Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Further Insights: Cosmoramas


Further Insights


“How,” asks Darius Spieth, “are we to reconcile the visual and semantic information embedded in [Giandomenico’s] composition with the manifold linguistic ambiguities implied by the term il mondo nuovo?”24 Some scholars have read Il Mondo Nuovo in light of the discovery of the New World, an expression that can be traced back to a fifteenth-century edition of Amerigo Vespucci’s letters entitled Mondus Novus.25 More recently, Adelheid M. Gealt and George Knox have stressed the connection between the “optical box [scatola ottica]” in Giandomenico’s painting and the reference to the imagination of the Americas.26 Following Spieth, I propose that the geographical allusion to the New World, while certainly relevant, is perhaps less crucial than the reference to the optical device and the literary source of its name.27 More specifically, I argue that the painting deliberately plays upon the double meaning of its title in a way that is both consistent with the cultural context of eighteenth-century Venice and peculiar to the young Tiepolo’s own artistic vision. Indeed, as we shall see, this ambiguity is built into the very subject of Giandomenico’s painting as a satirical take on late eighteenth-century Venetian society and the fashion of “virtual travel.”

A short foray into the realm of the cartographic imagination will serve to illustrate the latter point. As already mentioned, one of the alternative terms used for this device is cosmorama, which refers to early modern cosmographies, or descriptions of the world. These descriptions could be textual, visual, or a combination of both. A beautiful Venetian example of a cartographic cosmorama is the aforementioned “Sala dello Scudo” in the Ducal Palace (fig. 12). Four large maps decorate the whole length of its walls—a representation of the cosmos from the perspective of Venice, the geographic “eye” not only of Italy but of the entire known world.28 Originally from the fifteenth century and restored by Francesco Griselini in 1762, the maps show the world as described over the centuries by Venetian merchants, travelers, and explorers, from the lands touched by Marco Polo during his legendary twelfth-century journey (India, China, and Mongolia) to the Near or Middle East (Constantinople, Palestine, and Persia) along the Silk Road that brought Venetian merchants to the East and merchandise and riches back to Venice.29


Completing the gallery are smaller maps by Griselini: one, opposite the entrance, presents “the early stages of the brilliant navigations and discoveries of Sebastiano Caboto and his father Giovanni in which the North American coast from Labrador to Florida loom in the distance,” giving us a glimpse of the New World.30 Indeed, the North Atlantic and the Arctic waters (Greenland) were supposedly reached by the Venetian brothers Nicolò and Antonio Zen in the fourteenth-century, in a journey (documented with a map) that scholars now doubt ever took place and thus perhaps belongs to the realm of virtual travels.31

Compared with the descriptive cosmography of the Sala dello Scudo, the mondo nuovo device shifts from cartographic imagination and ducal geopolitics to a more popular and iconographic mode of representing—and embracing—the world. What, for Venetian dukes in the Sala dello Scudo, was a display of geographic knowledge for the benefit of the government progressively morphed, throughout the nineteenth century, into technologically mediated forms of popular entertainment and educational shows for the benefit of the middle classes, such as the Abbé Gazzera’s gallery.

In this shift from cartographic to iconographic representation, from “map” to “tour,” as Michel de Certeau has written, a new configuration of the observer takes place so that a new type of active viewer is born.32 This is an observer in virtual motion, a prototype of the contemporary virtual tourist, a figure that accompanies, throughout the nineteenth century, the popularization of the Grand Tour. Indeed, virtual travel is a crucial aspect and effect of what Jonathan Crary has called “techniques of the observer,” the historical construction of the observer at the interface of body and mind.33 Isolated from the surrounding environment by the act of looking through a hole or a lens, this virtual traveler is, paradoxically, nevertheless embedded within a local setting, as humorously illustrated by Goldoni’s poem and Giandomenico’s painting.

Compared with the Ducal Palace cartographic display and Abbé Gazzera’s virtual gallery in Paris, the mondo nuovo is a more modest example of a cosmorama meant to provide a cheaper kind of immersive experience, by peeping into the hole of a cassela, or little box. Yet, looking inside this little box dramatically broadened the viewer’s horizons and triggered the imagination, including, albeit indirectly, our own imagination, as we try to imagine the effect that this experience had on children and adults alike in an age less technologically sophisticated and skeptical than ours. It is plausible that children were enthralled by the view, while adults were above all intrigued by the novelty of the device that conveyed it, the world contained in such a minuscule, deceptive space. This wonder and the curiosity it elicits will also be the premise of our journey into Giandomenico Tiepolo’s Il Mondo Nuovo—itself a sophisticated, and somewhat deceptive, optical device.

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