the gondolier—half in literary Italian, half in Venetian dialect—“World” and “Theater,” as Goldoni says, mirror one another.16 Inside the mondo nuovo, the whole world turns into a minuscule, changeable stage. Indeed, Goldoni’s poem “Il Mondo Nuovo” can be read as a tongue-in-cheek manifesto based on the poetics of a “virtual realism” that turns a Baroque concept (the Great Theater of the World) into an Enlightenment idea, the premise for a humorous and realistic representation of society.17 The mondo nuovo trope cuts across literature and the visual arts. An evocative visual equivalent of Goldoni’s poetics is found in the work of Goldoni’s friend and favorite painter, Pietro Longhi.18 In a vignette by Longhi, part of a series representing everyday scenes of Venetian life, a mondo nuovo and its operator, intent on pulling its strings, loom in the background behind a group of colorful characters (fig. 10). In another vignette in the same setting, under the arcades of the Ducal Palace loggia flanking the piazzetta, a child is shown peering into the device, as in Giandomenico’s painting (fig. 11).


Longhi’s mondo nuovo vignettes are both realistic and ironic, offering a glimpse of Venetian life in its most peculiar self-representation. In their miniaturized dimensions, anonymous characters play the equivalent of a cameo role: they are both recognizable types and part of the scenography—an element of scale, of the illusionistic set design. In Goldoni’s plays, on a theatrical stage, they come alive, and the people they portray appear as full-scale, rounded characters with their idiosyncrasies. Realism and theatrical effects blend to produce an accurate and entertaining representation of the human comedy. In his poem “Il Mondo Nuovo,” Goldoni adopts a playful point of view, as though he were animating one of Longhi’s vignettes.19 Like Goldoni in his plays, Giandomenico, in his Il Mondo Nuovo painting, also provides an amplified version of Longhi’s vignettes, positioning the device in the background but making it the center of gravity of the whole composition. In the various dimensions of their works, Longhi, Goldoni, and Giandomenico Tiepolo illustrate the peculiar properties of the mondo nuovo as both a fashionable new technology and a metaphor.

Goldoni ends his dialogue between the poet and the gondolier Pasqualino with a sprezzatura, an air of nonchalance, which ironically hints that the craft of the drunken gondolier is not much different from, or less ingenious than, the art of a poet—Goldoni’s own comic craft:

I reply to the gondolier: the art and ingenuity
Of your machine I praise and approve;
And I do not deem unworthy of the young lady
This bizarre Mondo Nuovo of yours.
Rather, with you I make the commitment,
If one day I’ll tire of composing,
The two of us will travel the world,
Showing in the piazza the Mondo Nuovo. Farewell.

As a visual and rhetorical device, the mondo nuovo conveys precisely this virtually realistic effect, both distancing and magnifying: an invitation to travel far away and to look closer, with the imagination of a child and the disenchantment of an adult.

A Mondo Nuovo Tour

The two simulations in this chapter illustrate the two sides of the unique virtual experience that the mondo nuovo conveyed, as both a machine and a spectacle: a performance based on a representation system combining technological novelty and a new perspective on the world. Our journey begins with an exploration of what the crowd depicted in Giandomenico’s painting would have seen inside the miniature theater on the piazza. This simulation serves as a digital rendition of Pasqualino’s “ingenious little machine,” an analog device that approximates what is today an immersive 3D or VR experience. Our mondo nuovo tour includes ten vedute: cityscapes and landscapes. The first eight optical views are representations of Venice and other classic Italian destinations, such as Florence and Rome.21 Produced for the increasingly popular Grand Tourist market and carried by the Savoiardi and other itinerant entertainers across Europe, these albums were virtual travel kits.22 Shown in streets and squares throughout Italy, these images could also capture the imagination of local viewers who could only travel virtually, and cheaply, by peering into the little box that opened up immeasurable distances and perspectives. A double vision thus takes shape inside the mondo nuovo: a view from afar and a view from within, from within Venice and inside the little box. In order to illustrate this dual perspective, in our simulation, views of Venice are captioned with quotes from both popular Venetian songs and travelogues of illustrious foreign tourists.

The last two views of our mondo nuovo tour transport us far away from Venice, to the New World and the arctic shores reportedly touched by adventurous Venetian explorers in their travels, cartographically documented in the magnificent “Sala dello Scudo” of the Ducal Palace: a private cosmorama conceived for the benefit of the Venetian Doge who, looking at these maps, could embrace the entire known world from the point of view of Venice, the Eye of Italy. Taken together, the optical views of our virtual journey are meant to show how, in the shift from “map” to “tour,” from seeing to virtually “going,” the street entertainment called the mondo nuovo configured a new heterotopic space suspended between “here” and “there”: a virtual “Elsewhere.”23 Showing a distant New World of wilderness and revolution, the last two images of our virtual tour are also meant to illustrate the twofold appeal that, as a device and a subject of representation, the mondo nuovo could exercise on the Venetian imagination toward the end of the eighteenth century: an attraction perhaps also reflected in the enigmatic composition of Giandomenico’s painting.


Simulation: Mondo Nuovo Device



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