This past April, amid pandemic bans, the Faroe Islands announced a new tourism strategy: virtual tours. Online visitors signed up to view a feed from a camera attached to the helmet of a local, whose movements could be prompted using the directional arrows. Users thus got interactive, wide-angle views of the archipelago’s mountains, sheep, villages, and waterfalls.
Today, virtual tourism is enabled by computer engineers. In the late eighteenth century, the task fell to painters. Irish artist Robert Barker, who coined the word “panorama” from Greek roots, was the first to try to capture a landscape in 360 degrees, beginning with his adopted home of Edinburgh. He depicted the city with great precision, from the pedestrians and carriages on Canongate to the far-off mound of the Castle.
Barker built a rotunda in London’s Leicester Square, enabling visitors to stand in the center and take in scenes covering thousands of square feet on a circular wall. Once his 1787 patent expired in 1801, many other artists took up the practice. Specially constructed buildings, similar in design to Barker’s, popped up all over Europe in the early nineteenth century.
The ambitious concept hit a nerve. Just like the Faroe Islands’ virtual tours, panoramas of far-off destinations offered the experience of travel to viewers who found themselves unexpectedly immobile. The European Grand Tour, once undertaken by many among the British elite (and some Americans), became impossible during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15). Panoramas of Rome and Berlin filled the gap. (Battle scenes on land and sea were also popular, a patriotic alternative to simulated excursions.) With a steep entrance price, the experience was still accessible only to the affluent, but it was more open to women and young people. Subjects expanded to include the red roofs and three-masted ships of Constantinople, and the palms and buffaloes of Bombay.
These attractions were beguiling. “We have seen Vesuvius in full roar and torrent . . . Pompeii, reposing in its slumber of two thousand years,” wrote a viewer of a panorama of the ancient city for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1824. “There is no exaggeration in talking of those things as really existing. . . . The scene is absolutely alive, vivid, and true; we feel all but the breeze, and hear all but the dashing of the wave.”
But prominent writers sneered. In his autobiographical poem “The Prelude,” William Wordsworth describes the panoramas in London as a “life-like mockery,” as “imitations” that “ape / The absolute presence of reality.” For writer and diarist Hester Piozzi, they were “a mere deception, to please the rabble.”
In today’s world of screens, the visual trickery employed by panoramas doesn’t have the allure it once did. What kind of simulacra hold our interest now? One notable difference: while panoramic landscapes took in one wide vista from a single vantage point, the virtual tours of the Faroe Islands are interactive and personal, delivered directly from the ground, rather than in one vast sweep. For immersive travel to speak to our sense of reality, it seems the task is no longer just about visual mimicry, but about authenticity of experience. Instead of imagining ourselves sublimely static, a whole city spread out beneath us, today’s virtual tourists yearn to be like one of the people in the streets below, wandering their own way at will.
This article appears in the January/February 2021 issue as a sidebar to “A History of Presence,” p. 61.