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"The Phonograph" by Massani - Some Religious Connotations
"The Phonograph", painted by P. Massani, ca. 1905

"The Phonograph" painted by P. Massani, an Italian, was exhibited in the United States in 1905, and was purchased by Thomas Edison and Co. for around $1,000. The painting originally showed a "Puck" machine, but this was changed to an Edison product. It is possible that Edison purchased the Massani painting to use as a counter advertisement to the "Nipper" picture which the Victor Company was using on some of its products and stationery. There are two versions of "The Phonograph" showing machines with different horns, but the paintings are similar in other respects.

At one time, reproductions of Massani's painting must have been common in the homes of America. In 1907 one could obtain a print of "The Phonograph" by sending 30c in postage stamps or a money order to Edison's Orange, New Jersey office.

At first glance, "the Phonograph" is a picture of a poor, elderly couple listening ("for the first time" says an Edison advertisement of 1907) to an Edison cylinder machine.

"The Supper at Emmaus", painted by Caravaggio, 1597

But is that all that the artist wanted to say?

It was (and still is) quite common for artists to put secondary meanings into their work, and during the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, those secondary meanings were often religious. Also, artists often borrow ideas from other artists (just as musicians borrow from other musicians) and Massani may have "borrowed" from two paintings by a fellow Italian.

In the years 1597 and 1606, Caravaggio painted two religious pictures illustrating the story of "The Supper at Emmaus". The biblical story (Luke 24: 13-31), with which our grandparents would have been quite familiar, goes like this: Christ. after his resurrection, walked to the village of Emmaus and sat down to supper with some friends who did not recognize who he was. When Jesus blessed the food, they recognized him as the crucified Christ. In other words, the diners did not realize that they were witnessing a miracle until they heard the voice of Christ. Then Christ vanished.

In the Caravaggio painting of 1597 the man's gesture of surprise is very similar to that in the Massani painting. In the Caravaggio painting of 1606 the old woman on the right with the wizened features and bound hair could very well have been the "model" for Massani's woman. (Massani would probably have been aquainted with both Caravaggio paintings through reproductions. He may even have seen the 1606 painting still in the Brera Gallery in Milan).

"The Supper at Emmaus", painted by Caravaggio, 1606

But why might Massani have taken some of his ideas from two religious paintings known as "The Supper at Emmaus" in order to illustrate the surprise of two people on first hearing the phonograph?

Here is one possible explanation: Massani may have seen a connection between the two events taking place almost nineteen hundred years apart. "The Supper at Emmaus" was a miracle of the First Century A.D. where Christ's voice was heard after his resurrection. Massani's painting shows a miracle in the age of the machine where the poor couple do not realize that they are witnessing a miracle until they hear the "voice" the disembodied voice, as it were, of an "unseen guest". Such a connection, if seen consciously or subconsciously by a viewer in 1905, would have given this painting an added punch, thus making it a more effective advertisement. The painting also suggests that Edison was a "maker of miracles".

If you should feel that there is no connection between the Massani painting and the two paintings of Caravaggio, you are perfectly at liberty to think so, but there are similarities that will have to be does explained. Why, for example, Massani's "miracle" take place at the supper table, at the beginning of a meal, in a "village" home? Most interesting of all is the presence of red wine, long a symbol of Christ and his resurrection.