- Carmontelle’s Landscape Transparencies: Cinema of the Enlightenment
Louis Carrogis, 1717–1806, also known as Louis de Carmontelle, a draftsman, painter, garden designer, party planner, and military surveyor, invented a visual amusement to which he gave no name. A miniature diorama, an apparent precursor of the movies, it displayed landscape art on transparencies in a box device. The story of the invention is told in a wonderful little book by Laurence Chatel de Brancion, Carmontelle’s Landscape Transparencies: Cinema of the Enlightenment. The transparencies, some reproduced for the book, are described as a ‘fantastic traveling shot through the places where the ancient regime went up in flames and a new world was starting to emerge’.
There was in the period much competition for optical entertainments to relieve the boredom of the privileged class, tireless in their pursuit of diversion and absolutely oblivious to the world beyond their immediate pleasures. Magic lantern shows employing painted glass plates were in high fashion, as were theatrical productions employing sound, music and lighting effects, some featuring simulations of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and firestorms. A spectacle called Jerusalem Delivered, based on a 16th century Italian epic about the crusades, made the rounds.
In the 1780s, when landscape painting fell out of fashion, Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, a landscape painter, sought a livelihood in the creation of an optical show he named an Eidophusikon: ‘... a portable ministage, measuring eight feet deep by six feet wide ... a theatre without actors, but with sound effects, executed in a small room ... a pianoforte provided the musical accompaniment of the show, as in silent films ... the “stage” – or “screen” – at the back was framed like a painting ... a complex mechanism ... activated panels of gauze and painted glass and cardboard objects’. Eidophusikon shows included the simulation of lightning, and the sound of thunder amplified by a bass drum; for realism, ‘a drawer filled with pebbles and shells was pushed back and forth to simulate the rhythm of ocean waves striking the beach’.
Loutherbourg constructed exotic landscapes and scenic Eidophusikon travelogues: the dawn in London, midday in the port of Tangiers, sundown on the Bay of Naples, moonlight on the Mediterranean. Exhibited in London, the Loutherbourg shows appeared to cheer up a town depressed by the defeat [End Page 261] of the king’s armies in the colonies. In addition to Eidophusikon programs he produced large tableaux: a seaport scene, a view of the Alps in winter, a woodcutter attacked by wolves, a summer evening, a shipwreck caused by a storm.
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Loutherbourg’s work was part of a shift in visual narrative away from biblical and historical allegory to contemporary events. France’s first daily newspaper, Journal de Paris, began publishing in 1777. Loutherbourg turned his attention to the production of visual entertainment constructed out of observed detail through the careful use of paper, paint materials and methods of construction and exhibition.
Carmontelle, looking to exploit the demand for diversion, investigated the work of Loutherbourg, magic lantern shows, and other period optical amusements, but saw his future elsewhere, in visual presentations for home display, ‘like a video one plays’. To combine the portability of the magic lantern and Loutherbourg’s theatrical format, he created a box with a 26-inch square opening, designed to be placed at a window so as to illuminate the transparencies from the rear for viewers seated in the space of a darkened room. Carmontelle wanted to improve on the Eidophusikon’s immobile single venue views by the application of a scrolling technique employing a box-like display device that ‘looks surprisingly like our modern television sets’. The inspiration came from a Japanese scrolling invention called an Emaki-mono, a one-viewer-at-a-time device whose paper scroll may have been an ancestor of the film roll. The innovation...