Hugo D'Alesi's Maréorama. Recapturing and deconstructing the spectacle of the Mediterranean

Sofie Deckers

In the year 1900, graphic designer Hugo d’Alesi staged a voyage on a steamship that crossed the Mediterranean Sea, for the diverse crowd of the World’s Fair in Paris. In this essay, designer Sofie Deckers dissects this illusionary voyage by both recapturing the voyage as a passenger aboard the Maréorama and deconstructing this multidisciplinary spectacle in relation to its geopolitical context. This essay aims for a nuanced understanding of the Eurocentric representation of a pleasure trip to the authentic and sensual Orient, the supposed counterpole of the industrialized West.

In het jaar 1900 zette de grafisch ontwerper Hugo d’Alesi een bootreis op de Middellandse zee in scène voor het diverse publiek van de Wereldtentoonstelling in Parijs. In dit essay ontleedt ontwerpster Sofie Deckers deze illusionaire reis: terwijl zij aan boord van de Maréorama de reis als passagier herbeleeft, analyseert ze in de coulissen de geopolitieke context waarin dit multidisciplinair spektakel tot stand kwam. Hiermee tracht ze een genuanceerd beeld te construeren van de eurocentrische representatie van een plezierreis naar de authentieke en sensuele Oriënt, de veronderstelde tegenpool van het geïndustrialiseerde Westen.

In the late nineteenth century, the large format travel posters of French graphic designer Hugo d’Alesi, commissioned by the French railway companies, brightened up the grey walls of the urban landscape with their sensational colours, seductively selling the world outside the dreary and industrial cities of France. Remarkably, many of the advertised destinations were situated on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. To city dwellers, d’Alesi’s posters appeared as a window to another world. They sparked their imagination and evoked a nostalgic sentiment of authenticity and sensuality, which increasingly seemed to disappear in an industrialized society. They engendered the yearning to escape the city right away and to travel to these Mediterranean destinations of desire.1 These posters appeared to be a prelude of the Maréorama: the voyage on the Mediterranean Sea that d’Alesi would stage for the crowd of the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris.

Maréorama is a pun on panorama, an ingenious creation that offers the spectator an all-encompassing painted environment, a 360-degree total view that makes one feel as if one is on the very spot.2 Within the context of a burgeoning entertainment industry in late nineteenth-century Europe, this visual medium developed into a popular and affordable mass spectacle and became abundantly present during the 1900 World’s Fair. The previous World’s Fairs mostly focused on industrial innovations and were primarily directed at an audience of professionals and experts. However, the focus of the present large-scale international exhibition shifted to the entertainment of a diverse crowd that was composed of all layers of society.3

A geopolitical vessel

The Maréorama had the perfect ingredients to serve as a showpiece for the Third French Republic in their attempt to impress other nations with their ingenious and artistic superiority. Specifically, d’Alesi aimed to reach the highest sense of realism by combining different art and design disciplines and bringing together knowledge from various fields of science.4 Following the contemporary trend of panoramas that increasingly aimed to move beyond the visual illusion of a spectacle,5 d’Alesi sought to reproduce a voyage on the Mediterranean Sea to such an extent that it would become indistinguishable from reality. The stage of the Maréorama served as the deck of the ship; as soon as the spectators set foot on the stage and ‘boarded’ the ship, they became immersed in a multimedial spectacle that stimulated all the senses. Once aboard the Maréorama, they became passengers who were promised to experience the same sensations as they would have experienced throughout an actual voyage on the Mediterranean Sea.6

Technical file

Technical file

Importantly, this pleasant, immersive activity also seemed to have a political dimension, since it reinforced a sense of nationalism within the country. The Maréorama could acquaint the French population with the progress of their country, while at the same time valorizing the educational and democratic values of the Third French Republic. While in reality, travelling was a leisure activity that was a privilege for the aristocracy and the emerging high bourgeoisie, the Maréorama offered a Mediterranean Sea voyage at a price that was affordable for everyone, thus seemingly democratizing travelling. Moreover, this pleasurable sea trip taught the general public about the Mediterranean Sea and its shores, thus fulfilling educational purposes as well. However, these democratic and educational purposes cannot be dissociated from a paternalistic attitude of the French Republic towards the masses, which needed guidance and direction.7 In other words, the Maréorama offered its spectators a perspective of the Mediterranean region, while at the same time fitting perfectly within the political agenda of the Third French Republic.

This illusionary voyage on a steamship that crossed the Mediterranean basin – from west to east, from the French port of Villefranche to Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire – was strongly embedded in a geopolitical narrative. Completely surrounded by land, the Mediterranean Sea borders three continents: Europe in the north, North Africa in the south, and Asia in the east. In the early nineteenth century, Western-European countries gained control of the entire Mediterranean coast and the dominant European narrative depicted the contemporary modern society as the product of their very own rich history that primarily took place on the northern side of the Mediterranean basin. Against the background of a developing society that underwent massive transformations due to the industrial revolution, there was a strong fascination for the Orient, a generalizing term largely referring to the North African shores and the entire eastern side of the Mediterranean basin.

In his book Orientalism,8 Edward W. Said defined the Orient as a system of representations of the East constructed by and in relation to the West. The European fascination for the Orient during the nineteenth century was based on the supposed representation of the Orient as Europe’s deepest counterpole. Hence, as opposed to the fast pace of technological progress of a rational and increasingly urbanized West, a voyage to the Orient on board of the Maréorama embodied a trip back in time to a mythical destination of splendour and sensuality. However, this stereotypical representation especially seemed to involve an exaggeration of differences and was built on the presumption of Western superiority.9


In the remainder of this essay, I seek to provide a nuanced understanding of how the Maréorama, which combined commercial mass culture with the political agenda of the Third French Republic, transmitted an imbalanced geopolitical narrative and subsequently aim to reveal the influential role of designer d’Alesi in shaping and perpetuating the stereotypical prevailing conceptions of the Mediterranean. Specifically, for each stop along the voyage, I start by briefly recapturing the passengers’ experiences, for which I consulted, among others, the original patent of the Maréorama,10 the outline of the Maréorama as a project for the World’s Fair,11 the original description of the itinerary,12 and sensationalized accounts of the voyage, which were published in the French newspapers.13 These subjective descriptions are followed by a critical analysis that discusses the scenes within their larger geopolitical context. Furthermore, this reconstruction is backed with the analysis of a number of d’Alesi’s travel posters, which today provide us with substantial information about former tourism representations of the destinations visited by the Maréorama.

A privileged voyage

As the Maréorama’s point of departure, d’Alesi had selected the Côte d’Azur. The radiant morning sun symbolized the beginning of the voyage and continuously guided the passengers further throughout the continuation of the trip. This popular winter destination amongst the aristocracy was located at the most north-western point of the Mediterranean basin. Ever since the eighteenth century, European doctors have spoken of the virtues of the mild winter climate of the Mediterranean.14 By the second half of the nineteenth century, the Côte d’Azur was confronted with the burgeoning trend of winter retreats that combined their temperate climate with medical treatments.15 This development was powered by the extension of a railway line from Paris to Nice in 1864 by the French railway company PLM (Compagnie des Chemins de fer de Paris à Lyon et à la Méditerranée), for which d’Alesi created the advertising posters between 1890 and 1904. Several French Mediterranean Sea towns, such as Hyeres, Cannes, Nice, and Villefranche, represented non-quotidian settings where the aristocracy could go for recovery and to retreat from the dreary, grey industrialized cities in a beautiful environment and under the mild Mediterranean sun.

The exotic representation of the Côte d’Azur was intensified by the tropical vegetation that started to dominate the region during the nineteenth century. Stimulated by the emerging tourism, plants and trees with the greatest decorative interest were introduced from warmer areas of the French colonial empire.16 Along the French Côte d’Azur, tourists could enjoy the exoticism of the colonial environment in a nearer, more controlled scenery. Even today, agaves, cactuses, aloe veras, palm trees, and bright fragrant flowers like roses and jasmine grace the shores of the Côte d’Azur and have transformed into symbols of wealth, health, and good weather.17

The brightly coloured poster (poster 1), designed by d’Alesi in 1896, presents a conventional representation of the aristocratic winter stays at the Côte d’Azur during that era.18 This poster promoted PLM’s Trajet Rapide, for crossing the distance between Paris and Nice in only eighteen hours by train de luxe. L’Hiver à Nice is gracefully written in eye-catching letters against the background of a cloudless blue sky. The seductive poster depicts two elegantly dressed women, sitting on a terrace that is overlooking the coastline of Nice, surrounded by lavish bunches of cut flowers. The maid is elegantly holding a parasol for her mistress while her white gloves emulate the graceful curls of the typography. Her seated mistress is watching the horse-drawn carriages on the lively Promenades des Anglais flanked with palm trees. Furthermore, the pier and the illuminated crystal casino of Nice are depicted in a miniature image that is decoratively integrated in the form of a luxurious hand fan. Thus, the poster that is reminiscent of the seductive art nouveau posters aims to sell this exotic and erotic dream to male financers with graceful female figures amongst stylized plants, flower motives, and prestigious monuments.19

Importantly, the Maréorama gave access to these privileged French shores. To complete the illusion of the voyage, d’Alesi even provided illustrated postcards depicting passengers on the Maréorama that one could send home. Around that time, the popular practice of sending postcards grew as a side-product of the flourishing Mediterranean winter holidays. Many postcards were sent from the Maréorama, and several were likely written aboard the ship, as if one had made an actual trip across the Mediterranean Sea.20

Embarkation – morning

Villefranche (France)

The ship is anchored at one of the most beautiful bays of the Mediterranean, in the idyllic port of Villefranche, close to Nice. As you walk across the gangplank, you are greeted by the captain in uniform. After a short walk on the large deck, you find a great spot at the bow of the ship from where you have a wonderful view of the painted canvases depicting this charming port under the radiant Mediterranean morning sun. Smoke is rising from the funnels and the siren cheerfully whistles; the ship is ready to go offshore! You feel the smooth movement of the waves, a cool sea breeze blows through your hair, and you promptly forget the hustle and bustle of Paris.

On starboard side you notice that the characteristic village of Villefranche was built on a steep slope, richly vegetated with palm trees and agaves. It appears as a natural amphitheatre facing the eternity of the sea, with Mont Boron in the west, Cap Ferrat in the east, and the Alps as a backdrop. On port side, you see multiple ornate winter palaces popping up, adorned with exuberant flower-decorated balconies. We smoothly sail along the breath-taking shores of the Côte d’Azur that appear as postcard images.

First stop – noon

Sousse (Tunisia)

Leaving the Côte d’Azur behind, the ship crosses the Mediterranean basin to the Tunisian shore in the south. Around noon, the ship arrives at the recently inaugurated port of Sousse, under the burning midday sun. You discern a couple of smaller local fishing boats that are anchored in the port. However, the huge steamers of the French Mediterranean squadron particularly steal the show in this Tunisian port, which is under French control. The ship gloriously salutes the squadron by firing a salvo of canon shots, while the onboard orchestra celebrates the French colonial empire by playing la Marseillaise.

Higher up on starboard side, there are good views over the old city, which is characterized by a number of mystical buildings erected in an Islamic architectural style, such as the impressive kasbah. Built in harmony with its surroundings, the massive tan-coloured outer walls seem to blend smoothly into the dusty background. Further away, you spot a couple of olive oil mills, a testimony to the blossoming oil industry in Tunisia.

All of a sudden, tension rises! A band of barbarian pirates appears on the deck and tries to hijack the ship… Some of the passengers start screaming. However, the ship’s crew acts as a well-oiled machine and quickly has the situation back under control. Calmness returns as they manage to chase the pirates away; the first obstacle of this exciting adventure has been overcome.

A pompous voyage

By mooring in the Tunisian harbour town Sousse, where the strong midday sun symbolizes the most southern destination of the voyage, d’Alesi acquaints the passengers of the Maréorama with the second French colonial empire. Although French Tunisia was established only in 1881, the foundations of their empire in North Africa were already laid in 1830 with the establishment of French Algeria. Under French control, the development of railways and seaports in the North African colonies progressed quickly and the connections between the ports of France and North Africa were largely extended. The Mediterranean Sea, in earlier days a dividing border between Europe and Africa, now became a junction sea connecting France with its conquered territories.21

Aboard the Maréorama, passengers could catch a glimpse of a Tunisian coastline that adhered quite closely to their preconceived notions, which were influenced by the existing stereotypical representations of French Tunisia. Besides depictions on travel and educational posters and in the illustrated atlases of that time, impressions of the French colony were abundantly depicted on Orientalist paintings that populated the European art academies during the nineteenth century. In France, the art scene was subject to comprehensive and widespread government involvement.22 As a result, French academism, also known under the pejorative term art pompier,23 patriotically depicted uplifting, moralizing topics such as glorious episodes from mythology and French civil, military, and religious history, as well as idealized landscape scenes. In the wake of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt (1798-1801),24 many French painters became entranced by the Orient. Attracted by the untainted desert landscapes and the Berber culture, whose members were supposedly still living in harmonious coexistence with the natural environment, these painters travelled to the conquered North African territories throughout the nineteenth century. As a result, this exotic destination under French dominion became an important source of inspiration for their Orientalist paintings.25

The depiction of a Tunisian daily scene on the poster (poster 2), designed by d’Alesi in 1891, is very much in line with the pomp of the Orientalist paintings and today provides us with a good impression of the rhetorical representation of this former French colony. This poster promoted PLM’s Voyages Circulaires (round trips) for Tunisia, a 55-hour-long trajectory from Paris to the Tunisian capital of Tunis. Painted in dominating ochre tints, the poster portrays a camel caravan in the Tunisian Sahara. The camel in the foreground, guided by a bearded man, is adorned with colourful and ornate fabrics and carries two elegantly veiled women. A miniature image further promotes this exotic destination by rhetorically displaying a typical alley in an old Islamic town. The decorative elements are painted with great detail and a strong contrast of light and shadow, creating a sense of dusty heat. The fanciful angular, shaded, ochre letters displaying Tunisie regenerate primitive influences of the old Latin alphabet and smoothly integrate into this exotic imagery.

The desire to represent the untainted authenticity of these North African littoral countries cannot be considered separate from a colonialist desire for domination over these uncivilized societies.26 The staged pirate attack clearly reinforced the existing stereotypical representation of the dangerous North African colonies plagued by Berber barbarism, manifested by those who were always prepared to rise up against their French overlords. The swift successful response of the crew, then, reinforced the image of a forceful French colonialist power.

Furthermore, the staged pirate attack amplified the immersive character of the voyage by creating direct interaction between the spectators and the performers. This swift performance created a comparable kind of ambiance as the tableau vivant performances that were a popular form of entertainment around Europe during the nineteenth century. Similar to a tableau vivant that was suddenly, theatrically unveiled during a party while guests are chatting in the parlour,27 the performers also suddenly appeared on the scene of the Maréorama, dressed in pirate clothes and equipped with the appropriate attributes. The performers only stayed on-stage for a few minutes, demanding complete attention, before disappearing backstage again, most likely to get changed for the next performative intervention on the Maréorama.

Second stop – afternoon

Naples (Italy)

Poster 3
Hugo d’Alesi, Chemins de fer de l’Est, l’Italie, 1904, chromolithography, 110 cm x 70 cm, Gallica library.

You would have loved to further discover the small alleys of the mysterious old town of Sousse; however, the ship has a tight timetable. Right on schedule, the Maréorama passes from the wild southern side of the Mediterranean back to the tamed north, with Naples as the next destination. Out in the open sea, the afternoon sun softens and colours the sky with a pastel lightness. While slowly approaching the coast of Naples, you decide to take a rest in one of the rocking chairs on the deck. From below the deck, you hear the sound of the orchestra that is travelling along. But all of a sudden, this divine moment is disturbed by a rude wake-up call. ‘The Vesuvius!’ shouts the captain. Several passengers point with astonishment to this sublime volcano in the far distance that spectacularly releases plumes of smoke that drift towards the Apennine Mountains.

Along these Neapolitan shores adorned with traces of Western history, it feels as if you are thrown back in ancient times. In one of the giant rock formations, you can behold the tomb of Virgil, the great Roman poet. It makes you muse over the Roman hero Aeneas and his Greek counterpart Odysseus who also crossed the Mediterranean Sea some two millennia ago. The ship then slowly enters the port of Naples. Once anchored, the orchestra of the ship initiates an up-tempo tarantella, whereupon a group of Neapolitan couples in traditional costumes board the ship. To the sound of castanets and tambourines, they cheerfully repel and attract each other during this flirtatious regional folk dance,28 while enthusiastically chanting the words: ‘Vedi napoli et po mori!’ You catch yourself clapping along with the other passengers to this contagious rhythm.

Third stop – evening

Venice (Italy)

Poster 4
Hugo d’Alesi, Chemins de fer, Venise, 1896, chromolithography, 106 cm x 76 cm, Gallica library.

As the sun slowly sets, the Maréorama continues in the direction of Venice. Although it feels as if time repeatedly stands still during this voyage within the beautiful scenery of the Mediterranean, this suspended time continuously progresses. When the ship smoothly slides into the Venetian lagoon, orange-coloured gradients appear in the Venetian sky while the orchestra starts playing Soleil Couchant at a slow tempo. Under the theatrical light of the setting sun, the urban landscape of Venice appears truly pittoresque.

The ship passes along a carefully defined composition of the lavish architectural mix of Venice. You observe the extensive rose colour palette of the marble Ducal Palace, built in the Venetian gothic style, and admire the detailed depiction of the bell tower of the Byzantine Basilica of San Marco. Further on, you behold a sensational play of light and shadow in the reflection of the baroque facade of the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute in the waters of the Grand Canal. Meanwhile, gondolas move swiftly along, followed by brushstrokes of evening light that gleam and play upon the lagoon water.

A mythological voyage

By mooring in the port of Naples, d’Alesi familiarized the passengers of the Maréorama with the rich ancient history of the Greek and Roman Empire, which left important traces on the shores of this Italian coastal city. Naples was established by the Greeks around 800 B.C., who named their ‘new city’ Nea Polis. Around 400 B.C., this Mediterranean city was conquered by the Romans at a time when the Mediterranean Sea was called mare nostrum. In the light of ancient Western history, the mythological dimension of the voyage on the Maréorama becomes remarkable as it summoned the symbolic meaning of a sea voyage that went from one pole of the Mediterranean basin to the other. This was the common theme in both Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid, two of the oldest and most significant works of classic Western literature – the primary difference being that their voyages were in the opposite direction; Odysseus travelled from Troy in the east to return home to Ithaka, whereas Aeneas left Troy to establish Rome in the west.

Already during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, this rich history encouraged young aristocratic European men to travel to Naples during their ‘Grand Tour’. Their voyage often brought them to the archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum,29 exposing these young men to places that represent the cradle of Western civilization, frozen in time by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79.30

During the nineteenth century, the rise of steam-driven transport made Naples reachable by train. The notorious Mount Vesuvius is depicted on the poster (poster 3), designed by d’Alesi for Chemin de Fer l’Est in 1904, that promoted ‘Billets d’excursions’ from London, through France, to Switzerland and Italy. The poster depicts a Neapolitan couple captivated by the smoking crater and a woman dressed in traditional Neapolitan clothing. Similar to the performance of the Neapolitan folk dance on board of the Maréorama, this folkloric scene illustrates the nostalgia for traditional local culture and customs from a time before mass industrialization. It is not surprising that such recognition of folklore and folk art as a specific category came about during this modern, increasingly industrialized era that characterized Europe during the late nineteenth century.31

This trip back in time was enlivened by the live orchestra of the Maréorama, hidden under the deck, which was directed by the Parisian composer Henri Kowalski. The descriptive symphony Illusion d’un voyage en mer,32 especially written for the Maréorama, endorsed the romantic belief that music should aid in the rendering of the extramusical narrative of the sea voyage.33 All the scores of Illusion d’un voyage en mer were named after the different moments during the trip and were sold as piano sheet music with a chromolithographic print of the corresponding shore as the sheet cover. By purchasing the music and its evocative cover, the passengers could recapture the Mediterranean experience over and over again, once back home from their voyage.

A pittoresque voyage

By depicting the Venetian lagoon on the painted canvases, d’Alesi informally educated the passengers of the Maréorama about the rich architectural landscape and tourist stereotypes of Venice. From the thirteenth until the fifteenth century, the republic of Venice became the most powerful port city of Europe. The Venetians’ domination of trade enabled a continuous exchange of building materials, engineering innovations, and aesthetic ideals; which explains a creative cross-pollination of Western and Middle Eastern architecture.34 The setting sun can be interpreted metaphorically as a transition, as the Maréorama arrives at the border between the former Western and Eastern Roman Empires and will soon leave the western side of the Mediterranean basin to enter the eastern side.

The charming Venetian scenery at sunset invites us to briefly elaborate on the pittoresque character of the scenes depicted on the painted canvases of the Maréorama. The French term pittoresque (derived from the Italian pittoresco), is defined as a scene worthy of being painted. This aesthetic was introduced at the end of the eighteenth century and suggests the perception of an observer who is affected by painted representations of these natural sceneries.35 In preparation for the Maréorama, d’Alesi himself made an actual voyage across the Mediterranean, following the path of the many other travelling painters who preceded him during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Influenced by a conception of ideal scenes derived from paintings, d’Alesi travelled to rediscover these natural sceneries, to further reproduce these pittoresque representations.36

Similar to the pittoresque scenery of Venice represented on the painted canvases of the Maréorama, a Venetian scenery was also displayed on the poster that promoted trains rapides from Paris to Venice (poster 4), designed by d’Alesi for Chemin de Fer l’Est in 1896. The boldly coloured poster is a good illustration of how d’Alesi mastered chromolithography, a printing technique that allowed him to reproduce coloured paintings and facilitated the rise of the illustrated advertising poster in France. This technique enabled d’Alesi to paint directly on the printing stone, which ensured that brushstrokes remained clearly visible in his printed posters, which gave them a painted character.37 In order to obtain the detailed colour range, noticeable in the various shades of blue and green of the lagoon water in combination with the reflection of the orange setting sun and the shadow of the gondola in the water, a separate stone was prepared for every colour. By using a large number of stones, sometimes up to twenty,38 d’Alesi overlaid many coloured layers to arrive at these pittoresque representations.

A ground-breaking voyage

Aboard the Maréorama, passengers could behold the maritime horizon, the line where water and sky seem to meet, which represents the limit of our eyesight. Metaphorically, the horizon divides the world into the known world that is contained within the horizon, and the unknown world that begins beyond the horizon. It was the awareness of possibilities beyond the horizon that fuelled European exploration and colonization. In the age of the Grand Tour, a person ‘whose horizons are limited’ referred to someone with narrow experience and little education; travelling, by contrast, was seen as a way ‘to broaden one’s horizons’.39 According to Stephan Oettermann, the panorama was a result of the discovery of distant lands beyond the horizon, as well as a way to surpass this horizon. Thus, d’Alesi broadened the horizons of the many passengers of the Maréorama by bringing the distant lands of the Mediterranean into the French metropole.

Accordingly, feeling dizzy and nauseous on board of the Maréorama was not an unfortunate side-effect that should be prevented. On the contrary, this unpleasant feeling of mal de mer manifested the limits of the human body and was therefore an integral part of this multisensorial spectacle, which was sought voluntarily and eagerly.40 On the Maréorama, not only geographical horizons were crossed: the horizons of the body were challenged and conquered as well, whereby seasickness created a tinge of excitement in this safe environment staged by d’Alesi.

– night

at open sea

On the slow notes of Venise la Nuit, the ship leaves the Venetian lagoon. Night falls and the ship continues in the frightening darkness, to the unknown territory of the open sea. This peaceful voyage comes to a sudden end as a fierce Mediterranean storm breaks out in the middle of the night! Are we at the mercy of the whims of Fortuna (the goddess of fortune)? Or did we elicit the wrath of Neptune (god of the sea and the storms)? Or is the storm due to the boredom of Jupiter (god of the sky and thunder)? No one knew better than Odysseus that the unleashed forces of the sublime nature pose a continuous hazard during long journeys on the Mediterranean.41 A violent wind blows over the deck, diffusing a strong sea scent. You hold your hat tight while the wind whistles in the rigging. The ship moves brutally due to the heavy swings and water floods the ship. You decide to shelter under the deck, where the painted canvases are still visible through the portholes. Flashes of lightning briefly illuminate the deck and the canvases, followed by the rumble of Jupiter’s thunder. The ship is in total chaos. Several passengers become seasick and the lady next to you even has to vomit.42 Luckily, she is quickly assisted by one of the helpful crew members. The other members of the crew rush around on the deck and prepare to launch the lifeboats.

Eventually, however, the captain shouts new orders: the storm finally lies down. People cheer and applaud; they are proud to have overcome this challenging sea!

Final destination – dawn

Constantinople (Ottoman Empire)

As a serene new day is about to begin, the boat slowly approaches our very last destination: Constantinople, the capital of the mythical Orient. The shore appears as if in a dream as the sun rises and softly colours the sky in pink. The sun glistens on the golden spires of the minarets that crown the numerous mosques, which are spread across this fairylike urban landscape. The colossal dome of the Byzantine Hagia Sofia towers above the city, and the neighbouring lush green gardens are filled with large Oriental planes. As the ship glides along this magical shore, you are seduced by the smells of eastern perfumes, and you become captivated by the lively port crowded with porters, merchants, and marines. Their different skin tones, languages, cloths, heads, and turbans hint at their various backgrounds from the different corners of Europe and Asia. Here at the Bosphorus, the continental boundary between west and east, these different worlds dissolve in an intriguing melting pot.43

After docking, a group of Almah44 boards the ship and you become instantly enchanted by this Oriental curiosity as these women start the most unusual dance you have ever seen.

On voluptuous rhythms, they move their breasts and shoulders while shaking their bellies as if they were completely separate from their bodies. The sound of their tinkling golden anklets is accompanied by the continuous clinking of the brass castanets they wear around their fingers. Astonished, you notice that these women are not wearing a corset; the few clothes they wear, made from transparent silk, hardly cover their belly. You experience a strange mixture of outrage, desire, and excitement while you feast your eyes on their abdominal muscles that move in the most extraordinary manner.45

The evocation of the Orient completely overwhelms you; it is almost exactly as you imagined it, as a scene of Les Mille et Une Nuits. The rising of the sun, after the turbulent storm of last night, elicits the feeling of something rising within yourself: an inner awareness of a strong tension between the triumphant Western reason you left behind in Paris and this mystical revelation in Constantinople. At the end of this voyage, you feel like having found your very self.

A voyage to the self

By ending the sea voyage in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire that is today known as Istanbul, d’Alesi satisfied the prevalent French fascination for the Orient that was based on its supposed representation as Europe’s deepest counterpole. Interestingly, this same itinerary from France to Constantinople had already been travelled during medieval ages when large fleets manned by European Christian knights crossed the Mediterranean basin during the crusades for recovery of the Holy Land from Muslims.46 Strikingly, the word cruise, which refers to a journey of pleasure such as on board of the Maréorama, descends from the same etymological meaning as the word crusade. This offensive attack by the West against the East is a respelling of the French word croisade, which is in turn derived from the Latin word cruciare (mark with a cross).47 This encounter between West and East turned into a more fruitful interaction as the East turned into an intriguing destination of travel during the nineteenth century. However, this Western fascination for the Orient especially seemed to involve an exaggeration of differences and was built on the presumption of Western superiority.48

The travel posters of d’Alesi did not extend to the Middle East. However, the passengers’ collective imagination of the Middle East was most likely nourished by the influential stories of Les Mille et Une Nuits. This French translation of Middle Eastern folktales, published between 1704 and 1717 by Antoine Galland, played a crucial role in the construction of the Orient in the collective imagination of the Western reader.49 Furthermore, the mythical representation of the Orient was backed in numerous travelogues by French artists who, facilitated by steam-driven transport, travelled to the Middle Eastern region during the nineteenth century.

On board of the Maréorama, the passengers could behold a dancing performance of Almah that served as a contrasting mirror-image. As opposed to the long dressed European women, the uncorseted bodies of these Oriental women appeared as unlimitedly sensual, pleasurable and willing. Hence, this portrayal, shaped by a stereotypical gaze and charged with Western and mostly male projections, seems to tell us more about the Western view of the passengers than about the Oriental woman as such.50

Further, with the Orient under a rising sun as the final destination of the Maréorama, we could assume the implicit intention of d’Alesi to give the voyage a spiritual dimension. Derived from the Latin word oriens (rising, appearing, originating), the word ‘Orient’ also suggests a possibility of rebirth.51 By travelling from west to east, the passengers of the Maréorama left behind their familiar environment, broadened their horizons, experienced strong emotions of wonderment, fear and confusion and faced their counterpole on the other side of the Mediterranean basin. It seems that d’Alesi had the ambition to generate a purifying impact of self-interrogation. At the end of the voyage on the Maréorama, the passengers might have felt reborn.


Taken together, with the Maréorama, it seemed that d’Alesi had unfolded the Mediterranean destinations of desire that were displayed on his posters into a rhetorical, immersive setting that fulfilled the longing these travel posters addressed. Thereby, d’Alesi staged a voyage that was completely embedded in the existing stereotypical representations of the Mediterranean region at that time. The narration that guided this voyage endorsed the belief of the West as the powerful pole of the Mediterranean that symbolized progress, rationality, masculinity, and refinement. As a consequence, the voyage on the Maréorama appeared to be in search of scenes and experiences that were in contrast to this Western image: close to nature, sensational, feminine, backward, primitive, and untamed.


Sofie Deckers

designs on paper, on the screen, and in space. In 2020, she graduated from the Master Design, Space and Communication (HEAD Geneva). Her diploma project Paradise Series explored the artificiality of paradisiacal holiday destinations between the boundaries of graphic design, scenography, and performance. She continues to apply this multidisciplinary approach, both in her commissioned work and in her autonomous research into the blurring line between reality and the man-made systems of representation.


  1. Hanus, Philippe. “Les affiches de la Belle Époque et le tourisme ferroviaire.” traverse, Accessed September 2019.
  2. Oettermann, Stephan. The Panorama: History of a mass medium. Zone Books, 1997, p. 99.
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