Academic journal article Italica

Beyond Praxis: Leone De' Sommi's Apology of Theater and Judaism in His Quattro Dialoghi in Materia Di Rappresentazioni Sceniche

Academic journal article Italica

Beyond Praxis: Leone De' Sommi's Apology of Theater and Judaism in His Quattro Dialoghi in Materia Di Rappresentazioni Sceniche

Article excerpt

Abstract: Leone de' Sommi's treatise Quattro dialoghi in materia di rappresentazioni sceniche (Mantova, c. 1565) is known mainly as the earliest methodical treatment of the art of theater direction. I aim to shed light on another aspect of this text, which resides under the surface despite its centrality to the author's project. I propose that De' Sommi's Dialoghi constitute an apology of both secular theater and Jewish culture, aimed at two distinct reading audiences: his Christian and Jewish readers.

Keywords: Leone de' Sommi, Renaissance Theater, Mantua, Italy, theater direction, kabbalah, Renaissance Jewish culture.


Leone de' Sommi (c.1525-c.1592) is a relatively uncelebrated figure, although attention to his biography and oeuvre has seen development since the 1990s, as evidenced by a modestly growing collection of work (e.g. Barkin; Scola). Although De' Sommi was a prolific poet, playwright, and director at the Gonzaga court of Mantua for three decades, as well as a Hebrew poet, translator, and community leader, his limited fame is due mainly to the importance of his treatise, Quattro dialoghi in materia di rappresentazioni sceniche (c. 1565), which constitutes "the first systematic account of the art of the director in western theatre" (Migliarisi, Renaissance 13), arguably establishing De' Sommi as "the founder of modern stage direction" (1) (Barkin 2).

As a result of the primacy of place accorded to De' Sommi's treatise as the first methodical treatment of the practice of theater direction, scholars have tended to focus their analyses on the practical aspects of the Dialoghi, at the expense of more subtle themes residing under the surface of the text. This is only logical, since, compared with other works on stagecraft published prior to and contemporary with the Dialoghi, it is a stunningly pragmatic text, dedicating a good deal of space to the praxis of putting on a play (i.e. how stage sets should be designed; how the stage and theater should be lit; how actors should be chosen, and how they should speak and move on stage; etc.). (2) By emphasizing these functional aspects, scholars have followed De' Sommi's lead, taking him at his word when he writes in the introductory letter to his readers that he composed the Dialoghi "piu per [suo] particular comodo che per desiderio di laude," and that his "principale intento" was to compose a sort of director's notebook, "[per se] stesso piu che [per] altri," containing a summary of "quei piu importanti precetti et quegli awertimenti piu neccessarii--di che io ho bisogno servirmi moltissime volte", as a playwright, costume designer, and theater director at the Mantuan court (QD 5). Setting aside the rhetorical humility that De' Sommi adopts here, a careful examination of the text makes it clear that the Dialoghi consist of much more than a set of self-addressed director's notes. Along with the practical concerns mentioned above, our author also treats such theoretical considerations as the divine and ancient origin of comedy, the etymology of various terms, and other seemingly impractical issues, which he spends a great deal of space discussing. It may well be that De' Sommi did consider it necessary to keep these concepts in mind while writing and producing plays-the passion with which he expounds his ideas on these topics would seem to indicate that he did-however, theater historians have often passed over the more theoretical portions of the Dialoghi in their studies. So, although the praxis of stagecraft may be the principale intento of this text, the fact that there is a principal aim implies that there also exist secondary aims, and it is to these that I would like to turn our attention.

The elaborate form of the treatise--a Renaissance humanist dialogue, complete with narrative frame--immediately belies De' Sommi's humble claims by associating this text with the prestigious canon of philosophical dialogues stretching back to the classical tradition. …

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