As a mantra, “pics or it didn’t happen” carries a clear whiff of internet-age modernity. But in many ways, the sentiment behind the phrase precedes smartphones, Snapchat, and selfie sticks by some 275 years. Eyewitness Views: Making History in 18th-Century Europe, a new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, looks at the Enlightenment-era phenomenon of vedute, or view paintings: astonishingly detailed cityscapes of Venice, Rome, Paris, and other tourist hotspots. These canvases were highly collectible luxury souvenirs, pictorial portals that would later transport the visitor (and friends back home) to that faraway place and moment. Their strict perspective lent itself to formal gardens, neoclassical arcades, and canals lined with palazzos.

But vedute were more than glorified postcards, the Getty curator Peter Björn Kerber argues in his sumptuous exhibition catalog. They also served as proof that one had personally encountered the cultural and architectural marvels of Western civilization—a kind of proto-Instagram. Many vedute included portraits of the tourist or diplomat who had commissioned them. Others depicted newsworthy events the visitor had witnessed firsthand, from royal weddings to volcanic eruptions. Though dwarfed by their surroundings, the figures in these paintings are identifiable by details of dress or by their positioning, slightly larger than life or perhaps illuminated by a strategically placed shaft of light.

Artists took pains to give vedute the illusion of authenticity, both in their photorealism and in their knack for putting the audience in the scene. The observer is not just a fly on the wall, but also seemingly an active participant in history in the making. In one image, Kerber points out, the Venetian painter Canaletto adopts a perspective that could only have been seen from a boat in the middle of a teeming canal, placing the viewer literally in the middle of the action. The Roman artist Giovanni Paolo Panini often included a self-portrait in his vedute, a meta touch that proved his works’ accuracy.

Visual cues give a sense of time as well as place: setting suns, rippling flags, wisps of smoke from a just-fired cannon salute lingering in the air. In Panini’s 1747 depiction of a packed performance of a cantata in the Teatro Argentina, Kerber points out, it is even possible to identify the specific musical passage being played from the positioning of the musicians: the drummers poised for a downbeat, trumpeters at the ready.

Giovanni Paolo Panini’s The Musical Performance in the Teatro Argentina in Honor of the Marriage of the Dauphin, 1747 (RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY)

Foreign ambassadors to Italy were the first to recognize and exploit the image-making potential of the new vedute style. By tradition, they made their ceremonial entrances to their host cities in processions of coaches—or, in Venice, gondolas—specially purchased or constructed for the occasion, and so elaborate that the ceremonial entrance might take place a full year or more after the ambassador’s actual arrival, Kerber notes. Given these careful and costly preparations, Kerber writes, it’s understandable that diplomats wanted to capture these career-defining moments on canvas, simultaneously burnishing their reputations at home and abroad.

But the genre also responded to the no-expense-spared festivals and pageants that characterized 18th-century urban life, transforming these ephemeral entertainments into lasting art. Just as digital photography and social media have challenged many people to step up their game when it comes to food presentation, contouring, and interior decoration, so did the popularity of vedute perpetuate a vicious cycle of competitive celebrating.

Lavish public entertainments might feature balloon launches, fountains flowing with wine, or temporary temples and triumphal arches that doubled as launch pads for fireworks. Artists found ways to capture (and even improve upon) the grandest spectacles the capitals of Europe had to offer. At the time, vedute were the visual equivalent of the hyperbole found in breathless letters and published accounts of the events they portrayed. For example, the world traveler Lady Mary Wortley Montagu described the Venetian regatta of 1740 as “a magnificent show, as ever was exhibited since the galley of Cleopatra” in a detailed letter to her husband, which would have been circulated among their friends. Then as now, the goal was to inspire as much envy as possible.

Canaletto’s Venice: Feast Day of Saint Roch c. 1735 (National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY)

Venice—with its distinctive topography, picturesque carnivals and regattas, and constant influx of tourists and dignitaries—was tailor-made for the vedute treatment. Images of curious Catholic rituals such as the Good Friday procession were especially exotic and appealing to Protestant tourists from Northern Europe. The most illustrious visitors to Venice were honored with a bull chase in the Piazza San Marco; imagine the running of the bulls at Pamplona with the added distractions of hunting dogs, elaborate costumes, an orchestra, and acrobats descending from the top of the Campanile. It was the kind of over-the-top extravaganza that had to be seen to be believed, and vedute painters capitalized on this uniquely 18th-century brand of FOMO.

Underlying the spectacle, however, was the simple pleasure of people-watching. Vedute are populated by casts of thousands; bystanders might include a colorful assortment of schoolchildren, hoop-skirted ladies, tradesmen, monks, coachmen, beggars, soldiers, and gondoliers. Artists also injected humorous vignettes, such as the elegant gentleman attempting to show reverence to the sacrament in a Corpus Christi procession while taking care not to let his silk-stocking-clad knee touch the ground, or the pair of dogs sniffing each other in the foreground of an ambassadorial meet-and-greet. The level of detail and narrative sophistication in vedute repays careful study; it’s no exaggeration to say you could spend hours looking at them.

But the photographic quality of vedute obscures the fact that artists rarely aspired to #nofilter naturalism, instead embellishing their subjects for visual and political impact. In one canvas, the Grand Canal makes a 180-degree turn, all the better to squeeze as many architectural landmarks as possible into the frame. Artists often amplified (or downplayed) physical reality for political gain. In one painting recording a diplomatic reception, Panini added architectural grandeur to a building he (or his patron) apparently deemed too modest, doubling its complement of pilasters. By contrast, in another canvas, Panini brazenly shrunk the monumental facade of Rome’s most famous building, St. Peter’s Basilica, to make the figure of his patron arriving at the church on horseback look more imposing. It was typical for the embellished pictorial and written records to eclipse the actual event. As the courtier Count Maurepas quipped: “Celebrations are never as beautiful as they are on paper”—an idea echoed in today’s “Instagram vs. Real Life” meme.

Luca Carlevarijs’s Regatta on the Grand Canal in Honor of Frederick IV, King of Denmark, 1711 (J. Paul Getty Museum)

Ironically, many of the supposedly “ephemeral” scenes vedute painters recorded for posterity still exist. Giuseppe Zocchi’s 1739 image of the Palio di Siena is easily recognizable from the horse race’s recent appearance in a James Bond movie; both the setting and the event survive more or less intact today. Modern Venice may teem with cruise ships rather than ceremonial barges, but the Oxford don Joseph Spence’s 1741 description of the Piazza San Marco as being so crowded that it looked “as if it were paved with heads” will resonate with anyone who’s been there lately.

Because of the commemorative nature of vedute paintings, they typically ended up a great distance from the iconic locales they depicted with such precision. The Getty show (which will travel this fall to the Minneapolis Institute of Art and from there to the Cleveland Museum of Art) unites pieces from far-flung museums, castles, and country houses. Most curators have a couple of Canalettos or Carlevarijses in their collections, but seeing dozens of them displayed together—something that’s never been attempted before, partly due to the complex logistics—offers compelling evidence that, even in the pre-Instagram age, people found ways to insert themselves into contemporary history, and manipulate it to their advantage.