Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

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


But of all the sciences Optics is the most fertile in marvelous expedients. The power of bringing the remotest objects within the very grasp of the observer, and of swelling into gigantic magnitude the almost invisible bodies of the material world, never fails to inspire with astonishment even those who understand the means by which these prodigies are accomplished.
– David Brewster29

Belzoni may have witnessed the 1802 debut of Philipstal’s Phantasmagoria at the London Lyceum, the “Visionary Illusions, representing the Phantoms of Absent or Deceased Persons” described thirty years later by kaleidoscope and portable stereoscope inventor Sir David Brewster in his Letters on Natural Magic (fig. 9). Ghostly ectoplasms and notable personalities appeared and disappeared on a transparent screen in the “darkness visible” of the small theater, suddenly advancing toward the terrified audience; “spectators were not only surprised but agitated and many of them were of opinion that they could have touched the figures.” 30 This almost tactile impression completed the three-dimensional illusion. One detail in particular strikes us when Brewster ends his description of the Phantasmagoria: “M. [Etienne Caspar] Robertson, at Paris, introduced along with his pictures the direct shadows of living objects, which imitated coarsely the appearance of those objects in a dark night or in moonlight.”31 Similarly, the “experimental” performance advertised by Belzoni as the “Real Phantasmagoria” not only consisted of images made of light and shadows but also of real objects, suggesting what we would nowadays call a kind of “mixed media” spectacle.

The “Grand and Brilliant Display of Optical Illusions” that concluded Belzoni’s theatrical experiments also featured a machine supposedly invented by Belzoni himself: the Aggrescopius. It is quite possible that the inspiration for Belzoni’s Aggrescopius was the aforementioned Harlequin Jack Bologna, who presented a show in 1796 at the Lyceum called the Phantoscopia.32 As the Oxford University and City Herald reveals, Belzoni himself presented a spectacle called a Phantascopia (along with his Somatascopia) in Oxford, in June 1807.33 It is hard to ascertain, by the strange etymology of its name—a term derived from the Latin word grex, a flock, and the verb ad + gregare, “to collect into, add to, lead to, to flock,” figuratively speaking, “to collect, gather, join, bring together”—what the specific feature of the Aggrescopius might have been. However, the term is clearly analogous to phantasmagoria (the latter word, literally meaning an “assembly of ghosts”).34 But what exactly did the Aggrescopius “assemble” in Belzoni’s performance? Not ghosts as in the phantasmagoria but “objects,” and not just their shadows or evanescent silhouettes. In other words, not just phenomena of the imagination, but substances, bodies “which will turn ’round and present [themselves] on all sides,” as the playbill for the Oxford show announced.

Undoubtedly, Belzoni was a master scenographer, the perfect conjurer of “real” illusions.35 Presented as a legitimate scientific “experience,” both the Somatascopia and the Real Phantasmagoria showed the optical transmutation of animated bodies and their contours, or moving shadows—including the shadows projected on Belzoni’s own monumental body.36 The resulting effect was one of simultaneous, ambivalent embodiment and disembodiment. In short, Belzoni’s Aggrescopius approximated the idea of what we nowadays call “virtual presence.” Playing with the transparency and opacity of both the body and the soul, what Belzoni staged could be compared to a kind of reversed kinetic depth effect in which three-dimensional wire figures projected on a translucent screen appear two-dimensional; yet, by manipulating the wire figures, their shadows are made to appear three-dimensional.37 We have no description of the audience’s reaction to Belzoni’s Real Phantasmagoria—whether astonishment, fright, or even the uncanny feeling of seeing supposedly inanimate things move around and change shape. The Oxford City Herald only reports “one little incident of an amusing nature” that occurred during one show in St. Aldate’s:

Some of the younger members of the University, who happened to have taken rather too much wine, presuming upon the exhibitor’s apparent youth and modesty, were putting forward one of their numbers to lay hands upon the lights; that by slyly extinguishing them, they might cause a scene of general uproar and confusion. Belzoni, turning ’round and observing this, said very quietly and civilly, but with much determination to the individual, “Sir, I would trouble you not to meddle with the candles.” It is unnecessary to add that they were not interfered with any more.38

Indeed, an essential ingredient of Belzoni’s unique multimedia “experiments” was what we can characterize as the shock conveyed by Belzoni’s own imposing and exotic presence on stage: in the dim-lit room, the Patagonian Samson would become the medium of the primeval passions. Such emotions were summoned through his monumental body with the help of artful shadows, assembled by his Aggrescopius.

The 1813 Oxford show was among the last performed by Belzoni in England. A new career was in store for him, one in which he would refashion himself from a conjurer into an icon of Egyptian archaeology.


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