The Architecture of Italian Theaters around the Time of William Shakespeare

Article excerpt

IN ITALY during Shakespeare's lifetime (1564-1616] two of the most important architectural innovations in the history of modern theater took place: the invention of the proscenium arch and the invention of the theater with boxes. Together, these innovations redefined the way the audience viewed the action of the play and the audience was accommodated. In the decades before Shakespeare's birth, the modern notion of an illusionistic setting for the action had been developed by Italian painters and architects. The purpose of this series in Shakespeare Studies on drama outside England is to situate early modern English theater in a larger global context. Continental Europe in the sixteenth century saw the simultaneous growth of several centers of new dramatic expression, each with its own distinct characteristics. English drama was uniquely splendid as literature, for instance, but it was Italy that largely gave Western theater its modern visual and spatial forms.

The Italian contributions came into being through a rich series of experimentations with possible architectural forms for theaters: from literal reconstructions of ancient Roman theaters, driven by humanist interest in antiquity, to the construction of large rectangular rooms with their own stages to house court spectacles, to the building of commercial theaters for the performances of commedia dell'arte troupes. The situation was extremely complex, and so these three categories were quite fluid and often bled into each other. Further complicating the story was the political situation on the Italian peninsula, divided into a number of separate small states, each with its own peculiar form of government and its own cultural traditions. These states watched each other carefully, sometimes emulating and always striving to outdo whatever their rivals may have ventured in the way of theater. Out of this stew of political, cultural, and economic interests rose the architecture of the modern theater. Sadly, the visual and physical evidence for this remarkable moment is almost entirely gone. All the theaters built in Italy during this period, with three exceptions, have vanished, as has most other visual evidence. As a consequence, the study of Italian theater architecture of early modern times has to be based almost entirely on written documentary sources. Only from these documents, which scholars continue to unearth, can we reconstruct in our imaginations what once stood.

A standard way to define the theater focuses on three elements: the text, the actors, and the audience. For an architectural historian, this definition is inadequate, because it fails to take into account the physical setting that brings these three elements together--that allows the audience to hear the actors recite the text, to see their movements and expressions, and to be carried visually to another time and place by the illusions created by the scenery. This essay, then, focuses on spaces that were constructed or adapted to contain theatrical performances rather than on the performances themselves.

Although a few plays were given in private settings a bit earlier, modern theater history in Italy, in the sense of performances presented to a more or less public audience, seems to begin in 1486, when Ercole d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, ordered a production of Plautus's Menaechmi in the courtyard of his palace and when the production of a tragedy by Seneca, Ippolitus, was offered by Cardinal Raffaele Riario, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, in front of his palace in Rome. (1) In both cases ancient Roman plays were deliberately revived, in line with the general interest in revivifying the culture of antiquity in fifteenth-century Italy. Very quickly modern plays began to be written and performed at courts around the peninsula, alongside revivals of Roman works, which were given sometimes in Latin and sometimes in new translations into Italian. In these early years no one built theaters. …