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BOOKS

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The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium by Stephan Oetterman. Zone Books, 1997. 408pp. £29.95. (Distributed by MIT Press)

Just off London's Leicester Square is a Roman Catholic church, Notre Dame de France, whose circular plan is inherited from a previous building, writes Andrew Mead . Here, between 1793 and 1861, stood a large two-storey rotunda by the Scottish architect Robert Mitchell, the Panorama.

For much of that period the public flocked there to see great panoramic paintings - 'The Battle of the Nile' (Nelson defeating the French), 'The Coronation of George IV' - which were stretched around its inner circumference and viewed from a central platform. A rival, the Colosseum, the first major project of Decimus Burton, soon sprang up in Regent's Park; its giant panorama of London catalogued the city with enormous precision.

Stephan Oettermann's history of panoramas and the buildings that displayed them, published in Germany in 1980, now appears in an excellent English translation. With separate chapters on England, France, Germany, Austria and the United States, he shows that, while the medium was visually liberating, it largely served the status quo - the subjects of the paintings, and their treatment, 'glorified the bourgeois view of the world'.

Oettermann looks in detail at the technical features, and problems, of the panorama, and at its offshoots like the diorama (the raison d'etre of another building, still surviving, near Regent's Park). A chapter on its origins at the very end of the eighteenth century, and the change in vision it reflected, is particularly interesting, with discussions of - for instance - Baroque stage-sets, alpine climbing, and Jeremy Bentham's panopticon.

The book is reasonably well-illustrated (with plans, sections, and the pictures themselves), although in rather drab blackand-white. It ends abruptly, as if Oettermann is unsure quite what to infer from the mass of material he has gathered and organised. Ample quotation from accounts of contemporary visitors to panoramas keeps his narrative alive.

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