Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Salzburg Panorama

Standing in a circular room, you turn around and see a 360-degree painting of one of Europe's most charming cities as it appeared in 1829. It's an amazing feat of artistry and precision, kind of like being inside an IMAX theater, but in a more personal way. It's also one of Austria's little-known glories: Johann Michael Sattler's Salzburg Panorama painting.

As the Panorama Museum website explains, Sattler began by producing sketches of Salzburg from the Festung Hohensalzburg, a fortress that offers commanding views over the countryside. From those initial perspectives he worked with two assistants to create a circular painting that stretches 26 meters (85 feet) in circumference.

Image courtesy of Curious Expeditions
Mounted in a traveling rotunda and shipped by riverboat, Sattler's painting toured central Europe for about ten years, serving as a pitch for tourists to visit the city while representing a nineteenth century love of spectacle, the God's eye view. Afterward, the Salzburg Panorama was installed in its own pavilion near the city's Mirabell Palace.

Visitors would wander within a cylindrical building to view the painting that wrapped around them, enjoying the power and pleasure of a perspective that seemed more potent than the real thing. Exiting the rotunda, they would then view postcard-like paintings of world landmarks called "cosmoramas," seeing them through peepholes to enhance the perceived distance and dimensionality of these exotic scenes.

Unfortunately the decay of time and the ruin of aerial bombardment during the Second World War nearly ruined Sattler's rendition of Salzburg. The piece suffered rips and tears, and even mold. Moreover, various restoration efforts throughout the decades only managed to muddy the painting's once-vivid colors, rendering the Salzburg Panorama a dreary mess. It would take a two-year repair effort to return Sattler's masterwork to a semblance of its original beauty.

Today it costs merely two Euros to enter the painting's new display, a circular viewing area with telescopes that allow folks to peer at tiny details of Salzburg life. Along with a changing selection of "cosmoramas," the modern exhibit also includes a digital version of the Salzburg Panorama, allowing visitors read brief explanations about specific segments while comparing the artistic rendering to a contemporary photograph.

During my visit, I generally had the painting to myself, as other visitors tended to stay only 10 minutes or so. I circled the piece dozens of times, amazed by its intricacy. Playing with the telescopes, I appreciated the chance to focus on precise details, though I found that my tripod-mounted camera produced better results than the blurry optics of those scopes. More importantly, my tripod allowed for long exposures, eliminating the need for color-killing flash photography.

Gazing upon Salzburg as it appeared in nineteenth century autumnal afternoon light, I was enchanted by this idealized version of Austrian public (and semi-private) life: women chatting over clotheslines, lovers strolling the gardens of Schloss Mirabell, and kids playing near the fields where the farmers toil. Of course I was also attracted to the painting's view of Schloss Leopoldskron, site of the Salzburg Seminar that had drawn me to this medieval city in the first place.

It was such a kick to trace those pedestrian walkways from the Schloss through the fields, past the sheep-herders and across the Salzach River. I could imagine myself wandering those narrow winding alleys to the town square and its magisterial spires where the bells peel on the hour. Later that afternoon, once I finally climbed the hill leading to the fortress where Sattler did his initial drawings, seeing the city he reproduced, I would really appreciate the artist's skill.

Sattler's painting became an alternative world for me, a pleasurably parallel continuum of possibility. Tramping through hills and along rivers during my week in Salzburg, I would wonder if this was the spot where women continued to talk while hanging laundry. Perhaps that was the field where kids watched the shepherds gathering their sheep. Salzburg Panorama enacts an amazing illusion that makes "real" photographs, even supposedly panoramic ones, grow dim by comparison.

Learn more: Check out the Salzburg Museum's Panorama description. Also, take a look at their large view of the painting.

Read more: Bernard Comment's (1999) The painted panorama. New York: Harry N. Abrams, especially pages 54, 134, 138, 152, 210-211.

(Photographs - other than Curious Expeditions image - by Andrew Wood)

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