Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Social Voyeurism: Goldoni’s Telescope and Casanova’s Polemoscope: A Strange Telescope

A Strange Telescope

Lisetta: I wish there existed in the world a telescope / Through which you could gaze into the bottom / of my poor heart / To see how it burns only for you / with fidelity and love / (He is truly crazy if he believes one word).
—Carlo Goldoni1

As Giandomenico’s painting and Lorenzo Selva’s casotto show, virtual travel and social voyeurism are intertwined in Venetian optical games. Both are demonstrations of Goldoni’s theorem: in Venice, the world and the theater mirror, indeed contain, each other. As we have seen in Chapter 1, Goldoni’s poem “Il Mondo Nuovo” is a playful embodiment of this idea, the foundation of his virtual realism. Yet, Goldoni’s imaginative reliance upon optical metaphors went even further.

In 2010, a futuristic production of one of his most inventive librettos, a dramma giocoso per musica, or playful musical drama,2 was presented by Gotham Chamber Opera in New York City on an extraordinary stage: the Hayden Planetarium in the Museum of Natural History. No stage could have been more appropriate (fig. 1). In Il Mondo della Luna (The World of the Moon), written in 1750 and set to music by various composers, the protagonist Eccliticus is a “false astrologist” equipped with a curious optical device “invented by [his] subtle ingenuity” (fig. 2). With this contraption Eccliticus loves to play tricks at the expense of ignorant and gullible victims. “What a beautiful job is imposture,” he unabashedly sings, “I do my part, with fake astrology, deceiving both the fools and the learned.” His chosen dupe is Buonafede (literally “Good Faith”) who falls for Eccliticus’s fake science. The astrologist promises to show Buonafede that the Moon actually contains another world, complete with hills and mountains made of such “thin matter” that people who walk on it don’t get tired. “How did you discover such things?” cries Buonafede, to which Eccliticus replies:

I made a telescope / which penetrates so far inside / it makes you see both the surface and the center. / Not only does it spot / kingdoms and provinces / but also houses, squares and people. / With my big spyglass, / for my enjoyment, I can see women up there / undress when they go to bed.3

With the persuasive call of a mondo nuovo peddler, Eccliticus has Buonafede enter his observatory to look into the spyglass while he instructs his two servants to operate his “little machine.” Thanks to this mechanism, when Buonafede looks into the lens, he sees “figures move one by one,” believing them to be images coming from the Moon. These “animated pictures,” it turns out, portray various “amusing scenes,” beginning with a classic scene of voyeurism—modeled after Susanna and the Elders from the Book of Daniel—and including other edifying situations meant to titillate Buonafede’s misogyny (an unfaithful woman beaten by her husband, a woman deceived by her lover) (fig. 3). Gazing through Eccliticus’s fake telescope, the gullible Buonafede thinks he is observing scenes on the Moon, yet these are no different from what takes place every day on Earth. In short, to Buonafede the Moon appears as an ideal world, where things are as they should be and women are kept in their place, while Eccliticus knows that the Moon is just an inverted mirror of our planet. As Eccliticus sings, “Signor Buonafede believes he sees / ‘moody’ women only in the sky / but the ‘loonies’ are also down here.” These visions delight Buonafede so much that he rewards Eccliticus handsomely.

The whole plot and all the double meanings in the operetta rotate around this telescopic caper.4 The telescope becomes the tool of an elaborate meta-theatrical display, a play within the play, which is also an outlandish prank pulled by Eccliticus with the complicity of his friend Ernesto, his servant Cecco, and Buonafede’s coveted young maid, Lisetta, at the gullible Buonafede’s expense. What is remarkable from our point of view is that the play’s satire of voyeurism makes a double use of optics. Eccliticus announces to Buonafede that he has been summoned by the Emperor of the Moon, with whom the “astrologist” communicates via the telescope (the Emperor, too, has a telescope and both devices are somehow connected wirelessly). Buonafede is desperate to accompany Eclitticus on his voyage, since, up there, women are kept in their place and maidens seem to indulge old men’s desires, as he believes he has witnessed through the telescope. Goldoni’s telescope, however, is more than just a pretext or a joke. While on stage, Eccliticus deceives the voyeur Buonafede with the optical illusion of an elaborate mise-en-scène, backstage Goldoni unmasks for his audience the deceptive power of optical devices. As Eccliticus proclaims:

They make me laugh / those who believe / that what they see / is the truth. The simpletons don’t know / that everybody feigns / and colors truth with falsity.5 

Goldoni’s play with optics is a witty form of social criticism: the secret of Goldoni’s theatrical craft is to expose the trick without spoiling the entertainment. Eccliticus makes Buonafede sip a magic potion (in fact a sleeping draught) through the telescope turned into a kind of beaker or oversize straw. When he wakes up, Buonafede is convinced that he has been magically teleported to the Moon. At this point the comedy within the comedy turns into a Carnivalesque farce, and the telescopic vision becomes “real.” On stage, as Pulcinella would say, the world appears exactly as it is—but upside down. The scene is a veiled parody of Galileo’s famous observation of the Moon through his telescope, or perspicillum (spyglass), as he calls it. Thanks to a clever combination of concave and convex lenses, things “appear about a thousand times larger and more than thirty times closer than when observed with the natural faculty only.” With his telescope, Galileo discovers that “the Moon is by no means endowed with a smooth and polished surface, but is rough and uneven and, just as the face of the Earth itself, crowded everywhere with vast prominences, deep chasms, and convolutions.” 6 On Goldoni’s stage, the rugged World of the Moon turns into a lush garden (fig. 4).

In the garden, the Emperor of the Moon (played by the disguised servant Cecco) compels the miserly Buonafede not only to give his daughters, Clarice and Flaminia, in marriage to Eccliticus and his friend Ernesto but also to endow them with a rich dowry, including Lisetta, the maid, engaged to Cecco. A fake nuptial ceremony is staged, made even more amusing by the onomatopoeic language supposedly spoken by the Moon’s inhabitants—“What kind of language is this?” Buonafede asks himself, “Is it Scottish, is it Arabic?” Things come to a head when, once they have achieved their goal, Eccliticus and company abruptly declare the comedy done. “What do you mean, the comedy?” cries Buonafede. Suddenly realizing he may have been duped, Buonafede, suggestively cries, “Ah malicious telescope!”

The third and final act provides a happy ending as befits a dramma giocoso per musica, or a playful musical drama. In the end, Buonafede is forced to put a good face on the swindle, as a dignified “superlunar” gentleman would do. For his part, once the peace is restored, Eccliticus can destroy his telescope. No need for a distorting mirror anymore. Social harmony and reason prevail, and everybody can celebrate. Goldoni’s telescopic critique of Venetian social voyeurism picks up where his poem, “Il Mondo Nuovo,” left us in Chapter 1. It suggests that these clever optical devices may well be derided as suitable only for children and simpletons, and the craze for them can be denounced as a means to deceive gullible customers. Yet, Goldoni the playwright is keenly aware of the pedagogic and even self-reflective possibilities they offer for reasonable adults. Such contraptions can both produce illusions and dispel delusions—just as the two lenses at the ends of a telescope, concave and convex, correct each other so that the image, while inverted, appears right-side up. As Eccliticus himself sings:

How many foolish mortals / with false telescopes / believe they see the truth / and don’t know how to discover falsehoods. / How many keep scrutinizing / what others do / and do not learn to know themselves.7

In the end, Goldoni’s fake telescope is a tool of enlightenment, revealing the comic delusions of those who, like Buonafede, believe in its magic properties and take things at face value. The jocular dimension of Venetian optical spectacles is thus confirmed. In the hands of Goldoni, Galilei’s telescope is transformed into a peeping-tom device: the imaginative flight to another world and the piercing gaze inside our own world are two parts of the same visual game, two inseparable components of this most Venetian virtual realism. 

Chapter 3 hero image: Henri-Nicolas van Gorp, Woman with a Lorgnette, ca. 1800-1819, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen, 1907.1.82

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