03 Italian Renaissance Theatre
New elements are fused with an ancient theater in a creative manner
The revival of the theater and the birth of a new theater space
1. Discovery of the architectural document by Vitruvius
The Renaissance began in Italy in the 14th century, drawing people’s attention to ancient works also in the area of theatrical art. Plays written by ancient Roman playwrights, such as Terentius and Seneca, have been revived and performed. However, the theater stage in those days had a simple structure, with a high-rise platform and a small separate room behind (Figure A). This was remarkably similar to the temporary stage used for performing mystery plays (see Panel 02). In any time in history, new styles of theatrical plays have been generated with the format of the theatrical space (theater) that was common in those days.
At a time like that, De Architectura, the architectural document written in around the 1st century B.C. by Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio was found. The document included space composition theories of various examples of architecture and also explained the forms of ancient Roman theaters and ancient Greek theaters (see Panel 01). The Sulpicio Edition published in 1485 was the first edition to be published. The edition published in 1513 in Florence includes illustrations that were not found in the original manuscript (Figure B). Here, take note that the entire floor plan of the theater fits inside a square frame. Unlike open-air Greek and Roman theaters, theaters in the Renaissance period changed from an outdoor space to an indoor space, and this explanation of the space of a Roman theater fitting inside a frame seems to suggest such a change.
2. One-point perspective representation by Sebastiano Serlio and three types of stage backdrop
Theaters in the Early Renaissance period generated a new theatrical space, inheriting the tradition of mystery plays, influenced by De Architectura written by Vitruvius, and also with the help of one-point perspective representation. It was architect Sebastiano Serlio who presented a theatrical space that superbly integrated three different trends.
According to the architectural document written by Serlio, a backdrop drawn using one-point perspective representation (see Panel 01) was superposed onto the part corresponding to the skené (backdrop wall) of ancient Roman theater (Figure C). Perspective representation is a technique to draw scenery three-dimensionally, similarly to the vision through the human eye. It was a new technique for the “human perspective” in the era of humanism, respecting people’s rational mind.
Three types of stage backdrop were prepared, namely comedy, tragedy, and burlesque (Figure D). In those days, a backdrop was prepared not individually for different plays, but a universal backdrop was prepared for each of the three types of plays was used. Because tragedies usually covered the fate of a noble character, castles and mansions were drawn on the backdrop (Figure D-a). Comedies depicted funny lives of common men, so a scenery of city streets was also drawn (Figure D-b). For burlesque, a scenery of a countryside was used (Figure D-c).
3. Mechanical technique recorded by Sabbattini
The Renaissance period was an era in which various machines were invented, alongside the discovery of perspective representation. Many mechanical stage settings were also made for theaters.
Although only fragments are known, there are records showing that a device to descend a deity from above and a device to change the backdrop by rotating trianglular columns had already been developed for ancient Greek theaters (see Panel 01). However, the details of the reality are unknown. In the Renaissance period, notable achievements were made in terms of sailing ship technology and military technology. Influenced by such developments, various machineries were introduced in theaters. Galileo Galilei, the famous astronomer and physicist, also had an idea of such devices.
As a theoretical document handing down the machineries used on stage in those days, there is a book titled Pratica di fabricar scene e macchine ne’ teatri (1638) by Nicola Sabbattini, an architect. The book illustrates various machines, such as a device showing a god descending from above, or a device tossing a ship about by heavy seas. It can be imagined that perspective representation and machines were the state-of-the-art technology that surprised the world back then, just like virtual reality these days.
The first indoor theater using one-point perspective representation
Academia Olimpica, a cultural circle for aristocrats and intellectuals, was established in 1555 as a cultural and art base in Vicenza, Italy. Teatro Olimpico was a theater constructed as a part of Academia Olimpica’s activities, proposed by Palladio, an architect in the Renaissance period, and completed thereafter by his apprentice Scamozzi in 1585.
Although it follows the format of Roman theater (see Panel 01), the audience seats face the major axis of the ellipse against the stage, and the shape is more flattened than that of Roman theater (Figure F). It also had a skené, a stone-built stage backdrop, just like Greek and Roman theaters. There were three entrance/exits on the facade and one on each side, with a cityscape drawn with one-point perspective representation, the latest technology in those days, behind them as a stage setting. In particular, the central entrances/exits on the facade were larger than those on each side, and three lines of a city street were built behind them three-dimensionally. Theater became an indoor space for the first time in history with Teatro Olimpico. Thereafter, supported by the new stage setting, theatrical plays developed to cultivate various styles of staging, and it is believed that the shift of theatrical space from open air to indoors contributed greatly to such development.
Also, theater director SUZUKI Tadashi and his company, the Suzuki Company of Toga (SCOT), performed Dionysus and Electra, both based on ancient Greek tragedies, in 1994 and 1995. As a side note, the building of Teatro Olimpico was visited by the Tenshō embassy, the Japanese embassy sent from Japan to Europe from 1582 to 1590, and a drawing that shows their visit remains. Perhaps the embassy actually witnessed Teatro Olimpico.
Text by SHIMIZU Hiroyuki
01 Olympic Theatre
02 Farnese Theatre