Theatres of illusion

Giuseppe Badiali, ‘A mausoleum’ (RIBA Drawings Collection)

Stage designs
by Wynne Jeudwine.
Country Life Books, 1968.

If we may accept the definition of fantasy as the act or art of imagining impossible or improbable things, then its manifestation comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes, manners and places. Long before moving images on a screen one way to experience a fantasy world was to enjoy it in what the author of this volume terms “the theatre of illusion”.

A key element for the theatre’s visualisation, which steadily developed through the 16th and 17th centuries, was stage design. Graphic art specialist Wynne Jeudwine tells us that the theatre of illusion was concerned “not so much to reflect and enhance the mood of the drama as to create a sense of wonder,” with its ingenious perspective, colour effects and created spaces for movement.

During what the author terms “the years of glory”, between 1640 and 1730, set designers attempted to build on and outdo their predecessors and contemporaries; and though only their drawings remain (most of those in this book chosen from the collections of the Royal Institute of British Architects) these sketches have merits as works of graphic art. We nevertheless have to work hard to imagine the impossible or improbable things that may have once been conjured up within their material if illusory forms.

Sebastiano Serlio, ‘Set design for a tragic scene’ (1545)

After a quick gallop through 16th-century designs – such as Baldassare Peruzzi’s stage sets with their rudimentary perspectives (published by Sebastiano Serlio) – and brief mentions of Giorgio Vasari’s theatre in Florence (1565) and Andrea Palladio’s in Vicenza (1585), Jeudwine shows how masque-like Italian intermezzi, with their spectacular mobile effects, were allied with more static “architectural” sets common to comedies. These then led to operatic productions and other forms of spectacle which followed on from the pioneering work of Bernardo Buontalenti for the intermezzi at Florence’s 1598 festival.

Italy continued to innovate by giving rise to specialist designers who founded schools and even dynasties;  they included Giulio and Alfonzo Parigi, and Giacomo Torelli. Jeudwine points to two important technical innovations in the early 17th century: the introduction of the wing stage to enlarge the acting space, and the mechanical invention by Torelli of scene changes by means of pairs of wing flats and so-called cloud machines. The latter led to innumerable appearances of a deus ex machina in staged spectacles.

Instead of the relatively simple street scene or shallowly articulated façade, we have magnificent colonnades, temples and palaces, in a style often composite and fantastic but still bearing the imprint of the age of Bernini. Mechanical ingenuity and an exuberant artistic eclecticism combined to make possible entertainments on a scale so lavish that only the great ruling houses could afford them.

p 31
Torelli’s set design for Act 5 of Corneille’s ‘Andromède’ (1650)

For most of the 1600s sets tended to be designed on a central axis with balanced symmetrical wings, all related to the proscenium arch, allowing for popular but expensive mechanical effects to be brought into play in centres such as Paris and Vienna. But economy and other considerations required innovation, and Ferdinando Bibiena was the person who at the start of the 18th century was the person to bring it about.

His principle, il modo di vedere le cose per angolo (“seeing things at an angle”), required the perspective to be designed “not along a central axis but along one or more diagonals, each of which allowed further vistas to open off it.” Scenery was thus freed from the tyranny of the proscenium arch.

Design for a Stage Set with a Monumental Arcaded Courtyard’ by Giuseppe Galli Bibiena (Met Museum collection)

The extended Bibiena family adopted this principle during the rest of the century, which coincidentally coincided with a taste for ever more fantastic and elaborate architectural designs, with columns and statues multiplying, and prototype Escher flights of stairs, with every surface covered with trompe-l’oeil detail. Other designers, such as Filippo Juvarro, also innovated, for example by using more restrained ornamentation or by suggesting enclosed spaces hidden round the corners of architectural features.

As Romanticism crept into artistic tastes and a love of the picturesque developed, along with a fashion for more contemporary themes in drama, the grandiose theatre of illusion gradually ceased to be in vogue, and by the 19th century the focus returned to the human story on the stage and away from the spectacular but expensive effects of stage design.

But the love of the sense of monumental space has never really gone away. I see it everywhere in popular culture, in the theatrical effects still aped in garden design and in town planning, in literature which evokes the work of Piranesi and his contemporaries, in video games, and so on. And in our art galleries we can still see the vast canvases on classical, biblical or romantic themes, painted in previous centuries, displayed at suitable vantage points to best advantage, to most effectively cause awe and wonder and to excite our imagination.

Antonio Galli Bibiena, ‘ Hall of a palace opening to a garden’ (RIBA Drawings Collection)

Alternatively we can look at books like Jeudwine’s and immerse ourselves in the forty-plus plates (alas, all in monochrome) and imagine ourselves inhabiting the spaces they illustrate. “If it’s a monument you require, look around you” runs the epitaph on Christopher Wren’s tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral; the mementos of theatrical designers’ ephemeral creations can instead be seen in these pages.

8 thoughts on “Theatres of illusion

  1. It is fun to get a sense of monumental space from a stage set or from the theater itself. I’ve been to some famous theaters and enjoyed the surroundings even before the curtain opened, particularly at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, where sitting on the throne-like chairs on the main floor makes the audience feel like royalty.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, that sounds something special, Jeanne. One of the most spectacular venues we’ve been to a performance at was the amphitheatre in Verona to see Aida with Placido Domingo conducting, and the combination of an Egyptian stage set within a Roman structure was atmospheric even before the performers came on.

      Failing that 2D representations like those in this book or models (such as those Victorian toy theatres you put together yourself) are good substitute fallbacks!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It must’ve been quite an experience to see these, in the flesh as it were, not just in Italy but in the other European cities where these Italian designers set up their elaborate stage sets!

      Liked by 1 person

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