Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Further Insights: Eidophusikon

Further Insights


We need to dig a little deeper into the idea of an “animated painting” introduced by Selva in his Dialogues. The animation can be understood in two ways: metaphorically, as expressed in the adjective vivid applied to a still representation of life; or literally, as applied to reflections of the outside world inside the casotto, in which images actually move, captured by the optical apparatus. As Algarotti writes in Newtonianism, referring to a projection through a camera obscura as an image painted by the hand of nature: “It is impossible to express [...] the Pleasure that results from the Motion and Life which animates [italics mine] this fine Piece.”65 This pleasure is the essence of the aesthetic experience described by Algarotti, either provided by a still image that imitates “nature” to perfection, capturing its presence, its “aura,” as in Canaletto’s views, or by a live reflection of the world, captured by a clever apparatus that imitates the workings of nature, including our anatomy. Yet, this pleasure linked to motion may also hide a sense of uncanny, as shown by our analysis of Giandomenico’s paintings Il Mondo Nuovo and The Minuet: both display a slice of life, snapshots of a frenzied crowd, caught in a kind of suspended animation; in Il Mondo Nuovo, what animates the crowd is the curiosity, the craving to look into the device.

A transformation of aesthetic sensibility takes place between the second half of the eighteenth and the early decades of the nineteenth century, against the backdrop of a broader reconceptualization of life that replaces a mechanistic with a vitalistic or spiritualistic conception. A key to this reconceptualization is embedded in an idea of motion in which emphasis shifts from the clockwork or the automaton as a model to a biological model that highlights transformations and metamorphoses visible in the natural world. This reconceptualization is also embodied in optical devices. One of these devices is the Eidophusikon, an invention attributed to Philippe de Lautherbourg (fig. 16). The etymology is interesting: the word combines eidos (image/idea) and phusikon, from physis, a word that emphasizes nature as producer of forms, or natura naturans, generating nature. A moving idea, or image, of nature—nature as motion. As this short video shows, the Eidophusikon was a rather complex theatrical machine, a multimedia apparatus reminiscent of Baroque contraptions but adapted to a new Romantic taste for the sublime by combining in a moving diorama naturalistic images accompanied by dramatic lighting and ambient sound effects. The Eidophusikon is a kind of transitional medium because it consists of a mechanical apparatus designed to produce an artificial imitation of suggestive natural effects. The key to these effects is motion: in short, the Eidophusikon translates into spectacle a vision of nature in motion. As opposed to the mondo nuovo, which suggested motion (virtual travel) by immersing the viewer into a still image, a painting, or a print, thus extracting the viewers from the environment and imaginatively transporting them elsewhere, in the Eidophusikon motionlink is the medium of a visual experience intended to capture the multisensorial, atmospheric, and changing nature of things.

A vision in motion is also what animates descriptions such as the following, in which Goethe captures the essence of Venetian light effects, seen from a gondola floating on the lagoon:

As I floated down the lagoons in the full sunshine, and observed how the figures of the gondoliers in their motley costume, and as they rowed, lightly moving above the sides of the gondola, stood out from the bright green surface, and against the blue sky, I caught the best and freshest type possible of the Venetian school.66

What makes this description interesting is the fact that Goethe uses his real-life perception of light effects while in motion on the lagoon in order to highlight the quality of the paintings he considers most representative of the “Venetian school”:

The sunshine brought out the local colors with dazzling brilliancy; and the shades even were so luminous that, comparatively, they in their turn might serve as lights. And the same may be said of the reflection from the sea-green water. All was painted chiaro nel chiaro; so that foamy waves and lightning-flashes were necessary to give it the last finish (um die Tüpfchen auf zu setzen).67

Goethe, so keenly interested in color and its phenomena, establishes a perfect correspondence between the conditions of light on the lagoon and the “dazzling brilliancy” of the “Venetian school” of painting, best represented for him by Titian and Paolo Veronese. Even the shades are luminous in their paintings. Nothing seems more distant from Algarotti’s sensationalist Newtonianism than the attitude of the author of Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Colors), part of which “is devoted to such effects as after-images, simultaneous contrast and coloured shadows.” Yet, to Goethe “what really matters are ‘physiological colors,’ that is to say, the effects of color as actually perceived,” something that Algarotti’s description of the camera obscura also suggested.68 In other words, it is not the realistic quality of Venetian painting that Goethe extols, but rather its ability to capture, chiaro nel chiaro, the “aura” of the place.

Curiously, tourists roaming San Marco, a few decades after Goethe wrote these words, could buy in one of the shops around the piazza what is inaccurately described as an Eidophusikon and a “moving diorama,” but in fact is a map of Venice, guiding visitors on a virtual tour of the city as if seen from its most typical means of locomotion, a gondola floating on the Grand Canal (fig. 17). This pseudo-Eidophusikon confirms that Venice can be best admired from water level, with all the reflections that make it a unique optical spectacle.

Notwithstanding Goethe’s pictorial taste, his proto-Romantic view of Venice is best embodied in the painting of Joseph Mallord William Turner (fig. 18). Turner captures the environmental, “atmospheric” views that, at the dawn of the new century, more sensitive Grand Tourists embraced as an imaginative antidote to the fading virtual realism of Canaletto and the vedutisti. An astute student of perspective, Turner famously “devoted a fair amount of time to the beguilingly complex effects of reflection and refraction, devising innovatory demonstrations with water-filled spheres which he represented in huge watercolours” (fig. 19).69 Examples of Turner’s experiments are displayed at the Tate Gallery.

Evoked by Lord Byron in his Childe Harold. A Pilgrimage, in 1818—a year before Turner’s first trip to the lagoon—the Serenissima is enfolded in a golden twilight and long shadows. Yet “the pleasant place of all festivity, / the revel of the earth, the masque of Italy,” as Byron writes, echoing Sansovino, still casts a spell “beyond / Her name in story, and her long array / Of mighty shadows, whose dim forms despond / Above the dogeless city’s vanished sway.”70 To a Romantic sensibility, the city’s familiar vedute begin to morph into an emotionally charged diorama, captured in motion, and in all its sensorial dimensions, as demonstrated in the journal of William Beckford, the author of the Gothic novel Vathek, who traveled to the city three years before Goethe in 1783. (In our simulation of a mondo nuovo in the previous chapter, we used quotations from both Goethe and Beckford in order to convey the distinctive impressions Venice made on these two illustrious Grand Tourists). Yet, as scholars have suggested, Beckford’s colorful “sketches” of Venice may best be appreciated in relation to the Eidophusikon, the actual device, not the aforementioned map.71

In Beckford’s literary sketches, as in Turner’s watercolors, Venice is transformed into an iridescent landscape that engages all the senses. Beckford writes:

I passed to a balcony which impends over the canal…Here I established myself to enjoy the cool and observe as well as the dusk would permit the variety of figures shooting by in their gondolas. As night approached, innumerable tapers glimmered through the awnings before the windows. Every boat has its lantern, and the gondolas moving rapidly along were followed by tracks of light, which gleamed and played upon the waters.72

Whereas Goethe admires the city chiaro nel chiaro, or in all its daylight splendor, Beckford’s multisensorial description reveals the city’s shape-shifting nature, caught in the transition from dusk to night, peppered with moving points of light. In his sketches, a view from afar, the city admired from a distance in all its glorious colors, alternates with a view from within the city experienced at street level, where it exudes its intoxicating “Oriental” soul, along with other effluvia.

When oppressed by this noxious atmosphere, I run up the Campanile in the piazza, and seating myself amongst the pillars of the gallery, breathe the fresh gales which blow from the Adriatic; survey at my leisure all Venice beneath me, with its azure sea, white sails, and long tracts of islands shining in the sun. Having thus laid in a provision of wholesome breezes, I brave the vapours of the canals, and venture into the most curious and murky quarters of the city, in search of Turks and Infidels, that I may ask as many questions as I please about Damascus and Suristan, those happy countries which nature has covered with roses. Asiatics find Venice very much to their taste.73

Throughout the nineteenth century, this multisensorial representation of a kaleidoscopic, misty, and Oriental Venice evolves into a Romantic cliché. To a northern sensitivity such as Beckford’s, the city on the lagoon appears as an outpost of Asia in Europe. In his descriptions, the Eidophusikon becomes a metaphorical sketching and writing device and a kind of poetic emblem, like the mondo nuovo was for Goldoni. A new vision of the world takes shape, in images and words, for the benefit of an audience increasingly enthralled by atmospheric and subjective transfigurations of reality. New optical tools accompany, or even trigger, this transformation, such as Thomas Gainsborough’s show box with its illuminated transparencies that “produce striking effects of chiaroscuro,” similar to those of a magic lantern slide (figs. 20 and 21). This connection between sketching and writing tools is more than an analogy, as Bedford’s “sketches” show. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, as a new vision of the world begins to take shape in words and images, such innovative technical instruments designed for drawing as the camera lucida patented by William Hyde Wollaston in 1806 and Cornelius Varley’s graphic telescope, patented five years later, are “less in service of optical precision” than appreciated for their “ability to transpose reality into a more melodious key.”74 Such a musical analogy is not casual, and it doesn’t metaphorically apply only to Romantic poetry. From Newton’s assumption “that colours and tones obeyed the same rules of harmony” and his comparison of “the rainbow to a musical scale” to Leonhard Euler’s concept of optical or chromatic octaves and Thomas Young’s “harmonic waves” and their interference, various explanations of light waves and colors in terms of acoustics—tones, vibrations, undulations—are a consistent feature of eighteenth-century optics.75 This shifting perception, from optical precision to synesthetic experience, is arguably foreshadowed in Selva’s casotto, in which a kind of experimental magic, such as that described by Della Porta and Algarotti, is at work.

When Beckford and Goethe traveled to Venice in the 1780s, the ideal city of Canaletto was already fading into the past. Yet, as we have shown with this chapter’s simulation, long before Venice turned into a virtual copy of itself, the panoramic vedute such as those painted by Canaletto were already part of the VR experience built into the Grand Tour and so aptly summed up by the casotto in all its dimensions. Such vedute provided the illusion of being there, along with the painter’s shadow, looking at the view as he painted it: the experience of a virtual presence, Venice perceived as an evanescent Elsewhere, suspended between seeing and not seeing, between a mirage and a peep show. Inside the casotto, as in a kind of natural Eidophusikon, Venice is caught in suspended animation: a beautiful, living painting painted by the hand of nature and the human hand together, an animated painting that only a vision in motion could best aspire to capture.

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