Laterna Magica – Magic Lantern

Porcelain figures

Porcelain figures of 18th/19th century magic lanternists, from

A major new book on the magic lantern has just been published. Laterna Magica – Magic Lantern (vol. 1), by Deac Rossell, is the first in a two-part history which, as the publisher’s blurb indicates, looks at the subject not simply as a precursor of the cinema but as a phenomenon with a rich cultural history of its own:

This first volume covers the 17th and 18th centuries, plus the travelling lanternists – often Savoyards – who brought projected entertainment across Europe through the turn of the Nineteenth century. “Laterna Magica / Magic Lantern” is an attempt to bring together into a single narrative parts of lantern history that have previously been treated separately. It follows the central theme of the projected image in depth while simultaneously recognising the diverse and multifaceted offshoots produced by magic lantern culture.

We often think of the magic lantern today as the “precursor” of the movies and modern digital media; this it undoubtedly was. But at the same time, the magic lantern in its day was not a precursor of anything, but was a sophisticated instrument through which news, entertainment, and visual delight was projected for families, informal groups, and, ultimately, public audiences at fixed shows who enjoyed the elaborate and extraordinary visual rhetoric produced by highly skilled showmen.

The book is published by Füsslin Verlag in a bilingual (German/English) edition (the publisher’s website is bilingual too), and looks set to become a standard work. It also has 113 illustrations, most of them in colour. Deac Rossell is one of the world’s leading historians of the popular optical media of the nineteenth century and before, as well as having been at one time head of the National Film Theatre in London.

Buy one, and have your friends look upon you in awe at your erudition and taste…

3 responses

  1. I saw a magic lantern show presented by David Francis and Joss Marsh in 2006. All of us in the sold-out theater were rapt: it’s astounding what just light, glass, and pigment can evoke.

    Behind us was the amazing magic lantern, a brass and mahogany device like a prop from a steampunk movie. I learned to appreciate that changing some of the slides took two highly skilled people– it wasn’t a job for teenaged slackers back in the day. In fact, one of the slides was a photograph of an esteemed Edwardian Era lanternist: Francis’s own grandfather.

    Read the book; see the shows when you can!

  2. That’s a magical description of the appeal of a magic lantern show. Someone should use it somewhere.

    I’d no idea that David Francis’ (once my employer, many moons ago) grandfather was a lanternist. I must find out more.

  3. Pingback: Killruddery Film Festival » Blog Archive » Closing Event: ‘A 19th Century Magic Lantern Spectacular’

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