Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Inside the Casotto: Domenico Selva’s Camera Obscura: Virtual City

Virtual City

And Marco Polo said: Every time I describe a city, I am saying something about Venice.
—Italo Calvino76

In 1756, a year before Giandomenico painted his first Il Mondo Nuovo at Valmarana and before Domenico Selva exhibited his “games” on the piazzetta, Francesco Algarotti, “traveling salesman of the Enlightenment, and of the Neo-Palladian fashion, in particular,” commissioned Canaletto to paint an architectural capriccio. As we have seen in the previous chapter, this word indicates an invented composition, in this case obtained by inserting into the familiar view of the Grand Canal architectural elements inspired by the most famous buildings of the great architect Andrea Palladio (fig. 22).77 This imaginary veduta of the world’s most famous waterway amounts to a sort of “architectural gallery on the water,” perhaps meant “to explore the picturesque possibilities of the Grand Canal and “to develop a new image of the city” in a theatrical approach meant “to exploit dramatic effects, reflections in the water” and convey “a sense of strangeness.”78 An eighteenth-century twist in the pictorial representation of the ideal Renaissance city, such a capriccio is yet another example of the interplay of reality and artifice typical of a highly sophisticated visual culture, one that nurtures its own self-virtualization such as the Venetian. A postmodern translation of this idea is Aldo Rossi’s floating Theatre of the World, exhibited at the 1979 Venice Biennale. Seen here afloat in the bacino facing the piazzetta, Rossi’s Theatre of the World is an architectural counterpart to the mondo nuovo—Venice reduced to a toy version of itself, similar to a floating casotto of sorts (fig. 23).79 Mirrored in its waves, reflected in a camera obscura, or miniaturized in an architectural model, this endangered city keeps providing the inspiration for an impossible urban utopia, or heterotopia.80 As in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, many Venices are concealed in a single city, and only one city, Venice, is concealed in the multifaceted blueprints of all the others, “the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest.”81

As shown by the examples of Tiepolo, Algarotti, and Selva, optics and entertainment are caught in a symbolic loop. Science and art not only produce the show, they are the show: optics is the novelty, the “artificial magic” that turns reality into wonder, and art is the creative experimental practice that playfully illustrates an enlightened view of the world. Selva’s casotto perfectly embodies this notion. Yet, despite the enjoyment of their delighted audiences, their inventive optical devices did not make the Selvas, father and son, wealthy—they were perhaps too far ahead of a time (like our own) when this combination of technology and art (or design) would become the key to making fortunes. “My father acted on a whim (capriccio) but didn’t profit from it,” Lorenzo, the professor, tells his interlocutors in the Dialogues: after calculating the cost of the large camerae obscurae, the cost of building the casotto, and the many days in which the lack of sunlight made the spectacle impossible to see, Lorenzo says, his father was left with only the machines and the lenses (the metal mirrors) to be sold.82 Lorenzo himself displayed two contraptions of the same kind, in two public fairs, but in the end only the people who came and went by his shop had the benefit of seeing them, and that diminished the daily sales, because he never cared to charge people for the demonstration. Perhaps, as a scientist and a professor, Lorenzo cared more about the science than the entertainment, although his devices, as the Dialogues explains, were also well known among the nobility in Venice, in whose salons and parlors these games—such as Zograscopes, magic lanterns, and mondi nuovi shaped like theaters—were fashionable.83

Here, to conclude our case study of Venetian VR, is another example of the productive intersection of science and entertainment in the eighteenth century. In 1740, in the illustrious university city of Padua, not far from Venice, where Canaletto also experimented with his camera ottica (as explained in this video interview with Alberto Zotti Minicilink), an extraordinary figure—equal parts physicist, engineer, mathematician, and philologist—inaugurated his Theatre of Experimental Philosophy, the first such didactic laboratory of any Italian university.84 Like Algarotti, Giovanni Poleni was a good friend of Joseph Smith, the British consul and patron of Canaletto: part of a vast scientific network, he was a member of the Royal Society and the Académie Royale, in touch with the most important scientists of his day. Among other things, Poleni is credited with the invention of the first calculating machine with gears and a variable number of teeth—an ancestor of Charles Babbage’s machines. In his collection of four hundred scientific instruments, now at the Padua University Museum of Physics, optical curiosities play an important part. Let’s take a quick tour of Poleni’s

The “games,” some provided to Poleni by Domenico Selva himself, included a variety of multiplying and distorting mirrors, prisms, a camera obscura, a solar microscope, and at least two magic lanterns, the device whose workings had been first demonstrated by Christian Huygeens a century earlier. With them, Poleni both taught and entertained his students in his theater-laboratory with interesting experiences and observations. Among all these speculative instruments, one of the magic lanterns should especially attract our interest (fig. 24). It includes a series of painted glass slides representing various amusing scenes. Some of the slides to be shown with this magic lantern provide another example of “animated paintings”: as the next chapter will illustrate in detail, the miniature figurines depicted on the glass moved, thanks to simple pulling or cranking mechanisms. Among the surviving slides in Poleni’s collection is “the image (spectacle within the spectacle) of a Venetian casotto in the piazzetta, with the barker portrayed in the act of inviting inside a small crowd of characters in Venetian costumes to admire his wonders” (fig. 25).85

With a little imagination, one could envision the barker as Domenico Selva himself inviting the characters of Lorenzo’s dialogue to enter and enjoy the spectacle inside. A magic lantern slide showing a miniature view of a casotto is another mise en abîme of Venetian VR. A magic lantern show could undoubtedly provide Poleni and his students with a serious object of study in his laboratory and classroom, which itself turned, for the occasion, into a sort of casotto within the halls of the prestigious university where Galileo Galilei had taught with his telescope a century and a half earlier. (Lorenzo himself fitted the observatory with lenses crafted by his father.) Indeed, as we will further explore in the next chapter, telescopes, camerae obscurae, and even magic lanterns together illustrate and embody the deepest aspiration of the enlightened mind as well as its oscillation between virtual realism and playful illusionism. All of this is foreshadowed by Lorenzo and Domenico Selva’s casotto, this peculiar camera obscura, one of the attractions in the piazzetta, in which Algarotti’s “artificial eye” works its magic, capturing both an ideal copy and a fleeting, voyeuristic reflection of Venetian life circa 1760. Inside it, by “silencing” the all-too-bright external light of day, the occasional visitors could perhaps perceive the world as it actually is—a stage—and see themselves as the transparent figurines dancing in a vitreous display, as shadows caught in a mirror, with the clear-eyed perception of Macbeth when he cries:

Out, out, brief candle

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more.86

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