Film History Essentials: Panorama du Grand Canal Pris d’un Bateau (1896)

(English: Panorama of the Grand Canal Taken from a Boat)

What it’s about:

A camera on-board a boat captures a view of the waterfront as it floats down the Grand Canal of Venice, passing other boats and several picturesque buildings.

Why it’s essential:

Alexandre Promio was working for an optician in Lyon when the Lumière brothers demonstrated their cinematograph for the Société Française de Photographie in June 1895. He may have first glimpsed the magic of motion pictures then (as he later claimed), or he may have seen them later, but either way, he knew immediately that he wanted to be involved. He soon left his job, and by March of 1896 he had a job with the Lumières, training people in how to operate cinematographs.

After less than two months, he was dispatched to travel around Europe, presenting the cinematograph to the elites and the public of every country he visited. His job was both to introduce this new technology and to market it. Within a 6-month period in 1896, he had visited Spain, Russia, England, Germany, Hungary, the United States, and Italy. Along they way, he gave presentations to such luminaries as the Queen of Spain and Tsar Nicholas II. And everywhere he went, he filmed.

It’s almost possible to track his travels throughout 1896-97 by reading through his filmography: Boston, Chicago, New York, Niagara Falls, Tunis, Cairo, the Great Pyramid, the Nile River, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Stockholm, London, Belfast, Saint Petersburg . . . And many more destinations before, after, and in-between. He sent or brought well over 200 films back to France from this world tour. He was also very well-funded, always staying in luxurious surroundings and meeting with the rich, the famous, and the powerful. It must have been a dream assignment.

Promio shot this view of Venice in October of 1896, and it premiered in France in December. It’s somewhat noteworthy both for the beauty of this glimpse of the city at this moment in time, and as one of many records of Promio’s travels. However, it’s particularly remarkable as perhaps the first-ever moving camera shot. It was so unprecedented, in fact, that Promio supposedly telegraphed back to France and secured the approval of the Lumière brothers before shooting it. There would soon be many more of these, mostly filmed from moving trains rather than boats (and some of them shot by Promio, as well), but this is believed to be the first of its kind.

Why you should see it:

Several sources claim that the camera was mounted aboard a gondola, but if so it’s quite incredible how little the shot seems to be affected by the motion of the water, even after a large boat passes very close-by. Actually, the vantage point of the camera seems to be considerably higher up than that of the people standing in the gondola that is visible at the beginning of the film. When that larger boat passes by, it’s clear that the camera, which does not seem to be angled up at all, is on a level with its deck, suggesting that Promio was actually filming from a similar vessel. Plus, you can even see a different gondola rocking heavily in the wake of the other boat after it passes by. Filming from a gondola makes for a much better story, though.

Regardless of where Promio filmed from, it doesn’t diminish the greatness of the images he captured. There’s so much to see in this brief film, and so much more to see than we would have had in a typical stationary shot. The buildings are in such varied condition, and they look so large and empty as we float past. But look closely, as many details are easy to miss, like the two lounging figures dressed all in white in the cavernous entryway of a building at 0:31. Every time I watch this, I spot something new.


~ by Jared on February 24, 2023.

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