Madeira Mondays: The National Museum of Cinema (Turin, Italy)

Madeira Mondays is hitting the road for this one, folks! In early January, I headed to Italy to visit my partner’s family (he’s from a town outside Milan). We spent a few days in the nearby city of Turin. Turin is a beautiful northern Italian city, nestled at the base of the Alps, and it’s home to a unique museum: The National Museum of Cinema.

While I was impressed with several aspects of the museum, the coolest thing about it was its collection of old pre-cinema devices, the 18th and 19th century inventions that were popular right BEFORE cinema became a thing. So if you’re wondering what sort of moving images people watched before they went to the movies, then step on into the museum with me…

This building is the Mole Antonelliana. It’s where the museum is located! What a building, right? It’s in the center of Turin and was originally going to be a synagogue in the 1860s, but then it was later bought by the city and now it’s a museum. The epic nature of the building alone makes it worthwhile to visit the Museum of Cinema, especially because you can ride an elevator which goes up through the center of the museum, all the way to the top of the building to get incredible views of the city and the Alps! Which is how we started our tour.

(It was hard to get a photo of the elevator going through the center of the museum. In this picture, I’m on the ground floor, trying to photograph it going up! Those wires in the center of the picture are the elevator cables.)

And here is what you see when you get to the top!

If you’re ever at this museum, do NOT miss the chance to take the elevator to the top. It was one of the highlights for us and quite unexpected and moving. You hear ‘there’s an elevator to the top’ and you’re like ‘cool, sounds fun’, but when you’re going up THROUGH the museum, and seeing all of the memorabilia in there (the clock from Metropolis, photographs of old film stars, props and costumes from famous movies), and there’s this epic, operatic music playing…it’s all very exciting.

We then took the elevator back down and started to explore the museum from the bottom up. The lower levels have what is, to my mind, the most interesting stuff in the museum anyways: the historical collections! (All of the memorabilia on the upper levels was interesting but, to me, a little bit scattered? It felt a little more sparse and somewhat random what they had up there and a lot of it was more Hollywood stuff than Italian film stuff, which I wasn’t expecting. But more on that in a moment).

The downstairs section was amazing and takes you through the history of moving images leading up to cinema. You start with Shadowplay and a discussion of ancient cultures using shadows and puppets to tell stories. There’s also a chance to play around yourself. Here’s my partner making a pretty good dog-looking shadow puppet.

Then we move onto a room about camera obscuras. I’m gonna be really honest here that my mechanical reasoning skills are not fantastic. I can look forever at a machine and not understand why pulling this lever will make this part go up etc. (My dad, who was an electrician, used to joke that I could be anything I wanted to be except an electrician because I would probably build very dangerous houses lol). All this to say: I don’t really understand exactly how the old camera obscuras work, but they are very old devices for projecting images. They are basically like precursors to the modern camera.

Here is a 19th century dictionary illustration of a camera obscura. Light enters through the lens ‘B’ and then bounces off the mirror (‘M’) inside the box. The artist is sketching and making outlines of what he sees. Camera obscura literally means in Latin ‘dark chamber’.

Artists used to use them a lot too as aids (You can see another example of what one looked like and how it works in the film Girl with a Pearl Earring here):

After that, we moved on to a device that was used in the 18th century: a ‘peepshow’. And that doesn’t mean what you think it means. Well, not exactly.

Peepshows were devices where you could look at an image in a box, which then changed through the clever use of lighting and candles. So you’re looking at a static image – maybe of a city street by day – and then, as if by magic, the image will shift to a night scene (made possible by candle light shining through cutout pieces in the image). It’s hard to explain just how enchanting this was, as I looked through the little viewer to the intricate street scenes fading from day to night. And it was so interesting to think about how it would have blown my freaking mind if I was an 18th century person to see this transformation. No wonder peepshows were popular at carnivals.

Above is one example of what the device looked like. I believe here you’re viewing it from the ‘back’ (the place where you would look into is at the front).

Another thing the peepshows did was to magnify the image and enhance the sense of depth perception through lenses, so it looks like the scenes are very large. Or, as Carlo Goldoni said in a quote they had on display, from 1760: ‘An industrious machine, which shows to the eye so many wonders and by virtue of its crystal optics would make flies seem horses.’

I tried to take pictures, but the pictures just look like I photographed a painting. They don’t show the odd experience of depth perception when you’re looking at it. Here’s an image from an 18th century peepshow of Venice, for example. If you look closely, you can see the little holes where, when the lighting changes, candlelight will shine through and illuminate the scene, turning day into ‘night’.

These devices were, as one museum plaque put it, ‘a real journey through time and space for viewers of a bygone era.’

Of course sometimes these tools were used for looking at images of nude ladies. (And probably nude men too!) Especially when photography came into being, I imagine. There was an ‘adults only’ section of this exhibition which had some very – to our modern sensibilities – charming old nude photographs. I found these to be a nice reminder that people of the past were just like us. (And it’s a very clearly marked section, so there wouldn’t be any problem bringing little kids or something to the museum!)

There was honestly so much more to see in this historical section of the museum, but the ‘peepshows’ were my favorite part. I was also highly amused by this quote from Zola from 1900, which is basically a turn-of-the-century version of the modern: “pics or it didn’t happen”.

The rest of the museum, as I mentioned, is a bit of a mish-mash. There are sections devoted to different genres of films (horror, sci-fi, musicals etc.) and a smattering of memorabilia. But I didn’t find these sections nearly as comprehensive or as interesting as the historical devices, which were incredible.

But there was also a fun section on the upper levels about ‘how a film gets made’ which breaks down the process from script through editing and sound design etc. When we were there, there was also a special exhibition on Dario Argento, the director, but since neither of us were very familiar with him, it wasn’t of huge interest to us.

But we did have fun playing around in some of the areas that let you be ‘in the movies’ (for example this one, where I’m fighter pilot in space).

We also had fun afterwards eating gelato at nearby Pepinos, which is (I think) the oldest gelateria in Europe!

Thanks for sticking around until the end of this very long post!

My final thoughts on the museum are: if you love films, it’s a no brainer, you must go if you’re in the city. If you are not a big movie lover, but you are curious, it will still be an amusing visit and honestly it’s worth it to see the impressive building alone.

There are more ‘Madeira Mondays’ on the way – the first Monday of each month! I can tell you there’s another historical tour of Edinburgh coming up, as well as a book review of a new translation of an ancient poet (any guesses who?) which was kindly sent to me by a publisher over the winter break.

Until then, take care! And hope you’re having a great start to 2023.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every first Monday of the month and thanks for reading!

If you enjoy this blog, you can support it and me by ‘buying me a coffee’ on Ko-fi, or by purchasing one of my books. Many thanks!!

Buy Me a Coffee at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s