Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Further Insights: History at a Glance

Further Insights

History at a Glance

I want to create a novel called The Battle, where one can hear the firing cannons on the very first page and the cry of victory in the last page, and during which the reader believes he is taking part in a real battle, as if he saw it from the top of a mountain, with all of its accessories, uniforms, casualties, details, the eve of the battle, and the aftermath; Napoleon dominating all of this.

- Honoré de Balzac22

Panoramas exemplify a virtually realistic system of representation that, in the nineteenth century, cuts across the arts. By making the event immediate for the spectators, the large panoramas of Napoleonic battles produced “the illusion that the meaning of history can be seized at a glance” through the emperor’s eyes.23 The effect is best exemplified by the passage cited above, from a letter in which French writer Honoré de Balzac explains how he intends to provide an immersive panoramic perspective in a novel conceived as the description of an extended battle scene. Balzac’s description perfectly fits the Napoleonic panorama type: in it, the emperor embodies a “total vision” of history, a point of view shared by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, to whom Napoleon famously appeared as “an individual, who, concentrating on one point while seated on a horse, stretches over the world and dominates it.”24 This panoramic perspective has its roots in military topography. In his treatise Vom Kriege (Of War, 1832), itself a response to the innovations in military strategy brought about by the Napoleonic wars, Karl von Clausewitz stressed how a synthetic perception of time and space in a coup d’oeil—at a glance—is crucial for a correct and quick decision on the battlefield: “The military coup d’oeil, then,” comments Charlotte Bigg, “differs from the naturalists’ in being an accurate survey of landscape absolutely situated in time and for immediate purposes of action”—namely, “the recognition of the best point of attack.”25 The great military leader, in other words, has both a “panoramic” understanding of the war theater and simultaneously foresees the unfolding of a battle in the blink of an eye, an ability that both Napoleon Bonaparte and Garibaldi eminently possessed. This surveying point of view is clearly exemplified by Napoleonic military paintings, such as, for example, Horace Vernet’s Napoleon at Wagram (1835): Napoleon is portrayed on his white horse, in the act of handing back to an orderly what looks like a map, intent to observe the unfolding of the battle from high ground through a telescope, as to signify that the general’s “coup d’oeil completes the accurate survey of the battlefield (fig.6).

Panorama painting further expands this perspective based on the topographer’s vision.26 From the panoramas of Pierre Prevost commissioned by Napoleon himself for a series of rotundas to be built on the Champs-Elysées, to the midcentury panoramas of Colonel Jean-Charles Langlois, the representations of famous battles of the Napoleonic age directly translated the vision of the great military leader into the point of view of the spectator. “It is a tableau full of life,” the Journal des Artistes writes of one of Langlois’s panoramas, as the impression of a visitor to the earlier panorama of the battle at Borodino (1812): “In front of me, having the bell towers of the town of Borodino to the right, I see the emperor, alone, ahead of his staff, on a small hill, on the edge of the ravine of Agnitza. From there, his eagle eye embraces and directs the whole of the operations.”27 We can compare this description with one of the last scenes of the Garibaldi moving panorama, added to the original painting in 1862, which portrays the general surveying the grounds and the enemy troops before the battle at Aspromonte (fig.7). In this image, part of a sequence that is analyzed in detail in another section of this chapter, Garibaldi is represented on foot, among his soldiers, a few steps ahead of them but on the same level: we look at the scene as though from the ground, a few meters away from the general and his men. This comparison illustrates the contrasting visions enabled by panoramas for their spectators: while in the Napoleonic example the focus is the telescopic view of a surveying gaze—as in a cinematic long shot—in the Garibaldian one, viewers watch the scene tracking along the roadside (to complete the cinematic analogy). In the circular panoramas, it is the tracking eye of the spectator that projects a narrative motion into the scene; in the moving panorama, the scrolling images drive the spectator’s gaze. While the monumental Napoleonic panoramas enabled a complete survey, a “total view” of a historic moment frozen in time, the moving Garibaldian panoramas gave spectators the illusion of witnessing the action from up close and in real time: traveling with the hero, tableau after tableau.

The difference between these two media is also reflected in the different pictorial techniques that produced their special kind of realism. The eyewitness effect of the circular panoramas was based on a meticulous attention to details, a survey of the battleground which later included photographic snapshots of the empty and ruined battlefield taken in the aftermath of the battle and used, for example, by Langlois to faithfully recreate the setting in the painting.28 With its rushed compositional technique—broad paint strokes, patches or splashes of color—the moving panorama is designed to provoke an emotional impression on the spectators in a coup d’oeil, at a glance, for the short time the scrolling image stops before their eyes. Its sketchy quality is somewhat reminiscent of the quasi-impressionistic techniques developed by the Italian painters known as the Macchiaioli in their contemporary representations of Risorgimento scenes.29

This sketchy and cursory technique also reflects the speed with which the panoramist translated the news into spectacle. Painting quickly, in order to keep up with the events, the moving panorama embodies a dynamic “vision in motion,” an eye-level view of history-in-the-making consistent with the invention of a popular hero such as Garibaldi. Its realistic effect is functional to an emotional participation in the scene. In short, in the moving panorama, the panoramic superhero transforms from clairvoyant surveyor into action figure, a perspective embraced by the Garibaldi panorama’s provincial audience. By taking the spectators on a virtual journey with the hero, the Garibaldi panorama makes them part of the adventure.

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