Ferdinando Gizzi is a postdoctoral fellow at LIRA (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3), where he also teaches the history of silent cinema. He is the author of the monograph Le Passioni di Cristo nel cinema delle origini: questioni iconografiche, iconologiche e culturali (Pisa: Pacini, 2019), stemming from his doctoral work at the University of Florence.
His research on early cinema, religion, and visual piety are now moving towards an archaeo-phenomenological level, with a project on the relationships between the mystical-visionary experiences and the cinematographic and pre-cinematographic spectatorial forms of the fin-de-siècle France (title: Expériences visionnaires et formes spectatorielles au tournant du siècle. Pour une phénoménologie du spectateur cinématographique des origines).
On the threshold of the birth of the mass consumer society, in late nineteenth century, photography had taken over not only the documentary account of the events, but, despite its more or less serious intentions, the visualization of the supernatural, increasingly inscribing it within the dense and effervescent fin-de-siècle spectacular landscape.
This paper is dedicated to the photographic coverage of the alleged miraculous apparitions, which occurred in the small French village of Tilly-sur-Seulles between 1896 and 1897. These photos, circulated as postcards and appearing in popular magazines of the time such as L’Illustration and Le Monde illustré, were presented – by virtue of the authority of the photographic as an indexical trace – as “authentic” testimonials of the supernatural events, though in fact neither recognized nor approved by the Catholic Church. These photographs used the already-known double exposure process of spirit photography, bringing these exotic visual materials into the tradition of religious “authentic fakes”. But more importantly, such images manifested the “visionary fervour” of late nineteenth-century France, that is, the growing desire of the modern crowd to see the invisible in more and more spectacular and convincing ways. Such a new spectatorial desire – that can also be found in the very successful genre of the photographs of the real bodies of mystics, saints, and seers – would be perfected by a whole series of contemporary forms and attractions, and finally, by cinematographic special effects.