Representation, Presence, and Theatricality in 16th-century Italian theatres
Subproject of "Art, Agency, and Living Presence in Early Modern Italy".
Many scholars have dubbed Italian society of the sixteenth century ‘theatrical’. If we look at public ritual, schools of rhetoric, books of manners, or literature of the time, this sobriquet seems to be justified. Contemporaries compared the world to a stage and, what is more, considered the stage a fitting representation of the world as it ought to be. Several authors maintained that the theatre (both building and performances) was an educational tool, meant to teach the audience the essential values of ideal society and ideal government. It is no mere coincidence that over the century princes and aristocrats erected ornate theatre halls and keenly controlled what was put on show and who were permitted to watch it. It can even be said that thanks to these social views the theatre emancipated from its liturgical and festive bonds into something of an independent discipline.
On the basis of modern reconstructions of for instance Leo X’s theatre on the Campidoglio (Rome, 1513) and the Medici theatre in the Uffizi (Florence, 1569), and the visual evidence of the still extant theatre of Alvise Cornaro in Padua, the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza (1584), and the ducal theatres of Sabbioneta (1590) and Parma (1618) I argue that these theatre halls with their stucco statuary, their wall paintings and their sometimes elaborate fixed stage set (which always showed a high-brow cityscape) were pictorial environments, representing ideal society under good government. They had been created to give the chosen audience the (illusory) experience of being a member of the ideal society represented by the buildings and the shows on the stage. At the same time this experience was an appeal to the visitors to imitate the ideal outside the walls of the theatre and be good citizens and rulers, acting to the benefit of their country.
Not a few contemporaries thought the stucco statues of gods, princes, and city magistrates were exemplary spectators, who watched the living audience as much as they looked at what happened on stage. I suggest these illustrious spectators were there to teach the living that they were always on stage, and had to act accordingly.