Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Journey into the New World: Tiepolo’s Cosmorama: The Evolution of a Painting

The Evolution of a Painting

When I was young, my father asked me: do you want two cents to go and see the Mondo Niovo [sic] or would you rather keep the money? I kept the money.
—Carlo Goldoni34

Inside Tiepolo’s Mondo Nuovo

Our mondo nuovo journey has taken us all around the globe and then back to Venice, once again to the piazzetta, back to Giandomenico’s painting, the point from which we departed. It is now time to focus on the scene this enigmatic painting depicts and, with the help of our simulation, on the painting itself as an optical device.

Over the course of thirty-four years, Giandomenico painted four versions of Il Mondo Nuovo. As the next simulation shows, some figures appear and others disappear in the transformation of the scene across paintings: the second stage of our virtual journey brings us deep inside the scene, allowing for an interactive exploration of its evolution and a virtual mingling with the crowd. With its focus on gazing, Giandomenico’s Il Mondo Nuovo cleverly plays with magnification, mirroring the power—and paradox—of the “little machine” at its center, capable of displaying “immeasurable distances” within a minuscule optical theater. The objective of our second simulation is thus to enable, even compel, an active point of view into the virtual space of the painting. This is something that the painting itself, with its odd perspective, invites us to do; it almost begs us to elbow our way into the crowd for a better view. This optical emphasis and shift in format—a 3D rendition of a 2D painted surface—simulates the experience of looking at Il Mondo Nuovo as though seen through a digital version of a mondo nuovo device. As explained in the Preface, the model for this simulation is an ornate, theater-shaped device found in the Hall of Games of the Dolfin family’s country villa and currently at the Museum of Precinema in Padua. In this device, the theatrical dimension of Venetian virtual realism is perfectly embodied and displayed: as in Goldoni’s plays, the world and the theater mirror each other, and the mirroring is the novelty effect, and the “magic,” produced by the device. By positioning the various versions of Giandomenico’s painting inside this theater-shaped mondo nuovo and allowing the user to interactively explore its transformation, we look at the evolution of the scene it represents as though it were itself part of a performance.

Simulation: Mondo Nuovo Painting



An Optical Game

In order to proceed with our analysis, it is important to consider the original settings of the various versions of the picture. As in the case of Longhi’s vignettes and Goldoni’s plays, settings are crucial to the meaning of Tiepolo’s work and the function of the device depicted in it. The 1757 version of Il Mondo Nuovo was commissioned by Count Giustino Valmarana for Villa Valmarana ai Nani, located outside of Vicenza, and painted when Giandomenico was an apprentice to his father, Giambattista Tiepolo. The elegantly framed scene was strategically positioned on the landing of the large staircase of the villa’s guest house (figs. 13 and 14).

Goethe, who visited the villa in 1786, thought it the work of Giambattista, whom he described as a brilliant virtuoso “decorator,” known throughout Europe for his dizzying perspectives and daring trompe l’oeils. Yet, as we now know, the work actually marked Giandomenico’s debut as an artist in his own right. On an adjacent wall of the rising staircase, Giandomenico depicts a Moor (a servant?) in the act of looking back, at an angle, as if to invite those guests climbing the stairs to stop and look through this virtual window onto the piazzetta. Thus, in its original conception, the mondo nuovo scene is already part of an elaborate architectural and optical game that evolves in the 1765 version, now at the Prado Museum in Madrid (fig. 15), in which Giandomenico begins to experiment with the more expansive rectangular format to be fully realized in 1791.35

Compared with these earlier versions, the 1791 version is characterized by a dramatic change in format, “not only much larger in size,” but also, as Spieth has noted, “extending the composition to a more pronounced horizontal format commonly found in panoramas.” 36 As in a camera obscura, an “architectural exchange” takes place: “the wall exchanges places with the window.”37 Painted for the entrance hall of the Tiepolo country villa at Zianigo, the final version of the scene appears to break through the wall on which it is painted. The hall itself is thus transformed into a sort of arcade, and we, the visitors, are virtually transported into the piazzetta, sharing a space with the crowd huddled around the mondo nuovo.

If this panoramic shift invites immersion, it also presents a paradox: our view is simultaneously extended and blocked. From the elaborate architectural trompe l’oeil of the Villa Valmarana to its restaging in the portego of the Tiepolo villa at Zianigo, the scene is both magnified and flattened. On the one hand, the final version of Il Mondo Nuovo invites us to mingle with the crowd and look into the machine. On the other hand, as we look closer, Giandomenico’s framing of the painting deliberately denies us, the observers, a chance to peer inside the mondo nuovo device.38 A paradoxical representational strategy is at play that involves both the novelty of the device and the vision of a new world it promises. The implicit suggestion of journeying to distant shores was still in play in the 1765 version, in which we see, just beyond the crenellated wooden structure at left, a tarpaulin and a pole that could be read as the sail and bowsprit of a boat moored transversally at the pier facing the basin—perhaps as an invitation to a voyage (fig. 16). This detail is gone in the fresco, and conversely the tarpaulin could be viewed as a tent hanging from the front of the crenellated wall of a casotto, as shown in the views by Bella and Canaletto. As a component of the scenography, a framing device positioned on the “prompt side” of the “stage,” the crenellated wall thus adds another intriguing element to the setting of the entire composition.39 In short, it positions the scene and us, the spectators, outside the wall of a casotto, in the piazzetta. At Valmarana, the scene was seen distanced through a virtual window; from the Prado to the Zianigo versions the optical theme, with all its clues, evolves along with an increasingly immersive effect. Yet, at the same time we are denied full visual immersion. Consider the masked boy and the man wearing a bautta who, in the intermediate 1765 version, both hold a magnifying glass: they too prompt us to look more closely, but at what, exactly? This paradoxical dynamic—pulling the onlookers in only to exclude them from the view—is the actual subject of Giandomenico’s Il Mondo Nuovo, constituting the ultimate joke it stages, at our expense.

Like the mondo nuovo device, the painting both expands and collapses our view. Indeed, in its last, enlarged version at Zianigo, the painting applies a magnifying lens to the very act of looking, focusing on the people who come running, crazy to see the mondo nuovo, as Goldoni quipped: the portrait of a society enthralled by voyeurism. The faceless figures turning their back to us both obstruct our view and draw us in. We stand in the same position as the depicted crowd. Witnesses to their voyeuristic excitement, we are ourselves swept up in the fray.

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