Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Fossilized Shadows: Italy through the Stereoscope: Mini Grand Tour, Reversed

Mini Grand Tour, Reversed

Travelers to Italy are so many, interest in the sights of Italy is so widespread, it seems at first thought superfluous to ask why we should see Italy. But the very wealth of a traveler’s experiences sometimes keeps his mind so focused on fascinating details that he fails to realize the extent of the benefits that come to him as the result of this journey.
—D. J. Ellison51

This chapter’s simulation is based on an Underwood & Underwood stereoscopic kit, Italy through the Stereoscope. First published in 1897, and reedited several times afterward, it appears from the outside like a leather-bound book, yet it contains a viewing-reading apparatus of a different kind, as explained earlier. Users of Italy through the Stereoscope could travel first on a printed map that marked the positions from which the views (the double photographs composing each stereograph) were taken. To complete the illusion, the guidebook provided an explanation of the view, effectively positioning the active viewer “inside” the image as the result of the double photograph: the apparatus thus embedded the viewer into the image production system, and the viewer’s experience of actually “being there” was therefore the result of a multimodal cognitive operation triggered by the apparatus. Italy through the Stereoscope begins in Rome; takes the virtual traveler first south, to Naples, then north, up the peninsula again, and ends in Venice. In our simulation, we reverse this direction: we start from Venice and travel south, all the way down to Sicily. Our starting point is a stereoscopic view of the piazzetta, off San Marco, where our trip into the Mondo Nuovo (both the painting and the device) began, in Chapter 1. As the map included in the stereoscopic kit confirms, we are looking at the piazzetta as though from a gondola floating on the bacino, near the Riva, where the Selvas’ casotto was positioned, offering the same view, oriented toward the piazza and the clock tower. This is déjà vu, for the reader of Shadow Plays, and indeed stereoscopic images of Venice were described precisely this way by Albert E. Osborne in his introduction to the Underwood guidebook. Curiously, by extolling the power of the stereoscope, Osborne reveals what could be considered its counterproductive effect. As we saw in Chapter 2, eighteenth-century visitors already lamented that the real Venice could not live up to its virtual representations, whether captured in a painting by Canaletto or reflected by means of a camera obscura within the Selvas’ casotto.52 The stereoscope adds another dimension to this recurring disillusionment: by virtue of its increased realism, it seems to deprive the experience of the real thing of its very emotional intensity—an intensity that the stereoscopic apparatus is, however, capable of restoring. As Osborne writes, the stereographs provided a traveler with “wonderfully accurate ideas of the appearance of many places in Venice,” but they also conveyed “distinct experiences of location in Venice, experiences which had brought with them part of the very same feelings that came to him on the ground in Venice.”53 In short, it is because he had already “experienced” the place, he had already “been” to Venice virtually, that when he arrived in the place itself, the stereoscopic traveler “seemed to have no new experience, no new taste of though he was returning to places he had visited before”; his experience “was more of the same kind that had come to him while shut in with the stereographs at home.”54 Returning to our point of departure, we once again encounter the paradox of virtual travel as a fundamental component of virtual realism: capturing the aura of the place, the apparatus turns the place into a pale copy of itself, deprived of emotional impact.

Yet, to counter this detrimental effect, the stereoscope also makes possible the repetition of the experience, as the guide of Italy through the Stereoscope, Ellison, writes on the last page of the book. The déjà vu effect is part of the attraction that virtual travel exercises, as an experience that can be repeated at leisure. This is also, paradoxically, its novelty:

We have seen fair Italy, you and I together but in the days fast coming we may return and look upon its delightful scenes again and again. And when we do, it will be but natural if we linger most and longest where the splendor shines the brightest and deepest, upon this Grand Canal with its broad pathway of quivering gold framed by palaces of alabaster whose traceried windows and pillared facades gleam with rosy light.55

Leaving Venice behind, enveloped in its golden twilight, our simulation takes us south, following the route of an accelerated Grand Tour. The simulation focuses on ten views, accompanied by a commentary that includes quotations from the captions inscribed on the stereocards and from the guidebook, along with a few critical observations about the stereographs’ perspectives, the objects represented, and the experience provided by each view. The specific mapping system devised by Underwood & Underwood is also included for each image (with the exception of the last two, which, as explained below, are taken from a different kit); however, readers of Shadow Plays can also follow the complete itinerary on a mid-nineteenth-century map of Italy that provides an interesting cartographic representation, curiously inverting the traditional north-south orientation of the “boot.”56 This map was selected to accompany our tour because it incorporates an unusual perspective for a bird’s eye view of the peninsula, a view which, as the title of the textbook in which it was included states, conveys “Geography at a Glance.” Moreover, the map shows the peninsula from a slanted vantage point floating over the Alps; in a way reminiscent of contemporary 3D or Google Earth perspectives, it orients the virtual traveler away from Europe and toward the northern coast of Africa, looming as its distant horizon and vanishing point (fig. 11).

By reversing the conventional cartographic representation, this map foreshadows the historical developments that provide the backdrop for our stereographic itinerary: first published in 1853, less than ten years before Garibaldi’s Sicilian expedition accomplished Italian unification—when “Italy” was still a “geographic expression,” as the Prince of Metternich once famously said—the map seems to suggests the inevitable southward drive of the Risorgimento.57 Retracing the steps of a mondo nuovo tour, our simulation will take the virtual traveler on a southward journey, like the Garibaldi panorama did for its provincial British audience. The map also foreshadows Italy’s projection deeper into the Mediterranean in the twentieth century, exemplified by the ill-fated attempt by Mussolini and his fascist regime to reclaim the Roman Mare Nostrum (our sea) and expand the nation to the African “fourth shore,” resurrecting a colonial empire that had been lost for centuries (fig. 12). Mussolini’s imperial ambitions were themselves at least partially a response to the thorny “Southern question”—the failed integration of the North and the South of the bel paese, united by geography but divided by diverging histories, economies, and cultures. Against this historical backdrop, the upside-down map helps us problematize another aspect of the southward direction of our mini Grand Tour. It illustrates how the drive of Italian unification and subsequent Italian imperialistic aspirations in North Africa are consistent with the representation of the Italian South as “Orientalism in one country”; if the Garibaldi panorama illustrated the latter idea from a British vantage point, Italy through the Stereoscope shows its evolution on a global scale.

Few trailblazers ventured far south in the early stages of the Grand Tour in the eighteenth century. However, by the time the stereoscope arrived in the mid-nineteenth century, Naples and Sicily were often included in tourist itineraries as established destinations. The means of their inclusion is particularly interesting for us: the traditional touristic attraction of Italian cities as living museums is enhanced by an “ethnographic” curiosity for the indigenous inhabitants. In short, Southern Italy, a land as exotic to the eyes of the virtual travelers as the New World was for those peering into the mondo nuovo, was also a subject of the colonial imagination: a cultural peep show, part of the voyeuristic consumption of the ancient/exotic Other, both archaeological and ethnographic, inaugurated back in the Napoleonic age, as discussed in Chapter 4. Perhaps the most manifest example of this stereotyping gaze is how the guidebook introduced a typical Neapolitan street view, included in our simulation, entitled “The Lazzaroni, as They Live in the Streets of Naples”: “What a scene for degenerate character study! Or is it merely illustrative of Darwin’s Descent of Man?”58 The stereoscope makes the stereotype—Naples as “a Paradise inhabited by devils”—even more tangible.59 With its Darwinian and Shakespearean references, the text completes the virtually realistic effect of the image for the cultivated reader-traveler: in this “real phantasmagoria,” if men are devils in disguise, women, especially old women, can only be compared to witches (fig. 13).60 The guide goes on to explain how the term lazzaroni (a synonym of “idler” or “slacker,” in common Italian parlance) comes from Lazarus, the man resuscitated by Jesus in the New Testament, with perhaps an implicit reference, it adds, to the Hospital of St. Lazarus where dying people were sheltered in times of plague—which would effectively make the lazzaroni a variety of the “living dead.”61 Yet, a more specific sociological explanation is also attached to this representation:

In the beginning they formed a semi-criminal class, and, indeed, many vicious criminals were found among them. They are now of different classes, some being loafers, who do nothing, and others who only work occasionally and for a short time, acting generally as porters or peddlers, living mostly by their wits, and many of them, without the burden of house rent and taxes.62

The explanation also includes a comment on the lazzaroni’s typical clothing, “of a most primitive style,” consisting of “a coarse white shirt open at the front and a pair of ragged overalls,” again making the observation and the stereotype as accurate and based on “evidence” as possible. Indeed, the guide adds, an illustrious eyewitness, Alexandre Dumas, “declared that the Lazzaroni degenerated as a potent factor in Neapolitan life from the time that they began to devote any attention to clothing,” an attention extended to tattooing—as Ellison notes, “tattooing is a rage among these people, both men and women.”63 Blending poverty and criminality, Ellison goes on to describe how “closely allied with these people, and, indeed, hardly to be distinguished from them, was the powerful and well organized society called the Camorra,” the Neapolitan equivalent of the Sicilian Mafia, so powerful “that even the police and ward politicians were forced into a league with them”; and concludes with a diagnosis that sums up, and further consolidates, the stereotyping, literary and anthropological references included: “A large class of such people could be produced only in a city where the climate is conducive to laziness, making any effort wearisome, and, as a rule, idleness and crime go hand in hand.”64

The Orientalist view of the “picturesque,” mandolin-playing, tarantella-dancing Neapolitan people (Naples, the birthplace of Pulcinella), which became a touristic stereotype, is thus embodied, in all its ambivalence, in the lazzaroni.65 It is the same ambivalence haunting Giandomenico Tiepolo’s Pulcinellas, the “white devils” of his postrevolutionary private phantasmagoria. Interestingly for us, this description of the lazzaroni as a “criminal class” also echoes the descriptions of the Savoiardi, the traveling peddlers we encountered at the outset of our journey, who carried the mondo nuovo or magic lantern on their shoulders, accompanied by the notes of their hurdy-gurdy, selling a cheap form of virtual travel and capturing the imagination of their customers in the streets of Venice or London. Once portrayed as Romantic figures, they were later considered members of the growing “dangerous and depraved classes” (to use the expression of the French sociologist Honoré Frégier), including both the migrant wayfarer and the metropolitan (sub)proletarian.66 Clothing is also a mark of this nomad class, which prefigured the ragged migrants (close relatives of the Neapolitan lazzaroni) who, around the same time that Ellison was writing for the benefit of American virtual tourists, were reaching American shores in large numbers.67 From nomad to migrant, a symmetry is thus established between the pioneers of virtual travel and the stereotyped object of virtual tourism at the beginning and the end of a century which witnesses the intertwined effects of virtual and real mobility, involving ever larger masses caught in the process of globalization. Through the stereoscope, the “innocent at home,” the American virtual traveler, is simultaneously provided with the peculiar evidence and the thrill of experiencing Neapolitan street life, entering a Neapolitan basso, “a sort of shed or stable, with a door that may be closed at night, but no windows,” and watching the eloquent way in which the natives communicate through a vocabulary of gestures, caught in their motions “as clearly as if quite still,” as Holmes wrote. “The conversation of the Lazzaroni, and, indeed, of Neapolitans generally, is largely made up of gestures; it is more emphatic and saves considerable trouble.”68 All this is crowned by a striking analogy with a domestic stereotype: “These people, like the colored people in America, have a streak of humor.”69

Venturing south, our mini Grand Tour also includes a journey back in time, to archaeological sites like Herculaneum and Pompeii, “petrified cities” whose discovery, a century earlier, promoted an entirely new aesthetic vision and a new appreciation of historical vicissitudes, the ephemeral rising and falling of empires. Positioning virtual travelers deep within the streets of Naples or Palermo, or transporting them to the calcified lava foothills of Mount Vesuvius, these views are thus populated by what Holmes called “fossilized shadows”: ordinary people and archaeological relics caught, as if quite still, in their living habitat, forensic evidence of a foreign, “primitive” culture to be examined up close, at leisure, in the stereographic library or museum, or in the comfort of one’s own living room. Finally, just as our mondo nuovo tour included two imaginary views of the New World—exemplifying its dual natural and historical attraction, Wilderness and Revolution, for late eighteenth-century virtual travelers—our stereoscopic journey includes two images that challenge the vision of the early twentieth-century virtual tourist. Taken from a different set, a Corona Stereo Travel kit of 1908, they show a Sicilian shepherd tending to his flock, oblivious to the ruins of a majestic Greek temple in the background, and a group of Southern Italian migrants on the crowded deck of a ship about to leave the port of Messina, in Sicily, headed for the Americas.70 These stereographs have this in common: their subjects, the shepherds and the migrants, return the photographer’s gaze, looking straight at the camera (and the viewer), both present and absent. Thus, on the one hand, our stereoscopic tour aims to illustrate the visual colonization of the Italian South as a late development in the popularization—and marketing—of the Americanized Grand Tour for a new breed of virtual tourists; on the other, the last two stereographs aim to provide a different kind of experience for the viewer: reversing the position of the virtual tourist, embedded in the apparatus, suddenly turned from a disembodied subject into the focal object of the gaze.

Simulation: Stereoscope


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