Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Inside the Casotto: Domenico Selva’s Camera Obscura: A Peculiar Casotto

A Peculiar Casotto

Blessed are thee! I see you from afar,
And a Siren of the Gulf I guess you are;
But when closer to you I lower my sail
I find that it is You, my beautiful Venice.
— Jacopo Foscarini1
The Venice of today is a vast museum where the little wicket that admits you is perpetually turning and creaking, and you march through the institution with a horde of fellow-gazers . . . You are reminded, from the moment of your arrival that Venice scarcely exists any more as a city at all . . . she exists only as a battered peep-show and bazaar.
— Henry James2

The mondo nuovo was not the only kind of optical attraction that visitors might have encountered while strolling in Piazza San Marco two and a half centuries ago. In Lorenzo Selva’s Six Theoretical-Practical Optical Dialogues, published in 1787, we find the description of another such curiosity, one that a viewer could actually enter (fig. 1). This attraction was housed inside a casotto, one of the ephemeral wooden shacks that periodically turned the space between the piazza and the lagoon into a crowded fairground, as we saw in Chapter 1, depicted in Canaletto’s and Gabriel Bella’s paintings.3 However, the casotto described by Selva is a peculiar one. The attraction it hosted was one of the many giochi (games) that Lorenzo’s father, Domenico, showed “on the Public Piazza.”4

Another exceptional father-son team, albeit perhaps less well known than the Tiepolos, provides a renewed example of how craftsmanship was transmitted from generation to generation in eighteenth-century Venice—with a twist. Domenico Selva, originally from the northeastern region of Friuli, was a famous optician with a shop in Calle Larga San Marco, not far from the piazza. Lorenzo, his son, learned the craft from his father, taking over the shop after Domenico’s death in 1758. On the title page of his aforementioned Dialogues, Lorenzo describes himself as “an optician on public salary.” Indeed, Lorenzo signed all his work with an homage to Domenico: “To show my father my ever-greater gratitude, every work of mine, every improvement and invention, will always be stamped, not with my name but with his beloved one.”5 In other words, the family trademark belonged indisputably to the father, while the son, in his books, explains the science upon which that craftsmanship is based along with the peculiar optical effects that Domenico’s devices produced for the amusement of his aristocratic customers. These devices are also described in the section of another treatise published by Lorenzo in 1761: Of Various Kinds of Lenses, Burning Mirrors, Lamps, Camerae Obscurae, and Magic Lanterns, Prisms and Cylinders, Multiplying Cones, and Polyhedra.6

The popularization of optics and the application of experimental science to popular entertainment are an important part of our story. In his comprehensive study of optical themes in Western art, Martin Kemp notes “the burgeoning popular fascination with the marvels of science in general and with the magic of optical devices in particular” that characterizes this period, adding that “the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century saw the birth and growth of optical entertainments as a precocious form of mass medium.”7 Domenico’s optical entertainment had been shown on the public piazza already half a century earlier; it can be compared to an elaborate optical theater. Indeed, the entire casotto is designed as a kind of walk-in mondo nuovo. In Lorenzo’s aforementioned Dialogues, a clergyman thus describes the optical “games” he saw while inside the peculiar shack to a count and a professor:

I have seen them myself thirty years ago—during Carnival, when, being young, I came to Venice to amuse myself. They were wonderful. The Count cannot remember them but I do as if it were today. I went in one day, after noon, right at the moment when a Prince Sovereign was already inside (I don't remember whom) and it was a spectacle well worthy of him to see hanging on the walls, in that dark place, three animated paintings [tre quadri animati] [...] I assure you, Count, one could not think about a more delicious entertainment, and that Prince was surprised, and enchanted to the point that he could not part from it. I visited the casotto every morning before lunch and found it crowded with members of the Nobility.8

Notably, “thirty years ago” would date the clergyman’s experience in Selva’s casotto to around the same time that the young Tiepolo was painting his first Mondo Nuovo scene at Valmarana (1757) as Lorenzo’s Dialogues were published in 1787. Could Giandomenico himself have visited it in the piazzetta? Could this walk-in mondo nuovo be a distant inspiration for his painting? In Lorenzo’s Dialogue, the clergyman’s description excites the curiosity of the count: as it turns out, he is the nephew of the famous polymath Francesco Algarotti, to whom Lorenzo’s aforementioned treatise on optical curiosities, published in 1761, is also dedicated. As we shall see, Algarotti, author of a bestseller entitled Newtonianism for Ladies, is perhaps the best witness to the virtual quality of iconic Venetian representations, linked to a tool used by Canaletto, his nephew Bellotto, and other vedutisti to produce their realistic views of Venice: the camera optica or obscura (fig. 2).9 “As this artificial eye, usually called Camera Optica or Obscura,” Algarotti writes in another essay, “gives no admittance to any rays of light, but those coming from the thing whose representation is wanted, there results from them pictures of inexpressible force and brightness and, as nothing more delightful to behold, so nothing can be more useful to study, than such a picture.”10 As we shall see, there is a precise link between Algarotti’s camera obscura and Selva’s casotto.

In Lorenzo’s dialogue, the impatient count wants to know more: “What do you mean, three animated paintings? My dear Selva, please describe them to me.”11The third character, the professor, alter ego of Lorenzo himself, explains what this sophisticated spectacle, worthy of royalty and aristocrats—indeed, more memorable than the identity of the royal personage enjoying it—actually displayed: 

The casotto was already positioned by the columns of the piazzetta, facing the Clocktower, and on that side there was a first painting, rather large, on a treated white cloth [un cendal bianco preparato], on which one could see the Duke’s Palace, the façade of [the church of] San Marco, the whole façade of the Clocktower with above the two Giants that one could see beating the hours; and one section of the Procuratie vecchie, the Banners, the Bell Tower, and the whole Mint with the people crowding up that side of the piazza, coming and going on all sides.12

What the professor describes is a wide-angle view of the piazza, as seen from inside the shack on the piazzetta. “What a sight,” Lorenzo’s clergyman cries out, “if only the view described could have embraced the Riva degli Schiavoni, wide and magnificent as I found it now, much to my surprise, upon my return.”13 Indeed, the Riva had been expanded and renovated a few years earlier, remade as the most fashionable promenade in Venice. This panoramic view is in fact completed by the other two “paintings” positioned in the opposite corners of the casotto. Those who enter the shack are thus offered a replica of Venice, as seen from the central vantage point of the piazzetta, the true eye of the Venetian cosmos. On one side, the larger Piazza San Marco, and on the other, to the right and to the left, the crescent of the San Marco basin:

In the two opposite corners, there were the other two paintings, one to the left which showed the jetty of the piazzetta, the aforementioned Riva, the Lido, the islands found on that side, including San Giorgio Maggiore with all the ships, and large and small boats floating by on the lagoon: it struck the imagination to see the glittering of the sunlight reflected on the waves produced by the oars. The other painting, on the right, offered the same animated depiction of the Giudecca canal, the Dogana, the church of [S. Maria della] Salute.14

In the elaborate scenography of Selva’s casotto what is outside is mirrored inside: the “animated paintings” hanging on its wall replace the windows from which one could have looked out at the actual view surrounding the piazzetta on all sides. Yet, from this description it is not entirely clear what makes these paintings “animated.” Moreover, another mechanism is at work in the casotto that makes it much more than a walk-in mondo nuovo: 

In the middle of the casotto there was on the floor a large basin, enclosed by a balustrade, from which, looking to the canvas bottom, with a luminous device (apparecchio candido), one could see appear in a sequence all the objects visible on the horizon from the top of the casotto’s roof; on [the roof] there was a small machine, which turning slowly, projected the living images on the bottom of the basin.15

The clever mechanism that Selva describes is a mirroring device that turns upon itself, projecting onto the canvas on the floor a shadowy replica of the world outside, an illusion that completes the 360° view offered by the three “animated paintings” on its walls. Yet, the device described by Lorenzo has another peculiarity: it also works as a kind of “candid camera.” Staged within Selva’s optical theater is a scene that, by mirroring the world outside, produces an amusing “animated” spectacle of everyday life in the piazza, circa 1760. Indeed, the first painting shows

all the people [outside] who went everywhere and back and forth in that large section of the piazza; and one could well distinguish them to the point that indicating them one could say: This is the fellow coming toward the casotto; there you see one peeling some apples for a masked customer; —look, he is counting the money; see here two dogs grappling with each other . . . Some [people] exited the casotto, and greeted each other by taking off their hats; they sniffed tobacco, blew their noses, or did something to make themselves noticed, and when they came back inside [the casotto] they were welcomed with the exact description of what they were seen doing [outside].16

Seen through the reflecting lenses of Selva’s optical theater, the “animated paintings” thus reveal their true nature: they are reflections of the world outside. The casotto is a kind of architectural camera obscura, oriented in such a way as to encompass, with its three-point projection system, a panoramic view of San Marco and the waters of the lagoon beyond. Goldoni’s vision is once more confirmed: in Selva’s casotto, the World outside and the Theater inside mirror each other to the point of exchanging places: the people coming and going in the piazzetta become actors in a play in which they are unaware of taking part, only to enjoy the spectacle themselves when they enter the casotto and from actors change back into spectators—or voyeurs.

Chapter 2 hero image: Canaletto, Capriccio with Palladian Architecture, 1757-59

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