The medium of panorama

Before the first moving pictures filled the cinemas, with their representations of towns, landscapes and battles, panoramas were the major draw for public audiences. Their inventor was the British painter Robert Barker, who patented this new medium in 1787, and himself painted a 360-degree picture of Edinburgh. Visual pleasure is a fundamental human need and has given rise to experimentation with optical illusions since time immemorial. The paintings are made as realistic as possible, given ingeniously-staged lighting, provided with installative elements («faux terrain»), and viewed from a platform. This puts the viewer in the middle of the action. In this way, the panoramas became the visual mass medium of the 19th century. With their attempts to blur the boundaries between reality and simulation, panoramas paved the way for the 3D projections and virtual reality representations of today. Nevertheless, the medium of the panorama is currently experiencing a boom, since the demand for illusion and suggestion in all its forms is as strong as ever.


1881 Painted from Edouard Castres in Geneva
1889 Transfer to the new rotunda in Lucerne
1996-2003 Complete restoration of painting and building
2008 Renovation of the foreground (faux terrain)
Technique Oil on canvas 
Fabric Canvas / Jute, 17 fabric panels
Dimensions 10 x 112 m (originally 14 x 112 m)


You will find further fascinating facts, background information, and enjoyable articles about the Bourbaki Panorama on the Bourbaki blog

Cultural Treasure Map

The Bourbaki Panorama is a unique cultural asset. It is mentioned on the cultural treasure map (in German) launched by Pro Patria 2022, a selection of projects supported by the foundation over the last 30 years.

Speaking of visual pleasure

The human desire to imitate reality and create illusions runs through all eras of art and media history. The basis for this is, on the one hand, the requirement to create a stronger emotional bond between the observer and a story using refined techniques. On the other hand, the joy of immersing oneself in ever new variations of pure visual pleasure has given rise to the search for new illusion techniques. Inventors, experimentalists and artists have succeeded in creating objects and mechanisms through a continuous development process, which fool the eye, simulate the three-dimensional world and produce illusions. This includes inventions such as the Trompe–l’Œil painting technique, camera obscura, laterna magica, the zoetrope, the stroboscope or the flip book. The so-called “grand panoramas” formed a milestone in the creation of illusory worlds, including the Bourbaki Panorama Luzern, as one of the world’s most important and best-preserved examples.

Edouard Castres

Castres was a painter with a mission. The painter of the Bourbaki Panorama knew exactly what he wanted to put on the canvas. Edouard Castres (1838–1902) personally witnessed Les Verrières border crossing as a volunteer medic with the Red Cross. His realistic representation of the suffering of war, which concentrates on individual fates, is a wake-up call for peace.

From a compositional point of view, Castres needed to master different challenges. It is impressive how he manages to present the lengthy Val de Travers on a circular canvas. Another decisive factor for the effect is the selection of the panorama’s “ideal centre”. He has constructed a location, from which the landscape and the events can be viewed as far away as right down into the valley. Castres completed the panoramic picture in 1881 in Geneva with a team of painters, some of whom were recruited from the ranks of Barthélemy Menn’s students, including the young Ferdinand Hodler.

The painters

Castres was commissioned by the entrepreneur Benjamin Henneberg to represent the internment of the Bourbaki Army in Switzerland in a large-scale panorama. He employed a team of painters, inculding the young Ferdinand Hodler, to execute the work over a period of five months in 1881 in Geneva. In 1889 the painting was transferred to Lucerne. 



1000 square metres of painting need to be cared for! Over the decades the Panorama created by Edouard Castres in 1881 has suffered significant damage. The Bourbaki Panorama Luzern association was founded in 1979 to rescue the unique Panorama from decay, and to finance the restoration work. The first preservation and rescue work on the painting, which is larger than one thousand square metres and weighs the same in kilograms, started in 1996.

During the seven years that followed, further, and in some cases spectacular, interventions took place in several phases. The challenge was to remove large creases from the painting, and to clean the surface which had been significantly contaminated by soot deposits. Another complex job was the repair of more than a thousand holes and cracks in the canvas. A specially developed method was used for this. In order to stabilise the condition of the picture in the long term, a climate control system is being installed and glass skylights are being replaced. It must also be ensured that the painting is given regular professional care to preserve it in the future.

The Association Bourbaki Panorama supports the conservation with memberships and donations.   



Christian Marty
Conservator-Restorer SKR-SCR FIIC

Susanna Pesko Bonoli
Art Historian