Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Inside the Casotto: Domenico Selva’s Camera Obscura: Animating the View

Animating the View

In our hypothetical reconstruction of Selva’s casotto as a large-scale camera obscura, we have reversed the point of view adopted in Chapter 1 in our journey into Giandomenico’s Il Mondo Nuovo. There, we used our simulation to explore a painting, compare interpretations, and propose a new one in an attempt to solve the riddle it contains. Here, instead, we have followed the opposite path and translated a written description found in Lorenzo’s Dialogues into a simulation of what people entering the original casotto, designed by Domenico, might have experienced.

Our simulation of Selva’s casotto is contained within the model of a mondo nuovo shaped like a theater that provides the ideal stage for all our simulations, as explained in the Preface. Thus, our casotto model is an optical theater contained within an optical theater, a simulation of a simulation. However, our model is not simply intended to illustrate Lorenzo’s text. It is also designed as a thought experiment. With its elaborate system of optical projections, Selva’s casotto foreshadows later popular seaside attractions, common well into the twentieth century. The optical theater contained in the casotto thus acts as a kind of immersive virtual reality environment.44 What is important for us here is that painting is part of the optical experiment, indeed is the subject of the experiment. The camera obscura that makes the experience of a virtual Venice possible is also a tool that painters such as Canaletto and other Venetian vedutisti used to produce their realistic and idealized representations of the city.45 The device came in various shapes and sizes—Lorenzo Selva himself built portable versions that were large enough to accommodate painters inside, isolating themselves from the environment in order to better capture a vivid image of the environment (according to Henry Wotton, Johannes Kepler had already used one for his experiments, a century earlier) (figs. 5–8).46 As Lorenzo writes:

I make Portable ones, of various kinds, to be used particularly by a draughtsman with a cover [pavillion]; and with a table so that the users can close themselves inside to draw; easy to transport and to be placed in some room, including some unusual ones, with a specific idea, 10, 12, 15 feet wide, with a metal mirror to make them perfect, and various games, like those shown by my Father in the public piazza.47

As a conversion of a draughtsman’s tool into an entertaining social medium, Selva’s casotto also illustrates how virtual realism and social voyeurism are inextricably intertwined in the Venetian popularization of optics.48 The casotto described by Selva is a kind of walk-in optical theater, similar to the pictorial cosmorama made popular by the Abbé Gazzera in Paris a few decades later—with an important difference. The paintings displayed inside are not actual paintings, but live reflections of the world outside projected onto the walls. Inside Selva’s casotto, the world outside turns into a spectacle to be enjoyed simultaneously as a copy (a painting) and a shadowy reflection of itself: as mimesis and illusion, as pictura and imago, to use the terminology adopted by Kepler to explain his theory of retinal imaging. As Algarotti says, the projections of the camera obscura are paintings “painted by the hand of Nature herself,” and “Nature is continually forming such pictures in our eye.”49 In short, Selva’s attraction showcases the camera obscura as both a tool used to produce a painting—a pictura of Venice—and a tool designed to capture a virtual reflection—a living, if miniaturized, imago of Venice.50 What makes the experience of the casotto unique is that these two functions of the camera obscura complete and enhance one another within the same visual space—just as, in our visual and mental apparatus, images “painted” upside down on our retina are converted into three-dimensional perceptions of the world.

In order to stress this point, in this chapter’s simulation we have replaced the three “animated paintings” described by Selva as well as the projection on the floor with actual paintings taken from a series of views of the piazzetta and piazza San Marco painted by Canaletto and believed to be the first commission to the Venetian painter from Joseph Smith, the British Consul in Venice at the time (figs. 9–15). We have done so not only because simulating what visitors of the casotto would have actually seen is impossible (it would require a time machine rather than an optical apparatus) but also to show the peculiar nature of Venetian virtuality. Moreover, Canaletto’s use of the camera obscura seems perfectly consistent with a kind of creative experimentalism aimed at producing a virtual view of the ambient world, an “imaginary Venice” modeled on the real one, like the one evoked in Selva’s casotto.51 From this point of view, it makes perfect sense to place his vedute in Selva’s optical theater, where the images described as “animated paintings” could be viewed as both picturae and imagoes, at the same time copies and virtual reflections of the world outside. Furthermore, the commission of the views in question is emblematic of our Venetian case history, as it marks the beginning of Canaletto’s popularity in England at the peak of the Grand Tour.52 With this, it is not my intention to suggest that Canaletto’s views (indebted to similar panoramic perspectives of and from the piazzetta painted by Van Witels, Carlevarijs, and Lovisa) were actually displayed within Selva’s casotto (although at least one eyewitness puts Canaletto on the scene around the time, 1760, when Selva’s casotto was on display in the piazzetta.)53 Neither is it my intention to argue that the artist might have painted these views inside a portable camera obscura like the one described by Wotton and Lorenzo: the “camera ottica” signed “A. Canal” at the Museo Correr in Venice does not belong to this typology.

Admittedly, there is only scant circumstantial evidence to support our thought experiment. Our simulation of the casotto, however, is quite consistent as far as the vexed question of Canaletto’s use of the camera obscura is concerned.54 Already A. M. Zanetti, Algarotti’s teacher, in his Della Pittura Veneziana (1771) observed that Canaletto “gave an example of the correct use of a camera ottica,” in particular highlighting the defects that “it imposes on a picture when the artist completely trusts what he sees in the camera, including the colours, and the air.”55 As Bernard Aikema and Boudewijn Bakker have written, Canaletto would have used the device “for reproducing the spatial representation of architecture observed at close range or for unusually wide views on a flat surface in a ‘scientifically responsible’ manner…what the vedutisti were striving for, and apparently what their patrons also desired.”56 Yet, there is also evidence that Canaletto’s use of the device was consistent with “the artist’s imaginative rearrangement of well-known buildings one to another.”57 Alessandro Bettagno conservatively sums up the issue as follows:

The use of the camera obscura may be seen as part of the artist’s fresh approach, and the drawings based on this technique should be considered on a par with the other kinds of scaraboti (i.e., very quick, informal sketches), as Canaletto himself described them. But it is indeed a happy coincidence that that other camera ottica, Canaletto’s eye, was then applied to these hasty, improvised, and summary topographical notes.58

According to Algarotti, the camera allows the painter to produce images such as those created by Canaletto, which appear not only more balanced but also “truer” and more “alive,” paradoxically more “animated” than those that can be caught by an observer with the naked eye.59 In other words, Canaletto’s vedute of Venice are a perfect combination of a natural and an artificial eye, a technically enhanced “eyeballing,” to use David Hockney’s term.60

As Andre Corboz notes, the real question for us is why a spectacle that everybody had directly under their eyes could become wondrous if captured by such an elaborate optical apparatus as the camera obscura.61 The same question could be posed for Canaletto’s vedute, painted with the help of the camera obscura: What is the virtual quality that makes them so aesthetically pleasing, perhaps even more than the real view they portray, observed with a naked eye (as many Grand Tourists noted)? Using Walter Benjamin’s terminology, Canaletto’s paintings possess the “aura” that their technical reproduction will dispel. In Benjamin’s own words: “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”62 From our point of view, it is precisely this paradox of presence that is featured in Selva’s casotto, inside which “presence” becomes virtual, at the very place “where it happens to be.” Painting, either by the “hand” of nature, filtered through the camera obscura, or by the hand of a master painter, is the medium of this virtualization.

As for the aforementioned seven views, four of which we have selected for our simulation, in 1762 Joseph Smith sold them with the rest of his collection to King George III. As the website of the Royal Collection explains, the views were “probably intended to be incorporated symmetrically into the decoration of a single Venetian room,” indeed a kind of private cosmorama of Venice in which a “royal personage” such as George III himself could have had the illusion of taking a tour of Venice without moving from his residence at Windsor Castle.63 It is enticing to think of the hypothetical Venetian room at Windsor as a replica of the casotto in Venice were not the latter a more fitting attraction for a fairground than a royal palace.64

In the penumbra of the casotto, an imaginary Venice is evoked for the contemplation of the observer: a double virtual imaging of the world outside, at the interface of presence and absence, embodiment and disembodiment. With its interplay of mimesis and illusion, the casotto indeed foreshadows an immersive VR experience—with the significant ontological difference that, in the latter, the living reflections of the external world are replaced by synthetic images processed through a computer and a headset. In a VR experience, in other words, pictura and imago have become one—and our eye entirely “artificial.”

Simulation: Casotto / Camera Obscura



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