Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World




So, we have come upon an interesting and fundamental tension. One goal for VR must be to make the illusion as convincing as possible, for otherwise what are we even doing? But the best enjoyment of VR includes not really being totally convinced. Like when you go to a magic show.
– Jaron Lanier, Dawn of the New Everything1
Pedagogic side of this undertaking: “To educate the image-making medium within us, raising it to a stereoscopic and dimensional seeing into the depths of historical shadows.”
–Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project2

Mondo Nuovo

Two and a half centuries ago, anyone walking the streets of Rome or the squares of Venice may well have encountered a peculiar kind of hawker crying out, accompanied by the notes of a hurdy-gurdy: Chi vuol vedere il Mondo Nuovo?—Who wants to see the new world? Carrying a little box on his shoulders, this member of a vast family of itinerant peddlers sold, for a few coins, a unique experience: virtual travel.3 As a flyer from the 1760s reveals, a customer peering inside one of these boxes, known as a mondo nuovo, could see

great distances and perspectives of Temples, Squares, Saloons, Palaces, Courtyards, Gardens, Ruins, Camps, Woods, Mountains, Plains and Sea Harbors, all adorned by amazing changes of scenery, which decorate each view, including night views, with many colorful interior and exterior lighting effects, with the Moon, and the Stars as they are in Nature, and many other things.4

Improbable bearers of “great distances and perspectives,” the Savoiardi, as these peddlers were known—after their homelands in the Alpine valleys at the boundary between France and Italy—carried with them the whole wide world in a box, offering “the sight of a fine show in London, as they offered the sight of a new world in Rome.”5


In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such popular forms of entertainment provided dynamic, immersive experiences that propelled viewers to a “new world,” an Elsewhere, foreshadowing present-day VR, AR, and XR environments. Typically studied as part of the prehistory of cinema or the archaeology of media, analog technologies such as the mondo nuovo or cosmorama, the magic lantern, the moving panorama, and the stereoscope played an important role in the development of our conception of virtual reality. Even when virtual travel experiences were based on photographic reproductions of real places, as with the stereoscope, these contraptions evoked a shadow-copy of our world—a heterotopia that exercised a powerful pull on minds and imaginations. In six case studies, and in dialogue with recent scholarship on the “postdigital,” Shadow Plays explores such devices alongside the virtual realism that characterizes our contemporary culture, shedding light on illustrious or, in some instances, forgotten figures from Italy’s past who have paved the path toward today’s ideas of virtual reality.6 Virtual realism, as I argue throughout these case studies or epistemological tales, is a concept and a cultural formation encompassing both the virtualization of the real and the realization of the virtual, through means that are both technological and artistic—a paradoxical endeavor, as VR pioneer Jaron Lanier points out in the epigraph above.7

A Virtual Journey

As a digital monograph, Shadow Plays mirrors to some degree the characteristics of the devices it studies—perhaps none better than the subject of Chapter 6: an Underwood & Underwood stereoscopic kit, Italy through the Stereoscope (fig. 2).

Dating from the 1890s, this kit, which from the outside looks like a series of guide books, contains a different kind of viewing and reading apparatus—a multimodal system that allows the reader/user to travel virtually in space and time, enabling an imaginative experience mediated by optics. Similarly, Shadow Plays preserves the fundamental properties of a monograph while enhancing the reader’s experience beyond the boundaries of its traditional analog container, the printed book. This enhanced reading experience is accomplished through a series of interactive 3D simulations approximating the historical experiences of virtual reality described in each chapter. In a technical sense, these 3D digital renderings simulate how analog optical devices worked as physical objects while also simulating the experiences they offered to certain eighteenth- and nineteenth-century viewers. In a more theoretical sense, these simulations can be understood as historical simulacra, as virtual copies of copies.8 For, in addition to rendering, virtually, an already virtual experience of traveling Elsewhere, the simulations achieve the same effect as the following magnificent exemplar of an eighteenth-century cosmorama shaped like a teatro all’italiana: they show how the world, the theater, and the device that contains them both, mirror and model one another.

As the animation on the virtual cover suggests, the modeling concept of this monograph is the epistemological feedback loop established between the analog artifacts and their digital simulations. Contained within a digital book conceived as an optical theater, the digital models are designed to show how these artifacts from an analog world foreshadow the virtual realities we associate with our contemporary digital culture: shadow plays from a distant past visualized through our own shadowing technology. Within its own ideal optical theater, through the windows opened within its “pages,” the reader of Shadow Plays will explore a series of curious episodes in the multifaceted history of our perception of virtual reality and virtual realism, from the eighteenth to the late nineteenth centuries.

We begin our itinerary in mid-eighteenth-century Venice, exploring how the device called mondo nuovo expressed (in its very etymology) both the vision of a New World and the fascination with the novel tools enabling that vision. In our first case study in Chapter 1, Giandomenico Tiepolo’s painting known as Il Mondo Nuovo provides the lens through which we focus on two intertwined thematic threads: virtual travel and social voyeurism, two facets of the virtual realism that cuts across the system of nineteenth-century popular media, foreshadowing contemporary developments in digital culture.

Our second case study, in Chapter 2, focuses on Domenico and Lorenzo Selva’s casotto, an oversized camera obscura, from which one could gaze at a reflection of the world of 1760 Venice outside, confirming how a reality perceived through an optical and theatrical apparatus, namely a walk-in camera obscura, could exercise a powerful attraction on the Enlightened mind, both reinforcing and challenging the meaning of virtual realism as an aesthetic tenet and a technologically mediated system of representation.

Our third case study (Chapter 3) focuses on two plays by two celebrated Venetian authors, Carlo Goldoni and Giacomo Casanova, and examines how optical devices such as Goldoni’s telescope and Casanova’s polemoscope, a spyglass with devious properties, were enmeshed, both realistically and metaphorically, within the playful representation of social power games and gender relations. In the same chapter, the simulation of an imaginary magic lantern shadow play illustrates the strange heterotopian world that Casanova describes in his long forgotten “sci-fi” novel Icosameron, showing how optical metaphors inform the self-fashioning of the modern subject as a (self)-knowledge system which, like a magic lantern, applies in particular to autobiographical memory and utopian imagination.

Our fourth case study in Chapter 4 is focused on the legendary 1821 exhibit of Pharaoh Seti I’s tomb at the Egyptian Hall in London, as conceived by the Paduan amateur field archaeologist and showman Giambattista Belzoni. I analyze the “aura of the facsimile” as another manifestation of an increasingly pervasive virtual realism in its gradual shift from a system of representation to a system of cultural (re-)production, a system from many points of view perfected by digital technology. Belzoni’s pioneering exhibit not only foreshadows the more sophisticated reproductive techniques available to contemporary archaeologists and cultural heritage specialists, but also inaugurates a new vision for immersive and emotive museum installations, a virtual trend that the 2020 pandemic greatly amplified. Through Belzoni’s example, I also show how the shift from the realism of virtualization to the realization of the virtual is intertwined with the Western phantasmagoric appropriation and consumption of the colonial Other.

Chapter 5 illustrates the life and career of the Italian national hero Giuseppe Garibaldi via a moving panorama acquired and digitized by the Brown University library. Our case study follows this artifact on its journey from Nottingham, England (where it was produced in 1860, almost simultaneously with Garibaldi’s celebrated expedition in Southern Italy), to North America where it landed toward the end of the Civil War in 1864. In both its different typologies, the circular and the scrolling, the panorama is perhaps the most poignant embodiment of the comprehensive virtual realism that characterizes the birth of nineteenth-century information society. Intimately connected with the (illustrated) news cycle, the Garibaldi moving panorama shows how transmedia infotainment played a crucial role in the spectacularization of war, taking virtual travel and social voyeurism to another level and enabling a new kind of historical awareness.

Finally, Chapter 6 takes the reader on a mini Grand Tour of Italy based on the aforementioned Underwood & Underwood stereoscopic kit from the turn of the twentieth century. Through the stereoscope, the device that from many points of view crowns the system of nineteenth-century virtual realism, I show how virtual travel is progressively removed from the social context in which popular optical spectacles once thrived, and transformed into a thoroughly voyeuristic activity that allows a virtual appropriation and consumption of the world, from an American point of view. The stereoscope is the device that most effectively foreshadows the immersive experience provided by contemporary digital apparatuses, such as the headsets that make possible an industry entirely devoted to virtual tourism, another cultural practice that received a boost from the pandemic. The stereoscope also prefigures the solitary and often hallucinatory practice that networked culture has only virtually resocialized, further solidifying the stereotypical nature of these experiences (stereon in Greek means “solid”). Yet, at the end of the journey, at the bottom of the Italian “boot,” a land of archaeological ruins and volcanic landscapes, a different kind of revelation, an uncanny experience awaits, the virtual traveler and the reader of Shadow Plays.

While not all set in Italy, these case studies express a visual and literary culture that is characteristically Italian. Historically, Italy provides a useful framework for a genealogy of virtual reality: since the invention of linear perspective in the fifteenth century, Italian culture has contributed, perhaps more than any other oculo-centric Western culture, to the technical and cultural conditions of its own virtualization, from the age of the Grand Tour to our own time of mass- and mass-mediated tourism. Not by chance, Shadow Plays invites the reader on a journey that begins in eighteenth century Venice, at the peak of the Grand Tour, and concludes in Sicily and Naples at the dawn of the twentieth century. From the cosmorama to the stereoscope, optical devices offered a virtual Grand Tour of Italy for the Everyman. Venice, the ultimate theatrical city, an architectural invention comparable to an illusionistic set design, is our point of departure and provides the lens for the entire journey. Views of Venice, Florence, or Rome, often produced with a camera obscura and designed for devices much like the mondo nuovo, already functioned as both an invitation to—and a replacement for—actual travel, as a way to get to know the world and as a way to escape one’s everyday reality. Like the stereoscope a century later, the cosmorama fulfilled the same aspirations linked to our contemporary technologies: to extend our knowledge of the world, to deepen our perception of reality, or to escape the world and reality altogether.

Simulating the Past

“With shadows, the forward movement of the image becomes problematic,” writes William Kentridge, “you have a light source, you have an object blocking the light.”9 This practical observation by a true master of shadows can be applied not only to the act of seeing but also to the symbolic role of image-making. We are not always aware of the shadows we see, as David Hockney, another artist deeply engaged with the optics of vision, has observed in an interview.10 The curious machines presented in the following case studies are devices of perceptual and rhetorical deception, designed with reason and ingenuity to play with shadows and trick viewers’ senses. They all belong, from both an engineering and a rhetorical point of view, to a realm suspended between the bright and the dark side of the Enlightenment and Modernity. Frequently referred to as “games,” these devices can also be understood as the playful fruits of the Enlightenment’s utopian drive to dispel the ghosts of prejudice and superstition by using science and technology to free us from the burden of reality.11 Shadow Plays maintains that the spectral zone in which such optical devices operate is governed by the paradoxical notion of a virtual realism divided between the desire to make illusion as convincing as possible and the skepticism of never being fully convinced by it, as Lanier writes.

Our simulations are designed to highlight this tension at the heart of virtual realism. Compared with Lanier’s “magic show,” a scholarly and pedagogic presentation must be transparent about its own bag of tricks. The choice to present digital models of analog optical devices opens up not only a technical challenge (one constantly renewed with the evolution of digital technologies, plagued by “planned obsolescence”)12 but also an interpretive dilemma: how to understand and reconstruct, as faithfully as possible, analog experiences in virtual ways? Our increasingly sophisticated ability to reconstruct, reenact, remodel, and reinvent the past paradoxically makes our interpretive task trickier than ever, effectively turning the past into a shadow play. Thus, the objective of the simulations in Shadow Plays is to entice readers to peer into the past and trigger their curiosity about these artifacts from a historical Elsewhere. “Virtual Reality tugs at the soul because it answers the cries of childhood,” as Lanier writes.13 However, as with the notion of virtual realism, we are unlikely to be fully convinced by the illusions with which we are presented. As any historian or media archaeologist would argue, a simulation cannot be a substitute for the rich perceptual, aesthetic, and emotional experience provided in real life by a cosmorama, magic lantern, or panorama show within their specific cultural and technological contexts. Rather than remaining limited by such arguments, the 3D digital renderings at the heart of Shadow Plays are inspired by the generative possibilities of such a critical dilemma and are integral to the enhanced cognitive experience that a digital monograph can offer.

As an example of the evolution of the scholarly book into the realm of virtual scholarship, Shadow Plays offers a multilayered reading/viewing experience.14 Like most publications, it can be read in linear fashion, as an illustrated book, chapter by chapter, from virtual cover to virtual cover, following the main narrative text with its embedded simulations and illustrations, and its many links to a wealth of networked multimedia resources.15 Curious readers can delve deeper into the scholarly argument by pursuing “Further Insights” which, in each chapter, allows them to follow the main argument’s inevitable detours, subplots, and forays into the historical archive, now made increasingly accessible through digital formats. Whether one sticks to the main chapter or chooses to go deeper, the fully deployed narrative will enhance the argument, making it not only more accessible and clearer, but also more compelling. Similarly, readers can choose to access the simulations first or view them as they read along. Impatient readers who go directly to the simulations will hopefully be enticed to read the corresponding chapters and appreciate how the simulations are more than just “teasers” (although they are also intended to play that role). They are specifically designed to illustrate the argument made in each chapter, and in some cases—namely, Chapters 2, 3 and 4—also adding a thought experiment to the demonstration.

The simulations are both a tool and a methodological test for this digital monograph. Yet, in the end its contribution should be judged by its comprehensive attempt to enhance, not replace, the rich cognitive experience offered by reading a scholarly book: an attempt to project “a stereoscopic and dimensional seeing into the depths of historical shadows,” as Benjamin’s note quoted above suggests. Drawing an ideal line from the present to the past and from the past into the future, Shadow Plays establishes a critical loop, albeit virtual, between technological frameworks and experiences distant from each other. As it explores the curious genealogy of virtual reality through its six case studies it can perhaps enable a more reflective interpretation of the dialectic between the meaning of “real” and “virtual” in the evolution of the modern mind at a critical time when the boundaries between the real and the virtual, truth and illusion, are increasingly, and perhaps irreversibly, blurred.

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