Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Further Insights: The Shadow Show

Further Insights

The Shadow Show

The art of the shadow has a long and fascinating history that brings us back once more to the Savoiardi we encountered in the Preface. As Robert Altick writes in his history of London’s fairground shows, in addition to the mondo nuovo and the magic lantern, the Savoiardi were also associated with a third type of optical entertainment: “the shadow show, otherwise known as the Schattenspiel, Italian shadows, or Ombres Chinoises.”24 As Altick writes, a number of optical spectacles existed side by side during the 1770s “only awaiting someone who would put them together”:

There were, first of all, the magic lantern and the Chinese shadows, both depending for their effect upon strong light—in the one case to illuminate and enlarge scenes painted on glass slides, in the other to illuminate transparencies which served as the illusory background for sketches performed by shadow figures. Then there was the increasingly elaborate use of transparencies not only during public celebrations and at the pleasure gardens, but—most important for present purposes—in the theatre, especially the pantomime.25

As an element of theatrical scenography, we could trace the origins of these popular shows farther back, to Sebastiano Serlio’s De’ lumi artificiali delle Scene (On Stage Artificial Lighting, 1545). Transported from Renaissance courtly theater stages to the fairs of London, these spectacles are also related to modern contraptions such as de Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon mentioned in Chapter 2. Often their point of origin seems to have been the Venetian Carnival. Altick quotes the following from the memoir of another Italian immigrant in London, Henry Angelo, the son of the famous fencing master Domenico (Angelo Domenico Malevolti Tremamondo, 1716–1802):

At a carnival in Venice, my father first saw that pleasing pictorial drama, entitled Le Tableau Mouvant. He was so delighted with its effect, the scenes being painted as transparencies, and the figures being all black profiles, that he constructed a stage on the same plan, and it was greatly admired by Gainsborough, Wilson, and other English landscape painters.26

At the request of his royal patron (the Princess Dowager), and with the help of the famous scenographer Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni, Angelo proceeded to stage a similar spectacle, “worthy a royal audience,” in London. The great Shakespearean actor David Garrick also employed Angelo’s Italian shadows technique in his popular pantomime Harlequin’s Invasion (1759), producing “a very fine composition…painted with masterly execution: the slips or screen [were painted] in the usual opaque manner, but the back scene was a transparency, behind which visionary figures were seen flitting across, upon the plan of the tableau mouvant” (fig. 8).27 This illusionistic apparatus was crowned by a special effect, which, thanks to a powerful light source, the product of many candles, made the whole stage appear on fire—a kind of pyrotechnics. Thus, a variety of popular theatrical amusements that could be seen at Carnival in Venice were carried by the Savoiardi across the Alps and became fashionable spectacles in Paris and London. Italian showmen of various extractions—a true invasion of Harlequins—made them popular, and Belzoni was one of the most notable.28

Was Belzoni’s Somatascopia a kind of tableau mouvant à la Servandoni? A kind of phantasmagoric pantomime in which real bodies and their shadows intermingled? Was his pyrotechnic show, marketed as “a curious combination of the two most opposite elements, FIRE and WATER,” obtained with the same candlelight technique? Although possible, what is most important for us is that a kind of “phantasmagoric realism” seems to be what made Belzoni’s optical display a unique attraction, one “entirely different from any other optical experiment,” as the spectacle’s playbill declares.

This page has paths:

This page references: