Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

A Real Phantasmagoria: The Great Belzoni’s Show: Somatascopia


Giovanni Belzoni, the once starving mountebank, became one of the most illustrious men in Europe!—an encouraging example to all those, who have not only sound heads to project, but stout hearts to execute.
– Charles Dickens1

The protagonist of this chapter is one of the many Italians who, like Casanova, left their “little homeland” and wandered the world in search of fortune. Like Casanova, Belzoni succeeded in self-fashioning a virtual persona: as a pioneer archaeologist, he became a source of inspiration for such future, larger-than-life, cinematic “super-heroes” as our contemporary Indiana Jones or Nick Morton (of The Mummy film franchise). In order for us to appreciate the remarkable story of the Great Belzoni Show, the 1821 exhibit at Egyptian Hall in London that is the subject of this chapter and the simulation that accompanies it, we must first examine Belzoni’s early career as a “mountebank.” As we shall see, it includes a series of performances based on optical tools and illusions that were critical to the development of his London exhibition.

Giovanni Battista Belzoni was the son of a Roman barber who had settled with his wife in Padua, the city in the Venetian territory where Galileo and Selva taught in the university and where Casanova went to school. Here, Belzoni was born in 1778. According to his own account, at age fifteen or sixteen, he fled Padua for Rome as the Napoleonic armies invaded Northern Italy.2 In Rome, Belzoni was initiated in the science of hydraulics and made a living repairing the many beautiful fountains found around the city, an expertise that, as we shall see, later bought him a passport to Egypt. Yet, not even Rome was safe. When the French entered the Eternal City in 1798, chasing the pope into exile, the twenty-year-old Belzoni decided it was time to leave Italy for good.3 Like one of the Savoiardi we encountered in the Preface, or one of the Tesini, the traveling salesmen of mondo nuovo prints, Belzoni took to the road “with a colporteur’s pack of religious images, rosaries, and relics… and trudged North over the Appennines, and over the Alps into France.”4 In 1802, he crossed the Channel and reached London. There, through Jack Bologna, the scion of a family of Italian acrobats and one of the most famous Harlequins of his time, Belzoni became acquainted with Charles Dibdin, manager of Sadler’s Wells Theatre. In April of 1803, Belzoni took to the stage alongside Bologna and Joseph Grimaldi, another scion of Italian expatriates and a famous clown.5

Belzoni’s debut at Sadler’s Wells was later evoked by Charles Dickens in a note to Grimaldi’s autobiography: “The season [was] memorable for the appearance on that stage of the celebrated traveler, Signor Giambattista Belzoni, as the Patagonian Samson in which character he performed prodigious feats of strength, one of which was to adjust an iron frame to his body, weighing 127 lbs., on which he carried eleven persons.”6 The act became known as the Human Pyramid: “the whole forming a kind of Pyramid, when thus encumbred [sic] he moves as easy and graceful as if about to walk a minuet; and displays a flag—in as flippant a manner as a dancer on the rope.”7 Soon after his arrival in England, Belzoni met his future wife, twenty-year-old Sarah Bane—”a pretty, delicate-looking young woman,” in Dickens’s description. Could she have possibly been the “Madame” who, according to Dickens, “in the costume of Cupid, stood at the top, as the apex of [the] pyramid and waved a tiny crimson flag” (fig.1)?8 Perhaps the fruit of Dickens’s fervid imagination, this image adds a romantic dowel to the mosaic of Belzoni’s Egyptian predestination. The “Hercules in tinsel” (as Dickens also called him) quickly gained a reputation. Belzoni appeared in a pantomime at Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre heading a troup of Indians.9 He also played other exotic characters like a Cannibal King in another “serious” pantomime, a parody of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.10 In 1805, a full-length portrait of Belzoni was featured in a colorfully illustrated booklet entitled Extraordinary Characters of the Nineteenth Century that told “the history and adventures of great and little persons indiscriminately…which are seen in the streets, or have publicly exhibited in, or about London” (figs. 2-3).11

At twenty-two years of age and six-foot-seven inches, the Patagonian Samson made quite an impression on his contemporaries: “The gorgeous splendour of his Oriental dress was rendered more conspicuous by an immense plume of white feathers, which were like the noddings of an undertaker’s horse, increased in their wavy and graceful motion by the movements of the wearer’s head.”12 In short, the majestic Roman with statuesque features was transfigured into an oversized embodiment of the (noble) savage (fig. 4).13 In his costume de scene, Belzoni could well have been featured in the phantasmagoria of the Americas painted by the Tiepolos at Würzburg.14 However, with his Herculean labors, fictional and real, Belzoni contributed with a different kind of phantasmagoria to the making of nineteenth-century cultural imagination.

Belzoni’s repertoire included an “Optical Exhibition” called “The Phantasmagoria,” the optical spectacle that is at the center of this chapter. This exhibit was part of a show of “Extraordinary Novelties” presented in Dover in November 1807 in the company of Dan Gyngell. Interestingly, the “Mathematical, Philosophical, Experimental, and Uncommon Deceptions” staged in this show are expressly aimed to unmask those who (like Goldoni’s Eccliticus) try to “cheat adults out of their fortunes” with their illusionistic tricks. Designed “to impress upon the imagination an idea of something supernatural,” they are “pleasingly and actively employed in counteracting the deceptive effect,” appealing to “that faculty of the mind which dispassionately considers the nature and propensity of things, and draws rational conclusions.”15 In addition to his “Herculean Attitudes,” Belzoni had a flourish for putting on “experiments” that challenged both the reason and the imagination, including “a brilliant display of Pyrotechny, or Philosophical Fireworks.” The whole show was crowned by the Phantasmagoria, which included “Ghosts or Apparitions, Phantoms of the Dead and Absent.”16

Technically speaking, the Phantasmagoria was a modified type of magic lantern show: mounted on wheels, the lantern could track back and forth, making the projection first appear small and then grow in size on a hanging cloth, or screen, giving the spectators positioned on the other side the impression that a “phantasm” was moving toward them. To add an even ghostlier effect, the cloth could be also enveloped in smoke (fig. 5).17 Yet, Belzoni’s phantasmagoria was a genre in its own right. In Oxford on May 7, 1808, Belzoni, billed as the “Grand Sultan of all the Conjurors,” presented “an entire new experiment in OPTICS called SOMATASCOPIA”

entirely different from any optical experiment, as the substance of the figure and not the shadow only, will turn ’round and present itself on all sides, to the spectators. Signor Belzoni is the only person who has discovered this experiment; consequently, the only one who has ever exhibited it either in or out of London. He will afterwards introduce several figures in the Real Phantasmagoria.18


This Somatascopia, or “vision of the body” (from somatos, Greek for “body”), is indeed the most peculiar among Belzoni’s “Extraordinary Specimens of the Gymnastics Art” (fig.6).19 In it, the statuesque Italian reenacted some of the physiognomic portraits by French artist Charles Le Brun representing the passions of the soul (fig.7 ).20 Belzoni seems to have turned Le Brun’s drawings into animated tableaux. According to one commentator at the time, “Signor Belzoni is the only Person who has ever attempted to give an animated Copy of the different Passions which have been painted by this illustrious Artist.”21 Perhaps, Belzoni’s performance was also inspired by the art of the shadow and by the contemporary fashion for physiognomic “shades” or silhouettes.22 Nevertheless, in Belzoni’s Somatascopia, “the substance of the figure and not the shadow only” presented itself on all sides, three dimensionally, to the spectators.23 The shadowy effects were most likely obtained by candlelight projected on Belzoni’s brawny body and by his extraordinarily expressive countenance, as though the “Grand Sultan of all Conjurors” were himself “possessed” by Le Brun’s passions, surprising and enthralling his audience with his dramatic grimaces and poses. While the handbill for the performance announces a “difference between Somatascopia and Phantasmagoria,” unfortunately we have little direct evidence as to what that might have been. However, as we will show, as a vision of the transfigured body, the Somatascopia was integral to the exhibition called the Real Phantasmagoria—a kind of Phantasmagoria, but without ghosts.

Chapter 4 hero image: View of Belzoni's Exhibition from Don Juan Volume the Second: Containing His Life in London, or, a True Picture of the British Metropolis (London, 1821–1822)


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