Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Journey into the New World: Tiepolo’s Cosmorama: A Scherzo about Painting

A Scherzo about Painting

In the air there lingers a hint of a joke that painting is making about itself.
—Roberto Calasso52

Our simulations have established that the mondo nuovo device not only occupies a crucial position in Giandomenico’s painting, but provides the key to its interpretation. Conversely, considering the painting itself as a playful optical device has allowed us to better understand the peculiar nature of the mondo nuovo as a machine embedded in the cultural context of fin-de-siècle Venice. Our analysis has shown how, in order to fully appreciate the power of this “ingenious little machine,” we have to explore all the references embedded in its name, across literature and the visual arts. The ambiguity of the title attributed to Giandomenico’s painting, perhaps based on Goldoni’s poem, points to the dual nature of the mondo nuovo’s attraction: an invitation to travel far away, to a New World of the imagination, while reducing the real world to a miniature copy of itself. In its most exquisitely Venetian expression, the mondo nuovo is a virtualizing device that both expands and collapses our view. It is a simple toy, a gadget, but it is able to perform a kind of thought-provoking magic, allowing the adult observer to look at the world with an ironic, self-reflective eye.

Yet, as an optical trick in its own merit, a joke inspired by the object it represents, Giandomenico’s painting may have some additional secrets to reveal which, in turn, can help us complete our case study. Buried in the crowd, the mondo nuovo operates as a kind of paradoxical stage machinery that both distorts our perspective and prompts us to look closer. The real attraction is inside the mondo nuovo, yet we, the spectators, are denied the view—blocked from seeing what the child peering into the porthole sees. Instead, we are offered a sort of backstage view, caught in the voyeuristic frenzy the novel device provokes in the crowd. In the painting, virtual travel and social voyeurism coalesce. Virtually positioning the various versions of Giandomenico’s painting inside a digital mondo nuovo has allowed us to reveal the evolution of the painting’s optical theme, discovering the progression of the joke it plays at the expense of the viewer: indeed, the painting evolves from an amusing trompe l’oeil, a visual “scherzo” in its first version at Valmarana, to a sort of reversed trompe l’oeil in its last transformation at Zianigo—a magnified version of the scene that frustrates instead of providing full immersion. Here lies the joke played by the painting and perhaps another layer to the optical game it plays with the observer.

Let’s focus on the figure at the center of Il Mondo Nuovo (fig. 20). In it, as shown in our simulation, some scholars have recognized a “father” taking his children to see the mondo nuovo in the piazza: he wears a tricorn and clothes similar to those of the barker on his left who, standing on a stool, pulls the strings that change the views and the lighting inside the device (fig. 21). They strike the same pose, their heads slightly inclined toward the right, a posture that also reminds us of a painter taking a step back and looking at his work. One of the two figures (the “father” who holds the child in his arms) is indulgently looking down at the boy in the center of the picture. On closer inspection, both the figures wear clothes similar to those of the hawker in the Zompini print (fig. 5). Although the one who holds the child wears a wig and a showy red blouse with golden epaulets, they could indeed both be part of the team that manages the spectacle of the mondo nuovo. They are dressed in the same fashion, the clothes of the trade. In short, the “father” in the center of the picture might well also be interpreted as a barker who works the crowd and helps the smaller customers reach up to the peephole and look inside. Yet, we, the bystanders, the onlookers, are still excluded from seeing what the child peering into the mondo nuovo sees. We are stuck behind the odd figures in the crowd, forced to look at their backs. According to some scholars, the group at the center of the picture, the “father” and the children, would even contain an autobiographical reference: the family group would represent Giambattista taking his children to see the mondo nuovo in the piazza; the child peering into the mondo nuovo, and perhaps also the boy standing next to it, would be a representation of “Giandomenico’s remembered self,” from the point of view of the “man with a monocle,” the self-portrait of Giandomenico also inserted in the scene, making the joke played by the painting even more poignant (fig. 22). If we combine the optical theme with the autobiographical theme of the composition, we can begin to formulate some additional hypotheses about the central role of the mondo nuovo device in the painting. By representing the Tiepolo family story as a mondo nuovo show, Giandomenico plays a double trick, at our expense. What the painting represents by simultaneously pulling us, the observers, in and denying us the vision, could be also a joke, a “scherzo,” about painting, precisely as Goldoni’s poem Il Mondo Nuovo (which supposedly inspired the title of Giandomenico’s painting) was the playful, tongue-in-cheek manifesto of a “virtual realism” that translated a baroque idea, the Great Theater of the World, into an ironic critical device.

If this interpretation holds, the old Giandomenico’s playful attitude in depicting this scene does not seem too distant from Goldoni’s wink at the street hawker at the end of the poem entitled Il Mondo Nuovo. Like the poet in Goldoni’s ironic dialogue with Pasqualino the Gondolier, the painter is also on stage in Giandomenico’s work (the man with a monocle, as shown by our simulation); and his famous father is there as well. The presence of both Tiepolos, father and son—and the suggestion that the children themselves, at the center of the painting, may be part of a family group and a family story, the Tiepolos’ family story—opens another perspective on the optical composition: the painting could be interpreted as a joke about painting as the Tiepolos’ family business. The mondo nuovo is the device chosen for this “masquerade”: for the aging Giandomenico looking back to his own childhood and a long apprenticeship in the shadow of a famous and brilliant father, the virtuoso of the trompe l’oeil, perhaps the painting was a way to say that the highest achievement of art is to hide, or disguise, itself as a “scherzo,” as child’s play. The mondo nuovo device stands in for painting as an illusionistic endeavor that both expands and collapses our vision, both miniaturizes and gives “immeasurable perspective” to the world we inhabit.

Displayed in the hall of the Zianigo villa for the private amusement of the Tiepolo family and their guests—the Tiepolos were by then country gentry themselves, thanks to the proceeds of their artistic endeavors—the painting known as Il Mondo Nuovo becomes a sly stand-in for the Tiepolos’ unique craftsmanship, a kind of ironic coat of arms: the mondo nuovo device is a mocking trademark of the Tiepolo enterprise, a perfect mise-en-abîme.53 If this is true then, perhaps, the enigmatic horizon of the painting, the unfathomable New World promised by its title—the distant view that is denied to us in the composition—can also be explained as a scherzo, a joke.

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