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Theatrical Architecture - Significance of Serlio

In 1545 Sebastiano Serlio published his Trattato di architettura, a work that concentrated on the practical stage of the time. An excerpt from the Encyclopedia Britannica by authors George C. Izenour, Howard Bay, and Clive Barker sums up the principles of this major treatise.

Serlio’s treatise on the theatre had three especially significant items. The first was a plan for an auditorium and stage that assumed a rectangular hall, with spectators arranged in the same pattern as in the Roman cavea (i.e., the tiered semicircular seating area of a Roman theatre), the difference being that the semicircle of the audience was cut short by the sidewalls. Second, his three types of stage designs—tragic, comic, and satiric—were the same as Vitruvius’ classifications. Third, for the stage, he started with a Roman acting platform, but instead of the scaenae frons, he introduced a raked platform, slanted upward toward the rear, on which the perspective setting of a street was made up of painted canvases and three-dimensional houses. Since the perspective required that the houses rapidly diminish in size with distance, the actors were able to use only the front houses. Serlio used three types of scenes, all with the same basic floor plan. Each required four sets of wings (i.e., the pieces of scenery at the side of the stage), the first three angled and the fourth flat, and a perspective backdrop.

The Accademia Olimpica in the little town of Vicenza, near Venice, commissioned a famous late Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio, to design a theatre. This, the Teatro Olimpico, was the first permanent modern indoor theatre, and it has survived intact. Palladio thoroughly researched his subject (the outdoor classical theatre of Rome) and without knowing it designed something now considered very close to a Roman odeum. It is a scaled-down version of an outdoor Roman theatre, with shallow open stage and a heavily sculptured, pedimented, permanent background. A colonnade of heroic proportions, surmounted by sculptured figures, surrounds a steeply stepped bank of seating. Overhead is a painted sky. To promote an intimate stage–auditorium relationship, he used a flattened ellipse in planning the seating, rather than the classic half circle. The interior was to be lit by tallow candles mounted in wall sconces. Palladio died before the building was finished, and his follower Vincenzo Scamozzi completed the work in 1585. Behind the five stage entrances (attributed to Scamozzi) are static, three-dimensional vistas of streets receding to their separate vanishing points; it is not certain whether this was the intent of the original design. In performance, the theatre is efficient if the auditorium is full, and speech carries quite well because of the small volume, flat ceiling, modulated sidewalls, excellent vertical sight lines, and direct hearing lines from all seats to the stage. The exterior is an ungainly, masonry-walled structure with a wood-trussed, tiled roof.

In 1588–89 Scamozzi designed the Teatro all’Antica, a small court theatre for the Gonzaga family at Sabbioneta. Unlike the Teatro Olimpico the stage here is a single architectural vista behind a shallow-raked open platform, after the manner of the stage illustrated by Sebastiano Serlio. At Sabbioneta a divided horseshoe-shaped bank of seating leaves an empty arena, at floor level, in front of the stage. This space, backed by the permanent bank of seating, can be used for additional seating, but it also accommodates other uses and paves the way for the most famous and influential of all Renaissance theatre buildings, the Teatro Farnese.

Teatro all’Antica at Sabbioneta
Teatro all’Antica at Sabbioneta

The Teatro Farnese lies about 12 miles west of Sabbioneta at Parma, in a palace of the Farnese family. The theatre, designed by Giovanni Battista Aleotti and built in 1618 (but not used until 1628, to celebrate the marriage of a Medici daughter to a Farnese son), was the first proscenium theatre to be designed for movable scenery and is the earliest large-scale indoor theatrical facility to have survived. It was severely damaged by fire bombing in World War II but has since been restored to its former glory. There has also survived an extensive catalog giving details of events held there, including some contemporary comment on performances. The catalog describes the variety of uses to which the theatre was put: drama, opera, and ballet were performed on stage; equestrian acts and sumptuous balls were held in the spacious arena between stage and seating, which could also be flooded to a depth of two feet and used for mock naval battles; and, in addition, the theatre accommodated such court ceremonies as ambassadorial receptions, proclamations of state, and princely extravaganzas. The Teatro Farnese has windows (as did the Teatro Olimpico and the Teatro all’Antica at Sabbioneta before it) behind and above the banked seating, which helped to illuminate the space during daytime use; tallow candles or animal-fat lamps, in wall and overhead fixtures, were the only source of nighttime illumination for this and all interior theatres until the introduction of gas lighting in the 19th century. The Teatro Farnese set the style for stage and auditorium design over the next 250 years, with the exception of the courtyard-patio (corrales) theatre in Spain and the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre of England.

Teatro Farnese in Parma
Teatro Farnese in Parma


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