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Pre-Cinema: what it is about
Pre-Cinema refers to all inventions, discoveries and entertainments that anticipated the birth and development of Cinema (the first cinemathographic projection took place in 1895).
Therefore Precinema encompasses a very long history from the ancient world to the last years of the XIX century. A long journey made of discoveries, ideas, public shows, tricks and toys that have to do with the art of projection and the animation of the image. Thus Pre-Cinema is a complex world, but full of images and fascination.
In this web site I want to tell and especially show some of the entertainments that - before Cinema - are connected with the projection and the illusion of movement. I do not intend to make a history of Pre-Cinema but only a visual path with short written explanations.
The magic lantern is an ancient optical device, comparable to modern slide projectors. Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch mathematician ans physicist, is credited as the inventor of magic lanten, as he first described the new device in a manuscript (1656). Even though the eminent scientist considered his invention a little thing, magic lantern soon gained wide diffusion both as scientific instrument and especially instrument of amazing shows. In fact magic lantern quickly spread across Europe as a protagonist in street shows.
Two engravings showing a kind of street artist that was easy to meet in the Eighteenth Century: magic lanternist. The first on the left carries on his shoulders all the equipment necessary to a magic lantern show: a rough projector and a wooden case containing the glass slides. All he needed to make the show was the darkness of the night and a white wall or sheet.
Like cinema will do in the twentieth century, since its birth magic lantern shows stole materials from literature, dramas and folklore. Themes ranged from simple entertainment to magic, from education to propaganda, from religion to pornography. The name itself - magic lantern - calls to mind visions of fantastic and astonishing worlds. In fact magic lantern show always kept in its whole history a special inclination for grotesque and macabre pictures. Projections met the audience need of escape from ordinary life with visions of outlandish and bizarre worlds.
Magic lantern shows were not only projections of static images. In fact many tricks were utilizied to give the illusion of movement to the projected images.
Between the last decades of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth century a new kind of show became popular, first in France and then in England and the rest of Europe: Phantasmagoria.
Phantasmagorical Shows mixed theatre with the art of projection. Audience - sitting in complete darkness -were frightened by apparitions of ghosts, skeletons and other infernal visions. One or more magic lanterns were wheel-mounted beyond the screen, invisible to the audience. The lantern could be moved towards and away from the screen to create the illusion of advancing or fast-receding ghosts.
Many other theatrical elements were part of the show like thunder and lightining effects, electric shocks, arcane music, smoke and shadowplays.
The nineteenth century has been the most important century in Pre-cinema history for industrial progress, the birth of photography and the development of scientific research in persistence of vision.
The art of projection took advantage of new lighting systems, like limelight. The limelight, invented in 1825, was a gas lamp with an intense and bright light produced by heating a piece of lime. It was widely used for magic lantern illumination.
Technically the magic lantern is the direct ancestor of the motion picture projector. It is an apparatus with an optical device and a light projecting blown up pictures painted or printed on a glass slide. The light could be a simple candle as an oil lamp or, later, a gas lamp. Almost always there is a reflector on the back of the light (a concave mirror) to expand the light. The optical device is made up by a condenser (usually a couple of biconvex lens) and adjustable lens on the front of the apparatus.
Glass slides were hand painted until the first half of the XIX century, later lithographic and cromolithographic slides were industrially produced. First photographic slides came out soon after the invention of daguerreotype (1849).