Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

History at a Glance: The Garibaldi Panorama: Art on an Epic Scale

Art on an Epic Scale

…a curiosity so unusual that librarians weren’t exactly sure what to call it; so big that displaying it was almost out of the question, and so breathtaking in scope that it would make Cecil B. DeMille jealous.

– Lawrence Biemiller 1

On December 19, 1860, readers of the Derby Mercury who happened to peruse the paper’s “Notes of the Week” must have felt they lived in an interconnected world. Flashed around the globe via electric wire, news regarding a British expedition to China reached Derby, a town in central England at the heart of the Industrial Revolution: “The changes of position in this startling campaign have been as exciting and as rapid as the shifting scenes of a drama,” comments the anonymous author of the Notes, “we await further dispatches with anxiety.”2

These words could have well been used to describe the moving panorama, a medium that embodies what nowadays we call “infotainment.” Indeed, the same reader who followed the Derby Mercury’s unfolding drama from the Far East might have caught sight, a couple of columns on the left, of another kind of news flash, disguised as an advertisement: Mr. Bianco’s “MAGNIFICENT MOVING CARTOONS,”link the ad proclaims, will bring the Italian hero Giuseppe Garibaldi and his legendary feats home to Derby. Advertised as a two-hour encounter with the general, this “GRAND CHRISTMAS ENTERTAINMENT” also promises “Perils by Sea and Land, Battles, Sieges, Victories, Adventures, Cruel Tortures, and Sufferings of the heroic and invincible Garibaldi!”—in short, all the trappings of feuilletons, popular magazines, and, a few decades away, cinematic blockbusters.

Infotainment, the conversion of information into spectacle, is a fundamental trait of what we call modernity. As the centerpiece of this conversion, the moving panorama illustrates yet another dimension of the “virtual realism” that Shadow Plays interprets as a specific feature of modernization. Although the panorama is presented as a spectacular display, a substantial truth claim is attached to the promise to meet the hero, albeit by “virtual presence,” for the popular prices of three- or sixpence, one shilling to sit up front. Indeed, what makes this spectacle truly amazing is that its protagonist, while legendary, is not the figment of a novelist’s imagination. Bianco’s “moving cartoons” are the reenactment of historical events which had already made an impression on the British public a decade earlier. “The Defense of Rome and the Death of Annita [sic], are alone worth a visit!” boasts the ad, referring to the heroic defense and tragic fall of the Roman Republic which, in 1849, had launched the flamboyant Garibaldi as a protagonist on the European stage.3 The general’s adventurous escape from Rome after the fall of the Republic and his desperate attempt to reach Venice, accompanied by his pregnant wife, Anita, and a handful of faithful comrades, had become legendary thanks to the reporting of illustrated newspapers, a media genre that emerged in the 1840s. Now, Bianco’s cartoons brought the images of that tragic love story back into the limelight, at an epic scale, and reconnected Garibaldi’s established legend to the news from southern Italy that reached Britain over the summer and through the fall of 1860: Garibaldi leading red-shirted volunteers in the Expedition of the Thousand, a venture to liberate the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Sicily and Naples) from Bourbon tyranny. Indeed, the last scene of the panorama viewed in Derby around Christmas shows Garibaldi’s triumphal entry into Naples, only six weeks earlier, in the company of the King of Sardinia, Victor Emmanuel II (soon to be crowned, in March 1861, the first king of the newly united Italy) (fig. 1).

After its debut in Derby, several shows in Nottingham, the city not far from Derby where it was produced, and a few performances in North America where (as we shall see) it traveled with a new owner, the Garibaldi moving panorama disappeared from the public eye for a century and a half, only to resurface in 2005, when it was acquired by the John Hay Library at Brown University. It is an impressive artifact: a paper scroll approximately 4.75 feet tall and 260 feet wide, painted in tempera on both sides. The Brown library proceeded to restore it, and two years later in 2007, the physical artifact became the centerpiece of a virtual display (fig.2). A digital version of the panorama is now at the heart of a website that allows visitors to view it in various modes. A wealth of multimedia resources from the Brown library collections, including images, portraits, and musical scores, complete the Garibaldi Panorama & the Risorgimento Archive,link along with a trove of historical documents. An accompanying application for touchscreen devices, developed by Brown faculty and their students, has made it possible to display the virtual version of the panorama in classrooms, libraries, and exhibits around the world.4 Drawing from this rich digital archive, this chapter sketches the story of the Garibaldi Panorama as well as the story it told: an interactive simulation illustrates its features as both an optical device and a spectacle.

The Garibaldi panorama encapsulates the nineteenth-century panoramic worldview, exemplifying a hybrid medium that combines a variety of other media, from painting to theater.5 Comparable to the newsreel of the cinematic age, the moving panorama turned historical events into a compelling visual narrative, reflecting a new kind of historical awareness in an age marked by great upheavals: the birth of new nations in the heart of Europe and the expansion of colonial empires on the other side of the globe.6 However, it is the link between the spectacle of the moving panorama and the increasingly rapid news cycle that is crucial in order to fully understand the nature and impact of this painterly time-based medium. The conversion of the news into spectacle is an important feature of globalization. Indeed, throughout the nineteenth century, globalization is also an optical effect: although not quite as simultaneous as live TV or crudely immediate as video captured on a mobile phone, wired and illustrated news made the world seem smaller and remote events feel closer, more dramatic, and more relevant than ever before. For those who followed the news daily, or at least weekly, space and time seemed to compress. Larger-than-life personalities like Garibaldi embodied the spirit of the time, mesmerizing the popular imagination with a unique combination of reality and fiction: through new media like the moving panorama a view of history-in-the-making was born.

Chapter 5 hero image: J. J. Story, Scene 52, from The Garibaldi Panorama, 1862. Gift of Dr. James Smith, Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library

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