Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Social Voyeurism: Goldoni’s Telescope and Casanova’s Polemoscope: Casanova’s Shadow Play

Casanova’s Shadow Play

Death is a monster which turns away from the great theatre an attentive spectator before the end of a play in which he is deeply interested.

I knew well that in order to lead reason onto the path of truth, it is often necessary to deceive it. Shadows must come before the dawn.
– Giacomo Casanova49

Although the self-fashioned Chevalier de Seingalt (Casanova’s self-attributed title), scion of actors, is not, technically speaking, a man of theater, there is something unmistakably theatrical in Casanova’s autobiography. Indeed, the memoirs of men of theater, such as those written by Goldoni, his rival Carlo Gozzi, and Casanova’s friend Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, form a particularly Venetian subgenre. Blaise Cendrars once called Casanova’s autobiography “the true Encyclopedie of the eighteenth-century.”50 Written in French, the intellectual lingua franca of the eighteenth century, it is also an endless, highly entertaining theatrical monologue, interrupted only by the actor’s own exit from the stage (the Histoire stops in 1776). Today, scholars agree that, however unreliable, the Histoire is both more and less than a novel: the result of an autobiographical project which originated in the aging desire of this scion of actors and literary parvenus to restore his reputation at home and be retrospectively accepted among the elites of his time. If only posthumously, Casanova succeeded, beyond his wildest expectations.51

It is indeed hard to distinguish between the writer and the protagonist of Giacomo Casanova’s monumental Histoire de Ma Vie, “neither the story of a famous man nor a novel,” as Casanova himself writes in the preface to the work for which he has attained literary renown. 52 Presenting Casanova as philosophe and charlatan, magician and trickster, great performer and ham, the Histoire indeed contains multitudes, as though a prismatic lens were applied to its author’s pen. Giandomenico Tiepolo may have hidden his self-portrait as Pulcinella in the 104 drawings of the Divertimento; by contrast, Casanova’s exuberant self-portrait, running through the full 3,600 pages of his autobiography, achieves its declared goal—to tell the truth, nothing but the truth, about its author—by turning its protagonist into a kaleidoscopic parade of masked selves, an encyclopedia of doppelgängers.

Yet, in order to truly appreciate this work, one has to keep in mind the conditions in which it was written. In his melancholic last years spent in the Bohemian wilderness, all Casanova does is write: he depletes the Count of Waldstein’s not insignificant allowance in order to print his own Icosameron, half conte philosophique, half fantastic tale, which is also Casanova’s contribution to the popular sci-fi genre of the “hollow earth,” as well as to our theme of virtual travel.53 The Icosameron  was a publishing failure and Casanova’s attempt to solve the duplication of the cube, known as the Delian problem, also goes unnoticed.54 In near poverty, embittered by a squalid feud with the Count’s butler, Feltkircher, his life at Dux is made even more insufferable by his complete isolation: he, the brilliant conversationalist who entertained Voltaire and the Empress of Russia, doesn’t speak a word of German, the language spoken by his neighbors and a language he despises, and he has to communicate with the other members of the household through his Alsatian valet.55 As an uninterrupted monologue, the Histoire is also a remarkable linguistic outburst.

After the failure of the Icosameron, Casanova buried himself in the library, entirely engrossed in the enterprise which would eventually become, long after his death, his ticket to immortality. Wandering around the rooms of his symbolic prison, also the setting of our next simulation, the unusually tall, dark-skinned Venetian with the flamboyant, threadbare clothes and old-fashioned, affected demeanor, is still an imposing presence, although derided as a strange, effeminate Italian by his uncouth neighbors. As he walks onto our stage, we like to imagine him as the quasi-caricature with the improbable hairdo, turning his back to us and towering above the crowd of characters who jostle for a glimpse of the peepshow, and the future, in Giandomenico’s Il Mondo Nuovo. If, according to Friedrich Nietzsche, an autobiography is the necessary account of “how one becomes who one is,” in the end “who one is” necessarily becomes who others retrospectively imagine us as. Who is Casanova for us, if not the composite of all the countless interpretations of his character?56 The virtual afterlife of Casanova is another confirmation of the panoptical nature of our own self, with our simulation adding yet another Giacomo variation.57

Among the many works inspired by Casanova’s life, one is unique in its genre. In the 1980s, Laura Minici Zotti—a Venetian magic lanternist, perhaps the last of her breed—decided to stage a “Life of Casanova told with the Magic Lantern.” Freely illustrated with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century painted glass slides from her vast collection, Minici Zotti’s spectacle—based on excerpts from Casanova’s own writings—toured the world and was featured in a variety of prominent venues, from the Louvre to the National Gallery in Washington, as she explains in this exclusive

This unique show is the original inspiration for our own playful simulation: an experiment meant to test the properties of the magic lantern. In Zotti’s spectacle, the magic lantern slides compose a visual commentary on a few episodes chosen from Casanova’s overflowing memoir. Yet, to us they are more than just an illustration of his life. Indeed, magic lantern slides possess the same evanescent quality as the virtual images that the aging Casanova summons on the wall of his private memory chamber, a mental camera obscura, in order to consign them to the written page and to posterity. Like the magic mirror/canvas, described by Charles-François Tiphaigne de la Roche in his 1760 novel, Giphantie, which can retain a reflected image and fix it in a picture (a remarkable prophecy of photography), the written page can also be compared to a mirror, or a canvas, on which faint pictures are translated into words, archived in order to be reanimated by our reading.58

“Casanova” is indeed a perfect subject for a magic lantern show, a perfect specimen for an autobiography that turns the private viewing of a peepshow into a public spectacle—a play, a novel, or a film. As the embodiment of a virtual self, our “Casanova” can only have the vitreous transparency of a magic lantern figurine or its many equivalents—creatures made of paper, celluloid, or bits and bytes. Our simulation thus stages a play within the play, an imaginary episode in the life of Casanova. With the help of a gifted visual artist and puppeteer, Alberto Zoina, we have imagined that old Giacomo has found a magic lantern hidden away in a closet of the Waldstein library. He uses the device to project the painted glass slides he has collected throughout his travels and brought with him to Dux, along with his legendary, now lost, “capitularies” (the notebooks in which all his life he jotted down important events and encounters). In our simulation, Casanova is both the lonely puppeteer and a puppet in his own shadow play, as befits his “virtual” nature (or perhaps not so lonely, as he invites a young maid of the Castle, Dorothea, to be his spectator and witness) (figs. 12 and 13).

As the operator of our simulated magic lantern, our “Casanova” is inseparable from his shadowy silhouette, the protagonist of his mnemonic play, his virtual self. As he writes and relives his life at his desk, old Casanova’s gaze is turned toward the past, the shadow play of his own existence. Yet, in our simulation, Casanova’s magic lantern has the power to reverse time in both directions: not only to capture the reflections of a faded past, but also to foreshadow the vision of an imaginary future. Our simulation returns us to our other theme, virtual travel: with the help of Zoina, we have imagined that what Casanova projects on the wall of his study in the castle at Dux are the phantasmagoric scenes from his last journey, a voyage entirely of the imagination: scenes from the aforementioned Icosameron (fig. 14).

Inspired by the likes of Swift's Gulliver’s Travels, with a look forward to Charles Fourier and Jules Verne, this strange novel is in fact a lengthy, ironic response to Voltaire’s short story “Micromegas” (1752). The protagonist of Voltaire’s story is a giant from another world who travels through space in order to discover the meaning of life on earth. Casanova’s protagonists are an English brother and sister who journey to the harmonious but hierarchical world of the androgynous Megamicrons at the bottom of the ocean. In a mix of sci-fi and “biopolitical” allegory, Casanova describes a bizarre, underwater New World populated by multicolored beings, where no sexual act, not even incest, is a sin. In short, Casanova presents us with the paradoxical upside-down Utopia of a conservative New Order, an underwater “Garden of Eden” liberated from conventional prejudices and taboos. A few years before the explosion of the revolution that will destroy the world he lived in, the theater of his many adventures, old Casanova imagines a mirror world where all the conventions of the old regime are disrupted. Our simulation of Casanova’s shadow play will take us to the depths of this proto cosmic mondo nuovo of his imagination, perhaps his ultimate attempt to escape from his final Bohemian exile.

Since there are no illustrated editions of this largely forgotten work, we have asked Zoina to reimagine it as a magic lantern show: we have then remodeled this performance as an interactive simulation, a shadow play, Casanova’s last picture showlink (fig. 15). In creating his slides, Zoina has freely taken inspiration from the eighteenth-century science fiction genre of the Hollow Earth, including such fictions as the work by Norwegian-Danish author Baron Ludwig Holberg, Niels Klim’s Journey Under Ground (1741), mentioned by Casanova himself as a source of inspiration.59 Yet, Zoina’s contribution to this experiment goes well beyond iconographical history. Indeed, the fantastic journey imagined by Zoina envisions a uniquely modern iconography which encompasses both past and future: in his slides, an imaginary journey through time as well as space, a vision takes shape which highlights the ambivalent biomechanical dimensions of the panoptic world Casanova fantasized about, and which we now inhabit—a world in which Utopia and Dystopia cannot be distinguished from one another. As the last slide of Casanova’s shadow play, and our simulation, illustrates, reason is often used to design machines that deceive the eye and the mind, and nature is enslaved to man’s desires and dreams—or nightmares.   

Simulation: Magic Lantern


This page has paths:

This page references: