Total Vision and Vision in Motion
No device, to which the art of delineation has given birth, has approached so nearly to the power of placing the scene itself in the presence of the spectator. It is not magic; but magic cannot effectually delude the eye, or induce a belief of the actual existence of the objects seen.
–The Critical Review9
As Walter Benjamin wrote in 1935, the nineteenth-century panoramic worldview reflects a profound transformation in the relation between art and technology, “a new attitude toward life,” and a shift in the reciprocal perception of city and countryside, history and nature.10 To a new perception and representation of “Nature’s circumambient scenery” with a “greedy pencil taking in/ A whole horizon on all sides”—as William Wordsworth writes in the Prelude—the panorama adds a peculiar temporal dimension.11 Panorama is a late eighteenth-century neologism whose etymology is composed of two Greek words: παν (all) and οραω (to see).12 However, the artist who first patented this perspectival machine, Robert Barker, used another term for it, an old-fashioned expression taken from the French: la nature à coup d’œil—nature at a glance.13 This view “at a glance,” or in the blink of an eye (colpo d’occhio in Italian), can be reconnected to the evolution of the observation of nature between the second half of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century.14 The neoclassical, pseudo-Greek term panorama eventually prevailed, obscuring the other meaning. Yet, a closer look at this etymological issue can help us better understand the peculiar optical excitement that the moving panorama provoked in its spectators. The moving or “peristrephic” panorama was a counterpart to the circular panoramas which often reached gigantic dimensions (up to 100 feet high) and were displayed in buildings specifically designed and built to host them, such as Robert Barker’s Panorama Rotunda at Leicester Square in London (fig. 4). Like its fixed variety, the moving panorama also turns a pictorial representation into an illusory environment, as Erkki Huhtamo has shown in his comprehensive study of this medium.15 The moving panorama, however, was conceived for a unique kind of itinerant theatrical performance, featuring a “lecturer” or narrator accompanied by music and other sound or light effects. While the large fixed panoramas were a form of indoor entertainment which required a significant architectural framework, moving panoramas were a theatrical variation on other types of street attractions, including the mondo nuovo or the magic lantern, typically shown in fairgrounds or marketplaces (fig. 5).
Both typologies of the panorama, taken together, point to the hybrid nature of the panoramic vision—a total view, at a glance: “placing the scene itself in the presence of the spectator,” the panorama in both its varieties encapsulates both a spatial and a temporal dimension, one which, as we shall see, contributes to the birth of a new historical awareness.16 Yet the meaning of this panoramic “virtual presence,” applied to both the viewer and the view, varies in the two typologies of the panorama, due to their different perspectival effects: while the scene represented in the circular panoramas surrounds viewers who can survey it in its entirety and from different angles by moving around on a platform, the scenes, or tableaux, of the moving panorama scroll in front of the motionless spectators.17 With its mechanical unrolling, the moving panorama also undoubtedly foreshadows the cinema with the sustained illusion of moving along with the story, or the landscape, as in a continuous tracking shot.18 We could therefore speak of two modes of panoramic “viewing,” both made possible by architectural or mechanical devices that draw the observer into the scene by erasing the framed view of smaller paintings. While the large-scale, fixed panoramas provide the illusion of an all-encompassing circular space, the smaller-scale moving panoramas break up the frame horizontally, left to right, in the direction of the viewer’s traveling gaze. One could argue that in the moving panorama, a narrative dimension prevails, whereas the immersive dimension dominates in its fixed counterpart.19 However, both an immersive and a narrative dimension are at work in both panoramic formats, in different ways.
It is in relation to military art, the representation of famous battles and campaigns of the Napoleonic and Garibaldian age, that the two typologies of the panorama can be best understood and appreciated in their distinctive features. As Silvia Bordini has written, as an evolution of military painting, panoramas have a dual effect: they “turn history into spectacle” and “aestheticize war.” On the one hand, they fuel a vision of history as “the product of great personalities…a tapestry of exciting episodes, which interrupt the rhythms of everyday life”; on the other, they fashion “new symbols of authority capable of exciting a powerful emotional attachment, thanks to their heroic collective mode.”20 Panoramas inspired by Napoleonic and Garibaldian battles are the best examples of this medium’s ability to project a “virtual presence,” transforming the viewers into eyewitnesses of world-historical events, drawing them into the scene represented, that they can survey—at a glance.21