In my last post I wrote about ghost projection and mentioned the great fascination at the turn of the 19th century with a particular type of magic lantern entertainment that called up apparitions. In England, the shows were called Phantasmagoria and in France Fantasmagorie. I was incredibly lucky to recently find this fabulous small broadside (6” x 9”) c.1799 advertising Étienne-Gaspard Robertson’s Fantasmagorie show held in the Convent des Capucines. Robertson’s shows were a great success, starting with his first show in Paris in 1798. At the end of 1798 he moved to more spacious and atmospheric quarters in the Convent. He gave his first show there on January 3,1799 and continued at that location until 1803.
The broadside cleverly contains the visual power of a striking wood engraving and boldSpecters of Phantoms and Ghosts. What’s more, the assembled patrons will witness, as the broadside proclaims, “experiments with the new fluid know by the name of Galvinism whose application gives temporary movement to bodies whose life has departed.” (This was based on the work of the Italian physician, Luigi Galvani who applied electrical current to frog’s legs, which seemed to stir life in dead frog).
Robertson’s patrons entered the convent and moved through rooms where they might see the experiment in Galvinism, peepshows and optical illusions before being seated in a darkened room. They must have been startled when images appeared as from nowhere onto the screen. Often these figures would not only get larger but they would seem to leave the screen. The lanternist and lantern were hidden from view behind the screen. The lanternist could make the image increase in size by moving the lantern, which was on rails, further back from the screen. Music added to the effect and Robertson employed the Franklin Harmonica. Benjamin Franklin invented a form of the glass harmonica, a musical instrument that uses a series of glass bowls of various sizes and musical tones are made by means of friction. The glass harmonica produces an eerie piercing sound which you can feel in your chest and must have helped create just the right atmosphere for the spectral images appearing on the screen.
For more information on the history of the Fantasmagorie read Laurent Mannoni’s excellent book: The Great Art Of Light and Shadow