Theater and Stagecraft in Italy

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Theater and Stagecraft in Italy

Innovations of the Late Renaissance.

The theatrical traditions of Italy had long played a role in shaping developments in theater far beyond the borders of the country. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Italian humanists had studied the dramatic literature and theater of Antiquity. In time, their efforts produced a great flowering of contemporary play writing in Italy, as writers as diverse as Niccolò Machiavelli and Torquato Tasso relied on ancient dramatic canons to shape their sixteenth-century dramas. A taste for comedies written in the style of the ancient Roman writers Plautus and Terence developed in the sophisticated courts of the peninsula, giving rise to new attempts to understand ancient theater in all its complexity. As the sixteenth century progressed, scholars and playwrights turned to tragedy and to the study of the pronouncement of Aristotle and other philosophers on aesthetics. There were few production values in many of these first attempts to revive ancient theater, and actors often performed before the barest of backdrops that merely suggested a place. Over time, painted scenery—often designed by accomplished artists—replaced these rudimentary elements, and as the sixteenth century progressed, architects and scholars became more concerned with recreating the look and feel of ancient theaters. The most famous of these efforts was Andrea Palladio's design for the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza in northern Italy, a theater that still stands today. Palladio and his disciple, Vincenzo Scamozzi who eventually completed the project, created a structure that in many ways seems familiar to modern viewers, although the scenery with which the stage is outfitted was permanent and not moveable. It consisted of a two-story gallery, punctuated with doorways and archways. To the rear of this structure, street scenes were recreated in perspective so that the entire structure seems to recede to a vanishing point at the horizon. The ingenuity of this concept continued throughout the designs for the auditorium, where Palladio arranged curved, stepped-up bleachers in an ellipse around the stage, thus making it possible for all those in the audience to have at least a partial view of the action that was occurring before them. Palladio and Scamozzi's theater was completed in 1585, and it soon touched off a number of other experiments to find the perfect venue in which to perform the spectacles, dramas, operas, and ballets that were common entertainments in Italy's court. Of the many theaters constructed at this time, the one that had the broadest influence throughout Europe was the Teatro Farnese, a private theater constructed for the influential Farnese family in a palace outside the city of Parma in northern Italy during 1618–1619. Like the Teatro Olimpico, the Farnese had a proscenium arch stage, but one that now allowed for scene changes. The auditorium was also amazingly versatile, in part because a large arena separated the stage from the bleachers where the audience sat. This arena, which was similar to the orchestra level of many modern theaters, could be flooded to a level of two feet or, when dry, it served as a large stage for ballets, equestrian shows, balls, and diplomatic receptions. Because of its ability to be used in a variety of ways, many elements of the Farnese's design were duplicated in the court theaters that kings and princes constructed throughout Europe in the seventeenth century. The multiple uses of the orchestra-level floor was one particularly appealing feature of the Farnese's design, since throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries court theaters continued to be used for ballets, balls, and other artistic productions in addition to their roles as venues for drama and opera.

A Taste for Spectacle.

The urbane and sophisticated court culture of the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods included a penchant for elaborate spectacles that glorified local princes and their dynasties. Throughout the sixteenth century the splendor of these events steadily grew, as Italy's noble houses competed against each other to mount ever more imposing testimonies to their wealth and prestige. Around 1500, major architects and artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael Sanzio, Donato Bramante, and Michelangelo Buonarroti were already being commissioned to design scenery, costumes, and stage machinery for use in these festivities. Italy continued to provide Europe with a wealth of innovations in stagecraft throughout the Baroque period, and designers who had learned their craft in the peninsula's court theaters became a prized commodity in theaters throughout Europe until the end of the eighteenth century. Giacomo Torelli and the members of the Bibiena family were among the most prominent of the many accomplished production designers Italy produced, and the designs of these figures shaped tastes from Paris to Moscow. Giacomo Torelli (1608–1678) was a Venetian who began his career as a designer of theaters in that city before he devoted himself to solving problems of scenery changes. The designer pioneered a mechanism by which the scenery might be changed in a single operation. He attached the backdrops of his productions to rails that ran under the stage with a set of ropes and hung these drops from poles running above the stage. With the turn of a mechanism backstage, the entire set was quickly taken away and replaced by another. Until this innovation, the backdrops that had been used in the theater had merely suggested a time and place in which the action was to have taken place. With the new method, scenes could be changed quickly and relatively effortlessly, and in the productions that Torelli designed after his innovation, he defined more precisely the places in which the play's action occurred. His productions thus fed a new taste for realism that was growing in the Italian theater and throughout Europe generally at the end of the seventeenth century.

The Bibiena Family.

This group of amazingly fertile artists became a dynasty of stage designers that influenced tastes in theatrical productions everywhere in eighteenth-century Europe. The family's rise to prominence began with Fernando Bibiena (1657–1743), who was the son of a painter from the city of Bologna. Fernando trained as an architect and painter before being appointed as a court artist in the ducal court at Parma. There he developed into a theatrical designer, relying on his knowledge of illusionistic painting to create sets that appeared more real than those that had previously been popular. Until this time, the backdrops used in most stage productions had sight lines that converged to a single vanishing point to simulate the recession of the horizon. Those who designed these scenic backdrops for court theaters were expected to take into account the precise place in which the reigning prince sat in the auditorium, so that from his vantage point, the scenery appeared pleasing and correct to his eyes. Such techniques were commonly used in designs not only for the theater, but in Baroque garden and palace architecture as well. Fernando Bibiena, however, did away with such conventions, and instead relied upon his skills as an illusionistic painter to create spaces that appeared real to spectators on both sides of the theater, rather than just from the center. This innovation known as "scenes from angles" (scena per angola) made use of two horizontal vanishing points on both sides of the stage backdrop rather than in the center as designers had previously done. Fernando received aid in his efforts from several of his brothers, and a number of his sons carried on this tradition well into the eighteenth century in court theaters throughout the continent. Bibiena's sons, in particular, developed sumptuous production values, very often staging scores of operas. As their fame spread and they received commissions and distinguished appointments throughout Europe, their designs were avidly imitated even in places where they never worked.

Commedia dell'Arte.

During the seventeenth century the sudden and meteoric rise of the opera in many Italian courts and cities threatened to eclipse the popularity of all other forms of theater. While spoken plays continued to be written and performed, it was the new musical dramas, with their complex and acrobatic ballets and other interludes, that attracted the greatest noble patronage throughout Italy. In some centers, notably Rome, plays continued to be performed alongside the new operas. But in the great developing centers of opera—cities like Venice, Milan, and Naples—opera dominated the theater. One older form of comedy inherited from the late Renaissance, the commedia dell'arte, still managed to sustain its popularity against the sudden rise of the opera. The commedia's forms had largely been fixed by the end of the sixteenth century. These productions made use of a stock cast of characters that included a Venetian merchant, a Bolognese lawyer, two elderly men, one or several pairs of lovers, a retinue of servants, and four masked characters. Other conventions governed the commedia's performance. The lovers, for instance, always spoke in the distinguished Tuscan dialect—the language spoken in and around the city of Florence—while the servants spoke rougher colloquial Italian dialects drawn from less distinguished regions. The commedia had originally developed from the street and traveling troupes that were common in late Renaissance Italy, but even by the late sixteenth century the art form had already acquired a broad audience. Commedia troupes, for instance, performed at noble weddings, and they frequently provided entertainment at court. During the seventeenth century more than 35 of the troupes performed throughout the peninsula, and these numbers steadily mounted in the early eighteenth century. The commedia also spread far beyond Italy, and its influence was particularly vigorous in seventeenth-century France, where its conventions affected the comic writing of Molière and gave birth to the Comèdie-Italienne, a troupe of comic performers that staged works in its traditions. The commedia was by and large an improvised art form that nevertheless had specific characters that needed to be recreated anew in each performance. By the mid-eighteenth century commentators on the art criticized the commedia's decline into mere slapstick humor and its overt physicality and violence as a departure from the medium's early intentions. In 1750, the Italian dramatist and librettist Carlo Goldoni (1707–1793) announced his intention to reform the commedia dell'arte when he published a collection of sixteenth-century comedies at Venice. Goldoni relied on many of the conventions of the by-now well-established art, but at the same time he attempted to mold its comedy into a new form that was more credible and realistic. In place of the formerly improved art form, though, the new genre that he fashioned was a literary art form, with its plays being written down and performed from a text. His example of a comic theater that was based in real-life situations was immediately popular and produced a spate of similar comedies in Venice and eventually throughout Italy in the mid- and later eighteenth century.


Per Bjurström, Giacomo Torelli and Baroque Stage Design (Stockholm: Almquist and Wiksell, 1962).

Christopher Cairns, ed., The Renaissance Theatre: Texts, Performance, Design (Aledershot, England: Ashgate, 1999).

Deanna Lenzi, et al, eds., I Bibiena: una Famiglia Europea (Venice: Marsilio, 2000).

A. Hyatt Mayor, The Bibiena Family (New York: H. Bittner, 1945).