Perspective Views in the baroque era: early versions of 3D virtual reality

illustration view of a city

During panademic quarantines, we could experience online virtual spaces opening up infinite opportunities and worlds. Switching on our devices – laptops, smart appliances, televisions – we could be in the exhibition rooms of museums in far-away countries virtually or walk on the squares of unknown cities with online maps.

For our generation, it is increasingly difficult to imagine that things have not always been like this – not even 20-30 years ago, and certainly not in the baroque age.

Curiosity and the desire to know the world are deeply rooted in people. In the middle of the 18th century, this thirst created a genre called ‘Guckkastenbild’.

Perspective panorama pictures became popular owing to optic innovations of the 18th century, and became the forerunners of visual entertainment tools. Picture demonstrators took their ‘peep’ boxes to fairs from town to town, and showed remote landscapes, beautiful street views, panoramas, and artistic buildings of far-away cities or battlefields, disaster scenes in three dimensions realistically to common people for some pennies.

The graphical collection of the Piarist Museum in Budapest contains about 60 pieces of coloured perspective engravings, panorama views that have a unique cultural, media and art historical importance. These pictures played the role of the internet or television in the 18th century, taking viewers to far away, unreachable lands and cities, imitating the illusion of reality.

The engravings in the collection were published by specialised workshops all over in Europe. The publishers John & Thomas Bowles and the Robert Laurie & John Whittle in London. The printing houses of Basset, Chereau, Daumont, Hucquier and Mondhare in Paris. Georg Balthasar Probst’s (1732-1801) printing-house in Augsburg in the Holy Roman Empire was one of the most productive, with a workshop in Italy as well.

These engravings are called ‘Prospect’ or ‘Perspective View’ in English, ‘Vue d’Optique’ or ‘Vue Perspective’ in French and ‘Guckkastenblatt’ or ‘Guckkastenbild’ in German. The engravings were placed in a closed box or peep box under a special appliance equipped with a magnifying lens called zograscope, which had a strong spatial effect in viewers.

Placing and subtitling pictures were done similarly by most publishers. Usually, the title is under the picture in one or several languages, depending on the depicted country or city they were written in Latin, German, English, French, Italian or Dutch. Sometimes, a short, mirrored text can be found above the picture as well, which was an explanation to viewers, because the zograscope showed both the text and the engraving mirrored.

Thus, Perspective Views gave the ‘right’ image through the zograscope if they depicted the mirrored image of reality in their original conditions.

Regarding their themes, variety is extraordinary in the perspective engraving genre. Most of them are city views with streets, ports, palaces, castles surrounded with parks. However, you can often find exotic landscapes or disaster scenes too. Besides these, historic scenes and other special events like land or sea battles, sieges and processions were also fashionable and even the dates of the events were written on them.

EXPLORE MORE: Illustrations showing city skylines and panaromas

Alongside these popular topics, the collection has a special gem: an uncoloured series of engravings consisting of large sheets of paper with the title ‘Seven Wonders of the Ancient World’. Its exotic theme was extremely beloved in the period. It was a social entertainment in wealthy families to watch pictures, but owing to showmen, common people could also experience them. For one moment, remote landscapes could come to life in front of anyone.

When did these perspective panorama pictures get into the collection of the Piarist Museum? Regarding the dating of the collection, the bracketing cover of the coloured engravings help us. The handwritten Latin inscription on the cover ‘No. V. Cupra diversa illuminata’ (Different coloured engravings) was written by Fr. Alajos Hegedűs (1761-1843), the secretary of the Hungarian Piarist Province, who made the detailed catalogue of the archives of the Order Province in 1809, which was already kept in Pest. According to the catalogue, the coloured engravings were in the ‘internal archives’ together with other engravings, draft plans and maps.

Fr. Alajos Hegedűs used a student’s handwritten salutation addressed to Fr. Piarist Province Leader Imre Perczel (1733-1795) as a cover that can be considered as a calligraphy exercise. These imply that the collection was already stored in an ordered, systematized form at the beginning of the 19th century; and the collection itself could be composed by the end of the 18th century. Archivist Fr. Rezső Jászai (1871-1952) reorganised the archives after 1920; he made a new catalogue of maps and draft plans, and the engravings might have been moved to the collection of the newly established Piarist Museum that time.

By Péter Borbás, Piarist Museum and Boglárka Helmeczi, Forum Hungaricum Non-profit Ltd. |Translated by Zita Aknai

This blog is part of Europeana’s Discovering Europe season featuring cultural jewels and hidden gems from across the continent.

Feature image: View to the Isle Saint-Louis of Paris with the Notre-Dame cathedral in the background, Piarist Museum, CC BY-NC-ND

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