Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Social Voyeurism: Goldoni’s Telescope and Casanova’s Polemoscope: A Diabolical Little Glass

A Diabolical Little Glass

There is another thing that I noticed not without some admiration and that I may not omit. The area around the middle of the Moon is occupied by a certain cavity larger than all others and of a perfectly round figure…It offers the same aspect to shadow and illumination as a region similar to Bohemia would offer on Earth, if it were enclosed on all sides by very high mountains, placed around the periphery in a perfect circle.
– Galileo Galilei8

In 1791, the same year in which Giandomenico painted the last version of Il Mondo Nuovo at Zianigo, Giacomo Casanova, the Venetian libertine, was sixty-six years old. Aged beyond his years, he had just seven years left to live. Confined in Bohemia, by his own account a gloomy corner of the world, the Venetian was in charge of the library in the castle of Dux while his patron, Count Joseph-Charles Emmanuel of Waldstein, spent his time in Paris, depleting his fortune with horses and gambling (and perhaps plotting against the Revolution). As for Casanova, most of his time at Dux was spent working on the monumental testament with which the Venetian wanted to set straight the record of his life: Histoire de Ma Vie (The History of My Life). In 1791, Casanova had also completed a play, written in French and dedicated to the Princess of Ligne, the daughter of Count Waldstein: Le Polemoscope, Ou La Calomnie Demasquée Par La Présence d’Esprit (The Polemoscope or Slander Unmasked by Presence of Mind). The strange word in its title refers to an optical tool with an interesting history.

Invented by the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius a century and a half earlier, the polemoscope was originally conceived as a military device (its name derives from polemos, or “war,” in Greek): it functioned as a kind of periscope used by soldiers to look at the enemy without being seen. Reverse-engineered and miniaturized into a social gadget, the polemoscope—also known as a “jealousy glass”—allowed its user to spy on a secret target while seeming to point in a different direction, thus diverting any suspicion—or allowed the user to keep an eye on someone without being noticed—“and by that means gratify curiosity without appearance of incivility,” as Gale’s Cabinet of Knowledge put it in 1808 (figs. 5–7).9

Le Polemoscope is set in Cremona, Italy, in 1748, toward the end of the War of the Austrian Succession. Like the rest of Lombardy, the city was being occupied by the French army, under the orders of the Maréchal of Richelieu. In a note to the reader, Casanova says that his work is based on widely known facts and that the polemoscope episode at its center—he calls it “the binocular with prismatic lenses”—is drawn from real life.10 Also described in the play as a “diagonal opera glass,” the gadget is at the center of an erotic quadrille involving two French officers who court, unrequited, a married Italian Countess and her more available friend, a widowed Marquise. In the process, the polemoscope becomes a tool of amorous warfare and a visual correlative to the intertwined obliquity of motives (desire, deceit, faithfulness, pride, false pretense, social decorum) that animate the four protagonists caught in its web—with a political twist. Like the strange telescope in Goldoni’s opera buffa, Casanova’s “jealousy glass” is both a physical device, which obeys the laws of catoptrics, and the theatrical medium of a social critique.

As the play opens, the Marquise tells her friend, the Countess, she is convinced that one of the officers, Gissor, covets her, as, in the theater, he keeps pointing his opera glasses toward her. Disappointed that he has not yet paid her a private visit, the Marquise complains: “How strange are these French people! All amiable, all chivalrous, but all pretentious: they behave as though everything should be granted to them, without any doubt. Gissor…is the only one who doubts his own charm.”11 “If you think that he loves you only because he looks at you from a distance through his lorgnette,” her friend the Countess cautions the Marquise, “well, forgive me, but the evidence is a little scant.”12 The Marquise suspects her friend’s skepticism is due to the fact that the Countess herself is in love with the charming and apparently shy officer. To disabuse her of this idea, the Countess offers to support her friend’s cause with Gissor. While they are having this conversation, Gissor shows up to visit the Countess. In a clever move, the Marquise asks him to lend her his opera glass so that, in order to have it back, he will be forced to pay her a visit and finally declare his true intentions. After the Marquise departs, the Countess tells Gissor that she is convinced he secretly loves the Marquise. “How can you be so sure?” the officer asks. “I don’t have definitive proof,” answers the Countess, “but what can one think when a reasonable man like you spends the entire two hours of a spectacle in the theatre looking in one direction, at the same person?” To which, Gissor enigmatically replies: “Even though what you say seems true, you are mistaken.”13

The peculiar properties of the little spyglass are soon revealed and the riddle is quickly solved. In the second act, the Marquise, suddenly enraged with the French officer, asks the Countess to return the gadget to Gissor on her behalf, because she doesn’t want to see that dishonest man again: “Damn little glass! Damn little glass!” she keeps repeating. The Countess is puzzled. It is the Count, her husband, who, after a quick examination of the lorgnette, discovers the real reason for the Marquise’s sudden change of heart:

Count: Look here...this is truly a diabolical little glass... It has a gift: it lets one see things one does not want to see...
Countess: What do you mean, things one doesn’t want to see? Let me have it! You are right, it is very strange. It is built in such a way as not to show the object toward which it is pointing but another, to the right or the left of it, at a certain distance from the observer. Ah, ah, ah! It is a Polemoscope, it was not invented for this purpose but in this case, it has worked well. Ah, ah, ah!14

The enlightened Count then provides an interesting explanation for the real purpose of this device:

Count: It is an ideal tool for a polite and cautious lover (un galant politique) who does not wish to reveal the lady he covets. Yet, at the same time, it is a formidable trick (une fière attrape). Ah ah ah! How funny, The Marquise fell right into the trap. But she is crazy to be so angry. It is only a Polemoscope.15

All is clear: only a polemoscope. Once the simple mechanism is detected, however, the fact remains that watching someone without being seen, diverting and cloaking one’s gaze, is an ambiguous act—an expression of politeness and civility, which can also be seen as a reprehensible form of deception. The ambivalence of the tool is registered: aimed at protecting one’s privacy (supposedly, both that of the observer and the observed), it can turn into a trap, as the rest of Casanova’s play will effectively illustrate.

Was the Marquise inadvertently caught in the deceptive trajectory of Gissor’s gaze, thus becoming convinced she was the object of his interest, only to be enraged when, looking through the device, she discovers she could not have been its focus? Or, as the Countess suspects, was Gissor perpetrating a cruel trick, using the tool to deliberately deceive? That’s what the Countess sets out to discover, confronting Gissor, who claims to be innocent because his was indeed “an involuntary error”—he did not realize that the lady at whom he aimed his spyglass, in order to look sideways, was the Marquise.

Countess: You didn’t know that the lady in front of your Polemoscope was the Marquise?
Gissor: If I had only imagined it, I swear, I would have gotten another box.
Countess: No need for that. Couldn’t have you simply looked through a loyal (straight) glass (une lorgnette loyale)?
Gissor: I don’t think I could have, Madame.
Countess: But in what “true” direction did you look, then? If I may ask, thank you?
Gissor: I beg your pardon, again, but it is a secret protected by my glass.16

The savvy Countess is not easily deterred. It may turn out, she suspects, that the diabolical lens allows one to see exactly what or whom one wants to see, thus turning a seemingly innocent social tool into a deliberate instrument of surveillance. In order to discover the real direction of Gissor’s gaze, the Countess performs a little optical experiment aimed at making the device “talk.”17 The Countess’s experiment is rigorously geometrical and consists of reconstructing in the private salon of her palace the public setting in which it all happened: the theater.

Countess: Please, let me see this odd machine. I want to test its truthfulness (sa fidelité). Do you mind if I make it talk?
Gissor: On the contrary, Madame, your curiosity flatters me [he gives her the opera glass].
Countess: The distance between your box and that of the Marquise, which is exactly in front of yours, is the same as the width of the stalls, about sixty feet (dix toises), as everybody knows. Now, I count sixty feet from where I am standing to that table that you see over there, and point the glass [she brings it to her eye]. Instead of seeing the table, I see the door of my apartment [she lowers the glass and measures the distance from the table to the door]. This door is twenty-four feet from the table. The width of my box is six feet. You were looking then at the fourth box either to the right or to the left of that of the Marquise. To the right, the fourth box is that of the old Countess Manfredi, whom no one could possibly desire to look at; to the left, the fourth box is without any doubt that of your humble servant.18

With her straightforward calculation and linear reasoning, based on her exact knowledge of the crime scene, the dimensions of the theater, the Countess deduces all, and Gissor’s jealously guarded secret is discovered: she herself is the hidden object of the officer’s desire, which the Countess now tries to divert toward a more discreet and polite friendship:

Countess: Your humble servant, who is not upset to be the object of your interest, having inspired in you a friendship equal to that she feels for you; at the same time, however, she is surprised that you wish to disguise her under the veil of such a mystery. Please, sir, admit that your glass is not a safe that cannot be opened (un secretaire qu’on ne puisse sonder) and the Marquise could have snatched out your secret as well as I did.19

Yet, her friend, the Marquise, did not discover the secret, as she lacks the esprit, the wit, and the optical knowledge of the Countess who, at the end of the scene, dismisses Gissor with these words of wisdom: “Farewell, Count. Be wise, and calm: and love me in the same way I love you. By the way, you won’t mind if I sequester this liar,” as she calls the spyglass.20 Yet, ironically perhaps, at the end of the tragicomedy—as some scholars have described Casanova’s play— the Countess herself will be forced to lie in order to defuse an explosive situation created by Gissor’s rival,Talvis, the other French officer. The polemoscopic plot thickens: having discovered his comrade’s indiscretion, Talvis, portrayed as a self-confident bully, mocks Gissor, claiming that in order to seduce the Countess he does not need to resort to “tricks” and lies (meaning the help of the deceptive glass). In short, Talvis has the courage to look his coveted object straight in the eye and act on his own desires, unconcerned with rules of decorum. He despises hypocrisy and mocks the idea of acting as a cicisbeo—that peculiar and, to his eyes, abhorrent Italian institution according to which even married ladies would have, with the permission of their husbands, an official suitor or lover, a chevalier servant, accompany them to public functions, at the theater, at balls, or even to church—sometimes in order to deflect the public’s eye from their real love interests.21

To further provoke his rival, Talvis claims that in fact he has already won the Countess over: he has secretly seduced her. Gissor is outraged by the insinuation and, to defend the lady’s honor and his own, challenges Talvis to a duel. Talvis, however, counters by proposing a bet: no less than the lady herself should be the judge of their dispute and either confirm or deny his claim. The trap is laid. The honorable Gissor refuses to compromise the lady and prepares to fight, but he is forced to accept the bet when the Countess comes on stage and demands to know the reason for their dispute. Nothing has happened, clearly, between the Countess and Talvis, but Talvis has brutally forced her hand. The Countess is thus faced with an unsavory dilemma, not entirely dissimilar from the one Gissor himself faced, when he decided to protect the identity of his secret object of desire with a “lie” (the polemoscope)—out of politesse (as he claims), or out of deviousness and cowardice (according to Talvis). Here is the choice the Countess must make in order to defend herself and avoid a public scandal: she can tell the truth, defend her honor and refute Talvis’s slander, or she can lie, falsely admit her guilt, and have Gissor pay the bet. After brief reflection, she unexpectedly chooses the second option. Why? As we shall see, Casanova’s play becomes a kind of thought-experiment which makes the audience (and his dedicatee, the Princess of Ligne) reflect further on the devious polemoscopic laws of social deflection.


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