One long story in pictures, transformed into pixels

They were the original motion pictures. Amid dim lighting, the audience saw sweeping landscapes and fierce battle scenes, described by a narrator and embellished by live piano music. Popular well before the advent of cinema, panoramas – huge paintings with many vignettes – turned news into spectacle.

In 2005, Brown acquired one of these moving panoramas, a massive scroll created in England in 1860 depicting the life of the Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi. Due to the joint effort by the University Library and the Department of Italian Studies, the panorama was digitized in July 2007 and is available on the Web site of the library’s Center for Digital Initiatives. Brown scholars and students further developed the Web site over the summer, adding the accompanying script and downloadable images of the panorama’s scenes.

The roll of paper, four-and-a-half feet tall and almost as long as a football field, is painted on both sides and has almost 50 scenes in bright watercolor flowing seamlessly into each other. The panorama was meant to be unrolled one scene at a time, with a narrator describing the action in each frame.

“It would’ve been like going to see a silent movie,” said Peter Harrington, curator of the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection.

In 2005, one of Harrington’s distributors contacted him, telling him that the late James Walter Smith Jr., a plastic surgeon from Connecticut, was looking for a home for a 19th-century panorama chronicling the life of Garibaldi. “I thought, ‘There’s no way we can take that. It’s just so big,'” he said. But Harrington couldn’t pass up the opportunity to acquire such a rare and impressive artifact and wrote to Smith Jr., who donated the painting to the University.

For two years the painting sat in storage – until last year, when Professor of Italian Studies Massimo Riva organized a symposium on Garibaldi and asked Harrington if he had any artifacts on the military hero. “Funny you should ask,” Harrington said.

They unrolled a portion of the panorama at the symposium, and it sparked the interest of other Italian Studies scholars, leading to the digitization project.

To digitize the panorama, it was unrolled six to eight feet at a time across a wooden platform covered with plastic, where it was scanned from above, producing 91 individual shots. Digital Initiatives Librarian Benjamin Tyler worked for the remainder of the summer and fall stitching together each shot to create the seamless picture now available online.

Because of its size and fragility, the painting is difficult to display. It is currently housed in the library annex in Cranston.

Now that the panorama is online, anyone can view the once-unaccessible painting and learn all about the Italian revolutionary.

“Garibaldi was, in a sense, the Italian George Washington,” Riva said. A brilliant strategist and a freelance military leader of sorts, Garibaldi traveled throughout the world, fought in the liberation wars in Latin America and later led a volunteer army to Sicily, making possible the unification of northern and southern Italy. In July 1850, he was exiled to Staten Island, N.Y., where he worked in a candle factory.

“Every educated person was talking about Garibaldi,” Harrington said. “He would have been hot news.” Panoramas were primarily a moneymaking business, and Garibaldi’s international fame would have drawn large crowds.

According to Riva, the panorama was probably displayed within weeks of the battle events it showed. “It was almost instant history, instant news,” he said.

“When you think about it, it’s really a newsreel,” said James W. Smith III, son of the donor. “A year or two years later … that’s old news. A hundred years later, all of a sudden it’s an antique, and it’s something that’s highly desirable.”

Although panoramas circulated throughout Europe and America – even Rhode Island – in the 19th century, few have survived. In an effort to remain current, many panoramas were quickly painted over with the news of each new battle. Others were destroyed in fires, damaged by water or cut up and sold as individual scenes. “In terms of the subject (Garibaldi), this is the only one we have,” Riva said.

The painting was originally owned by the Burford family, who ran a panorama business in England in the 19th century. “It was a commercial enterprise. They had a zillion of them,” said Nancy Smith, wife of the donor. “They were cranking these things out like cartoons.”

The panorama was brought to America by Anthony Burford, eventually passing to Grace Burford, the donor’s aunt. Not knowing what to do with it, she stored it in her attic. According to Nancy Smith, Grace was afraid the panorama was getting dusty, so one day she and some neighbors carried it outside, where she washed it off with a hose.

She gave the panorama to her nephew, James W. Smith, who had it filmed and restored during the 45 years he owned it, eventually donating it to Brown. Smith and his son collected penny arcade games, at one point having a museum of over 1,000 working games, in addition to musical machines and carnival memorabilia. Smith, whose specialty was hand surgery, also collected things in the shape of hands.

“I think he was just intrigued (by the panorama),” Smith III said. “He was a collector of many, many things.”

Harrington and Riva said the origins of the panorama remain a mystery. The only clue as to the painter is the name J.J. Story, printed on the narrative manuscript that accompanied the panorama. Harrington said he believes this references John James Story, a local artist from Nottingham, England, at around this time period. However, he speculated that more than one artist was probably involved in the painting. “Some of the painting is quite amateurish. Some of the painting is quite good,” he explained.

According to Harrington, the artist had probably never been to Italy but rather got his inspiration from pictures and newspapers. Riva explained that many of the images in the panorama exactly mirror pictures found in newspapers at the time.

He and several undergraduates are working on tracing all the scenes of the panorama to their sources, which they will add to the Web site. Riva also said he hopes to add an interactive map so scholars can trace Garibaldi’s travels throughout the world and click to learn more about each event in the panorama.

Eventually, the site will also include a voice-over narration in English and Italian, which will play as the panorama scrolls by. Riva hopes “to use the digital medium, the Web site, to reproduce as closely as possible (the) spectacle itself.”