Maréorama - Expo Paris 1900

Maréorama at the Exhibition Expo Paris 1900

To have the almost complete illusion of a sea voyage, however, one must go to the Maréorama, whose vast building also stands on the Champ-de-Mars, west of the Eiffel Tower. The Maréorama is similar to the panorama, in that the viewer is placed in the centre of a vast space whose walls are covered with painted canvases; but the difference in the presentation of the chosen subject is considerable. In the ordinary panorama, the platform and canvas are fixed. What gives horizons and makes it possible, with a little good will, to imagine that one is really on the places represented by the series of paintings on the circular walls, is that the foregrounds are put in nature. If it is a battle scene, for example, visitors will almost be able to touch a gun carriage, a wagon; there will be a road nearby, with sand and natural stones; the road will seem to be sinking into a valley, and when it reappears in the distance, in a thin yellow ribbon, it will be painted. The visitor, placed on the circular platform, sees the panorama from the side that the organisers have chosen; the staircase brings him to the right place and a guide takes him little by little around the room, which corresponds on the canvas to the development of the subject.

In the Maréorama it is the canvas that is mobile: we should even say the canvases, because there are two of them, and the temporary passenger can and must contemplate the sea on both his right and left sides; let's say on the starboard and port sides to be completely marine! And it is not only the canvas that is mobile; the platform itself is mobile.

Under the action of a most ingenious mechanism, it reproduces, very smoothly, the pitching and rolling movements of a ship. Thus the platform sways, the two canvases run parallel to each other, bringing about changes in the appearance of the sea or the countries seen off shore: the illusion is complete.

The first idea of the Maréorama is surely based on the experience made every day by railway travellers when two trains are in the station together. The one you are on is stopped, the other one is going in the opposite direction, and if you look at your side, through the door, you think you are yourself moving. The error is complete, absolute; you have to turn your head away, look at a fixed point, such as the station, to recognise that you have been the victim of an optical phenomenon which is all the more curious because the most experienced people allow themselves to be taken in. This is what happens at the Maréorama. The platform has been fitted out as a ship's deck with the big chimney, the ventilation tubes, the captain's cabin, the rudder, the compass, the railings with the handrail on which one leans too often in case of seasickness, the mast, the traditional folding chairs scattered under the tents, almost the small tubs... fortunately there is no need for it!

This boat deck, the platform of the panorama, is 50 metres long and 9 metres wide. It rests on a box supported in two ways, by a central pivot allowing all the necessary movements, and by a huge water tank of which it is the float, which allows infinitely smooth rocking. At each end of the platform are two hydraulic pistons, four in all, which serve as a support for this unstable edifice, yet solidly supported on a central pivot and its four pistons. A chain hanging from the edge of the platform, the small side of the rectangle it forms, engages in a cast iron semicircle, placed on an axle, runs horizontally on the ground, and is hooked to the other end. The same arrangement is used in the width direction. Then the motors, pulling sometimes on one chain, sometimes on the other, produce all the desired movements, compensated movements, moderated by the resistance of the pistons and the float, and which result in a swaying motion which reminds one very well of a boat sailing on a slightly agitated sea.

As for the canvases, each of which is 750 metres long and 15 metres high, they have been specially made to provide the necessary resistance for the incessant work to which they are subjected. We have said that they are mobile. In order to achieve this unprecedented result, they were mounted in a very curious way. On the ceiling there is a rail supporting rollers with hooks. At both ends, there is a vertical drum mounted on an axis. The canvas, loaded with lead weights at the bottom to prevent wrinkles, is fitted with eyelets at the top. The drums have, like the railway, hooks placed in such a way that there is no rubbing of the canvas when it is rolled up. Let's imagine the fabric placed for the beginning of the operations. It has a mile! caught in the first hook of the empty drum, the next few caught in the hooks of the roller carriages, resting on the rail, and finally almost all of the 720 metres wound on the other drum.

The apparatus is, at this moment, immobile; the show begins, and it starts to move, then the empty drum starting to turn calls to him the fabric, the eyelets meet the hooks, and at the end it is the initially empty drum which will be full, and the full one which will be empty. The canvas does not therefore develop in a continuous manner by turning back on itself, which means that the journey is sometimes in one direction, sometimes in another. The point of departure being Villefranche, we see Naples, Venice, Sousse, Constantinople, point of arrival. If we stay for a second excursion, if we come back another time, we can, on the contrary, leave Constantinople to arrive in Villefranche.

Let's take our turn at one of these crossings made so easy and so inexpensive: the whole Mediterranean, for the price of a carriage ride, is for nothing!

The quadrangular building, flanked by square towers, is situated, as we know, not far from the Eiffel Tower. You enter through a rather dark vestibule, a narrow staircase, reminiscent of the ladder hanging from a ship's gangway, and you enter the deck in the dark. Fortunately a sailor holds out his hand, indicates a seat and guides you to the part of the transatlantic ship you wish to board.

The load is complete (the deck can hold seven hundred people), the commander begins to give his orders, the siren is heard, the chains creak, the orders multiply: let's go!

The sensation is really pleasant, you feel yourself being gently swayed by the waves, you leave the port without regret, seeing the water take on all the colours, becoming more agitated or calmer, depending on whether you are in the open sea or near a cove, and the magical picture of Naples and the flaming Vesuvius, of Venice, reflected in the Adriatic, of the Tunisian coast with its warm tones, of the mysterious Bosphorus, unfolds for the greatest pleasure of the eyes.

The journey is not without incident. In Naples, a group of musicians rushes onto the deck; in Sousse, the cannon sounds its loud voice for the review of the French squadron; in Venice, a storm breaks out, thunder rumbles, lightning criss-crosses the sky.... Rest assured, the most fearful have nothing to fear, and the roll and pitch cannot complicate matters. There is nothing left to do but to disembark, not without compliments for the artist who has painted these immense canvases with great charm, and tastefully combined an unusual spectacle.

©Louis Rousselet - L'Exposition Universelle de 1900