Brown puts Italian epic painting online

Big art
By GREG COOK  |  December 5, 2007
Two years ago, Brown University’s John Hay Library received an enormous gift: a 273-foot-long 19th century panoramic painting depicting the dashing exploits of Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi. Historic panoramas, often of battles, were popular in the 19th century, but few have survived. So this was not only a big gift, but a rare one. The problem with an enormous piece of art, though, is where to do you put it?
 
The answer, naturally, is online. Which is where the university library’s Center for Digital Initiatives (dl.lib.brown.edu/) plans to post it.
 
Panoramic paintings were once major attractions. “This was the visual news. These things were color. Most people didn’t have newspapers,” says Peter Harrington, a curator at Brown University’s John Hay Library. “They were popular forms of entertainment. Just like we would go to see a movie, they would go to see a panorama.”
 
Thousands paid to see a 12-foot-wide painting of the Andes mountains by the American landscape painter Frederic Church that is now at New York’s Metropol¬itan Museum of Art. It was framed by curtains and specially lit so that it seemed as if one was looking out a window. The apotheosis of the form were 360-degree panorama paintings of battles, historical scenes and exotic travels that filed specially-constructed round buildings called cycloramas. A 359-foot-long painting of Civil War battle of Gettysburg, which was originally shown at the Boston Cyclorama in 1884, is now displayed at Gettysburg. The Atlantic Cyclorama displays a panorama of the Civil War battle of Atlanta. The Cyclorama of Jerusa¬lem near Quebec City depicts the crucifixion of Jesus.
 
The Garibaldi panorama, which library officials believe was painted by one or more English watercolorists in 1860 or 1861, is a hybrid form, designed not to fill a room, but attached to two large spools, so that the 4-1/2-foot-high scenes could be cranked past like a primitive film strip. In July, Brown staff and an outside contractor photographed the fragile painting six feet at a time and have since reassembled the scenes digitally. Web visitors will be able to scroll through the painting, stop and focus in on details, or select from a menu of some 40 scenes. And the drama can be watched accompanied by new audio recordings of the original — and often breathless — narration in English and Italian.
 
The painting’s subject is a swashbuckling Italian hero. “Garibaldi in 1860, if you had lived in anywhere in the civilized world then . . . you’d know of him,” Harrington says. “He was the George Washington of the day in Italy. He helped Italy achieve unification.”
 
Italy had been a collection of independent city states for more than a millennium, ruled by a combo of Italians and outsiders and the Roman Catholic pope. Garibaldi was born in Nice in 1807, became a sailor and captain, and joined insurgents in Italy angling for a united democratic republic in numerous campaigns. The Web version of the panorama will allow viewers to watch the whole drama un-spool like a Hollywood blockbuster: sea battles off South America, mountain crossings, the defense of Rome, a close-up of Garibaldi’s dying wife, horsemen and ranks of infantry in clouds of smoke and fires, fallen bleeding soldiers.
 
In 1860, Garibaldi fought in an uprising in Sicily, captured Palermo and Naples, turned over his conquered territories to a Piedmontese king, who in the interim had seized territory all the way south to Rome, and so united Italy.
 
The panorama is painted in a quick loose vivid style, though at times it becomes clunky and awkward. But it’s sufficient to put across the drama of the scenes, the rush and grandeur of the action, capture a life boldly lived.
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