The Short, Lascivious Lives of Two Venetian Theaters, 1580-85 *
Johnson, Eugene J., Renaissance Quarterly
Studies of the theater architecture of the Italian Renaissance have mainly focused on two issues. One is the reconstruction of ancient theaters on paper by humanist architects such as Alberti or Palladio. (1) The second is the construction, by ruling princes or by aristocratic societies such as the compagnie della calza in Venice (2) or the Accademia Olimpica in Vicenza, of performance spaces to which audiences were invited. In the late sixteenth century a third development, often overlooked by architectural historians, was far more important for the subsequent history of theater architecture: the construction in Venice by patrician entrepreneurs of two theaters with boxes rented to a paying public. These two theaters were the ancestors of the teatro all'italiana, the Italian opera house that spread across Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, following the continent-wide success of the new art form of Italian opera. Nicola Mangini has called them "una novita in assoluto" (an absolute novelty) both in Italy and in Europe. (3)
Of these Venetian theaters, built for performances by commedia dell'arte troupes, (4) no physical evidence remains. Indeed, they perished without leaving a known visual trace, and no detailed written account of their architectural form has come to light. The scarce evidence for their existence is so fragmentary that it has been impossible even to date them securely. Documents recently found in the Archivio di Stato, Venice, however, now finally make it possible to outline the history of these important structures.
The Venetian public theaters were first mentioned by Francesco Sansovino in 1581 in his Venetia citta nobilissima et singolare. Sansovino states that there had recently been built in Venice two theaters for the performance of comedies, both in the parish of San Cassiano. Thus we have long had a date of circa 1580 for the construction of these two buildings. Sansovino provides little additional information, save to say that one theater was round and the other oval. (5)
No subsequent source tells what became of these structures, and no reliable additional information on these theaters seems to have appeared for three hundred years. In 1879 Giovanni Sforza published a number of important documents related to them in a book of some rarity whose title, F. M. Fiorentini e i suoi contemporanei lucchesi: Saggio di storia letteraria del secolo XVII, (6) hardly suggested to later scholars that it might contain information crucial to the study of Venetian theaters of the sixteenth century. Mangini, almost a century later, resurrected Sforza's documents in his Teatri di Venezia of 1974, a book that greatly advanced the study of Venetian theaters. (7)
What Sforza's documents make clear, if one reads them carefully, is that in Venice by 1581 there existed mote than one theater with palchi, or boxes. These boxes could be closed off, presumably by doors, to hide their interiors from the eyes of passersby, who walked in surrounding corridors that required artificial light. (8) If no one could look into the boxes, then by implication their sides had to be enclosed by walls that concealed their interiors from the adjoining palchi. (9) How the boxes may have opened toward the stage is not clear. Goings-on in the closed boxes caused considerable scandal. The documents describe no specific acts, but one can hardly go wrong if one characterizes them as sexual, nor can one exclude the possibility that some of Venice's famous courtesans may have set up shop in the palchi. (10) The existence of the boxes, the scandalous nature of the behavior therein, and the concern expressed over the boxes by the Jesuits resident in Venice were also documented by a letter written in October, 1581, by the Florentine ambassador to Venice, which was published in Alessandro D'Ancona's Origini del teatro italiano of 1891, the first great study of the modern theater in Italy. …