The impressively-titled panorama (or diorama, pleorama or cosmorama, according to type) is a pictorial attraction which speaks to contemporary viewers using the somewhat dated language of the 18th and 19th century. It combines the curiosity of the exact sciences with an almost romantic desire to visualize exotic cities and landscapes; presented in the form of an all-encompassing illusory exhibition project, the spectacle supplants the need to travel to destinations hundreds or thousands of kilometres away. While a majority of such works was first produced in Great Britain and France, the concept later spread to German lands, the Austrian Empire and further east. These works may be subdivided into several categories according to complexity. Intricately designed circular panoramas existed alongside smaller cosmoramas, as not every entrepreneur was willing to finance the construction of an expensive circular arena. In all of the Austrian Empire, such an arena was only erected in Vienna. On the other hand, a cosmorama could be feasibly transported to destinations around the world. Travelling artists first began to arrive in the Austrian Empire and Bohemia in the early 19th century. The first major show was organized by entrepreneur William Barton, who displayed a vast panorama of Vienna created by Lorenz Jansch and Karel Postl in 1803. Exhibited spectacles also frequently focused on contemporary events, such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius or the fire of Moscow and Napoleon's escape.
During the course of the 18th and 19th century, Prague welcomed a great number of famous people, many of whom were enchanted by its beauty. Some compared it to Rome, others reminisced of times spent in the city. In this respect, it is perhaps worth mentioning the charming volume Město vidím veliké (Behold, I See a Great City) by Vincy Schwarz, which includes enthusiastic reflections by Hans Christian Andersen, René Chateaubriand and other prominent figures. Scholars perceived Prague as the mysterious city of the Amazons, Jan Žižka, the golem and Albrecht von Wallenstein. Its fame travelled far beyond the borders of the Kingdom of Bohemia and naturally also attracted the attention of those who were unable to visit.
In an age long before contemporary information sources became available, a visit to the panorama was not uncommon. For the price of a few kreutzers, visitors were ushered into a wooden shed containing cityscapes – several metres wide and illuminated by candlelight – of Paris, Rome or Prague. The illusion was perfect. The viewer was presented with a composition which drew him or her in with the help of perspective, foreshortening and various additional optical illusions. Creating a panorama called for the implementation of both art and science. Some required the assembly of specialized circular rotundas with raised stages. However, most of these ephemeral works have not been preserved. Once their potential was exhausted, their size and bulkiness usually predestined them for speedy dismantling. Although panoramas were generally designed by long-forgotten painters travelling from city to city, some were created by highly specialized artists. For example, the Prague-based Antonio Sacchetti is the author of the best-known panorama of Prague currently in existence in the Czech Republic, located on a staircase landing in the City of Prague Museum. Another well-known work is the panorama of the Battle of Lipany, created by a group of artists led by Luděk Marold. Unfortunately, very few of these spectacles have been preserved to this day. The discovery of each new surviving work is a fascinating testament to the interconnection of art and entertainment in the 19th century.
Vincenc Morstadt, Prague, coloured lithograph.
Thieme’s cosmorama provides us with the opportunity to observe Prague in the Biedermeier period, witness locals entertaining themselves in the People’s Garden (present-day Chotek Gardens) or in the Lesser Town, where the Klar Institute of the Blind has since replaced the pictured magnificent chapel. Vincenc Morstadt’s panoramas, compiled by Carl Thieme, undoubtedly served as a point of departure for his own work. However, little is known about Thieme himself. A painter working at the Dresden porcelain factory, he was clearly a versatile artist. Following a serious artistic mishaps, he established his own porcelain factory in Postchappel near Dresden in 1872. Although his life remains largely unknown, his 1844 cosmorama of Prague remains a unique artefact of extraordinary historical value.
Sehnsucht, Das Panorama als Massenunterhaltungen des 19. Jahrhunderts v Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, 28. 3. – 10. 10. 1993.
Opus magnum, Galerie výtvarného umění v Chebu, 9. 10. 2015 – 10. 1. 2016.
Petr Skala, Spatřit světlo, Pro arte Gallery, 14. 9. – 27. 9. 2018.
Marie-Louise von Plessen (ed.): Sehnsucht, Das Panorama als Massenunterhaltungen des 19. Jahrhunderts, Bonn 1993, p. 47 (fig.).