New Exeter Classics graduate and museum volunteer Jennifer writes on the wonders of the Romanfesta in 1841, as seen through our artefacts. A small exhibition on the Romanfesta, cuirated by Jenny, is currently in our lower gallery.

The Romanfesta transformed the Surrey Zoological Gardens in South London into Rome, ablaze with the pyrotechnic celebration of the saints Peter and Paul, seen through vast perforated canvases of key monuments, such as St. Peter’s basilica. Miniature souvenirs of these scenes can be seen displayed in our exhibition (EXEBD 70438 and EXEBD 70217).

Print of St. Peter's in Rome (EXEBD 70438).

The Colossal Pictorial Model of Ancient and Modern Rome, created by George Danson, extended beyond the flat of the canvas into replicas of the city’s buildings which included the balcony of the foremost mansions that served as a private viewing platform for spectators. Richard Altick in his seminal The Shows of London (Altick p325) states that 'the canvas used would have covered three acres and the cross atop the Surrey version of St. Peter's was 97 feet from the ground'. An extensive review in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction (Vol. 37 May 22, 1841 EXEBD 21704) insists that the scene is skilfully painted as to be ‘scarcely discernible’ from the 3D installations. The Pictorial Model was positioned in such a way that the lake in the Zoological Gardens acted as the Tiber. Together with the pyrotechnics of the girandola, inspired by the displays in Rome itself, the hyperreal spectacle brought Rome to the heart of London. The accuracy of these representations were integral to the entertainment, which aimed to ‘replace reality’ (the Panorama, Bernard Comment, pg 130, 1999); it was important to stress the authenticity of the images, which was often done through third party confirmation by travellers who had seen the event for themselves. If there were glaring inaccuracies present the spectacle could be exposed by travellers who had seen the ‘real thing’ and the illusion would be lost. In the same review the rendition of Rome in the Gardens is compared meticulously and successfully mapped onto a contemporary description of Rome’s ‘most popular view’.

Handbill for the Romanfesta (EXEBD 70483)

Roman imagery was deeply embedded within the visual culture of Victorian Britain, from the London Colosseum in Regent’s Park to spectacles like the Romanfesta. The Roman Empire itself became a sort of ‘origin myth’ in the minds of the British for their own empire (R. Hingley, p. 14). It is not inconceivable then that seeing the splendour of Rome, reproduced in their own capital, was analogous to success and power of the British Empire. In the time before newspapers enabled accessible up-to-date illustration and were widely distributed among the provinces in Britain, the visual entertainment of panorama spectacles were key sources of information regarding the development of the British Empire and were influential in its portrayal. The success of such panoramas hinged on their connection to the local audience and their community (J. Plunkett 2013 moving panoramas) and so it is perhaps more revealing that the Roman Festa was reviewed as ‘the most superb spectacle in modern times’ (The mirror, June 12th, 1841).

Print of the model of Rome at the Surrey Zoological Gardens (EXEBD 70363)


Altick, Richard. The Shows of London (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978)

R. Hingley (1995) 'Britannia, Origin Myths and the British Empire' in  Cottam, S., Dungworth, D., Scott, S., and Taylor, J. (eds) TRAC 94: Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Durham 1994. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 11-23.

Plunkett, J. 'Moving Panoramas c. 1800 to 1840: The Spaces of Nineteenth-Century Picture-Going'. 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. 19: 2013




Back to latest news