Theatre of war


Andrew Todd



It’s worth reaching back in time to see the metaphor of city as theatre in its original state, before being degraded by ad men and pseudo-philosophical architects; and it’s worth looking at how top-down organisation does not have to mean a murderous Mubarak, provoking rebellion from the grass roots.

Sebastiano Serlio followed Alberti as the chief theoretician of the renaissance, his Seven Books of Architecture of 1537 echoing the structure of Vitruvius’ and Alberti’s texts but written more accessibly in Italian (rather than Latin) and with illustrations. Serlio delved even deeper than Alberti into the question of the theatre, proposing it as something exemplary for civic life: one could act out on the stage idealised forms of behaviour and also urban scenery, Serlio’s illustrative engravings featuring perspectival scenes of an exemplary contemporary city (for tragic and comic purposes), and also a countryside for pastoral scenes. The theatre was given central place in renaissance thought as a kind of model, captured world with all the ingredients of the ‘real’ one: humans, three-dimensional settings, lighting, movement, language, music, costumes. This was in spite of the absence of a particularly strong parallel tradition of theatre text and performance; there were relic Roman plays, but nothing even close to the literary revolution then going on in London, driven by Shakespeare and his contemporaries (on the other hand, the architectural renaissance in England was a good fifty years behind events in Italy).

It was inevitable that an architect-designed theatre would result from this situation, where new templates for churches, civic buildings and villas were being churned out every few months. Andrea Palladio got there first -albeit posthumously- with his Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, a pseudo-Roman theatre built inside an existing building of 1580. It seems likely that he tested out his ideas through ephemeral structures for the same client (the Accademia Olimpico), and this building is something of a stage set itself. The semicircle of Roman-style seating is squished into an ellipse in order to fit onto the building’s oblong volume; the scenic front (reminiscent of a triumphal arch) was completed with perspectival street vistas through its openings by Palladio’s assistant Vincenzo Scamozzi. This theatre was hardly used (it was designed for an amateur troupe composed of local academicians), but its form has reverberated through time, resulting latterly in Peter Brook’s squished-ellipse Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris.

Scamozzi, always labouring in the shadow of his master, put one better on him eventually, being asked to design the first freestanding, purpose-built theatre of the Italian renaissance in the ideal city of Sabbioneta. I underline the national flavour of this occurrence as Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre -a mish-mash of vernacular, ‘found space’ forms and renaissance symbolism and iconography- was its exact contemporary.

Sabbioneta is in an isolated spot in the Po valley, half an hour north of Parma; its name means ‘sandy’. It is part of the sphere of influence of the Gonzagas, the princes of Mantova (further north). Its founder, Vespasiano Gonzaga i Colonna was a sort of mini-warlord who built his power on the potential threat posed by a fortified garrison of horsemen armed to the teeth and ready for combat, but mostly sitting around and waiting. The city is gridded but with few four-way intersections (allegedly to make defence and surprise counter-attack easier for the home team). Vespasiano was hardly ever at war, bargaining his influence by switching allegiances in the complex inter-city rivalries of 16th century Emilia Romagna and Tuscany. If his job was to sit tight and have his men keep their shields and swords polished, he thought of a good use for his waiting-time: he sought to found a model city along Serlian lines, planned from scratch, aggregated with ‘modern’ institutions such as a gallery for his art collection, two lovely churches, a synagogue and -most unusually- Scamozzi’s theatre. He also collected the requisite intellectual fire-power to realise and legitimise his vision, a situation we are unfamiliar with amongst our contemporary warlords: imagine Ratko Mladic keeping court with Noam Chomsky and Gerhard Richter, for example.

The standard urban model for a theatre -current from the 17th century to today- is that of a palace of culture occupying one side of a significant urban square, addressing the public space with a carefully-composed and made-up front, the business end of deliveries, stage business and so on being relegated to back streets. Scamozzi used his single-use slot as the first modern theatre builder in a much more interesting way. Instead of aping the presence and position of a church, his building is part of the fabric, one end of a city block unto itself with no strong hierarchy between front and back. In fact, the first sight of the building for most visitors arriving through the town’s fortifications is of its rump: the shoulder of the stage volume sticks out slightly above the surrounding buildings, but nothing gives away the fact that this is not the public mouth of the building. To confuse maters further, the ‘real’ front mirrors the posterior down to the Latin facade inscription (reading ‘How great Rome was, its very ruins tell’). There is also a prominent side door giving onto the street.

Vespasiano had a detailed influence on the use of the building, so it is highly unlikely that this situation arouse casually. Inside the building, what you see from the city is what you get: the single rectilinear volume (12 by 30 metres by 12 high) is clearly expressed, like a barn or basilica (the building, during centuries of disuse and neglect, was in fact used as an agricultural store). Slotted into the rectangle at one end -like a piece of scenery- is a rather lovely bell-shaped bank of benches bracketed by a colonnade above, behind which are the VIP seats. There are frescoes across the walls making clear the yearning of this space towards Roman exemplars (not so much as spatial quotations, but appealing to the intellectual authority of the Eternal City).

Facing this structure for the public is a conspicuously mirrored arrangement of a perspective stage, another bell- shape of equal size with distorted buildings diminishing to an accelerated vanishing point (the original stage -built flimsily in canvas and wood for budgetary reasons- has been approximately reproduced in chunky wood in the 1980s, although the stage riser is significantly higher than the original). Obviously a person walking away from the audience in the scenic city would become a giant in a couple of blocks; the stage (except for the apron and the first section of colonnade) was just for show, but it was nevertheless as solid as the city outside the walls and not a mere painted backdrop. There was a painted sky over this scene (you can see it in Scamozzi’s extant section drawing), matching the fresco sky above the audience.

Let’s return to the strange side door for a moment: Vespasiano used this entrance (with no lobby) to appear directly from the street onto the apron stage, whereupon to be greeted by his citizens, through whom he would move, exiting at the back so as to climb to his special seats in the colonnade above. In other words, the janus-composition of the building, with two heads or two backs (depending on how you look at it) is designed around the hinge point which is principally for the theatrical show of the patron himself. The entertainment which followed would take place on the floor-level forestage area and partially on the raised stage, giving a neat threshold for separations of here and there, quick scene changes, eavesdroppers on the action and so on. As the only known performers were a local amateur troupe, we may reasonably assume that the architecture out-performed the show.....


In spite of the modest circumstances, Scamozzi managed to create here an odd, awkward, beautiful, hybrid building which can -at a slight stretch- be said to contain all the subsequent history of theatre in one simple volume. First to be born, it catches a spark of inspiration with amazing prescience, capturing a whole range of energies, both urban and performative. In the bell-shaped seating we can see the horseshoe-shaped balconies of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (in France more than Italy); the elaborate model city on the stage, equal to the auditorium in scale, foreshadows the huge stage scenery which would evolve (particularly in Northern Europe) two hundred years later; in the apron stage embraced on three sides by the audience, a form of complicit, convivial exchange, we can see Peter Brook’s Bouffes du Nord and its offspring in Brooklyn, Barcelona and so on; and in the simple dignity of the barn, four walls in which to tell a story, we can see the radical stage space of Adolphe Appia, which would later inspire the Theatre du Soleil. All of this locked into a city grid in a building which perfectly encapsulates the tension between the everyday and the exceptional, story and history, present time and the elastic time of performance.

The latterday equivalents of Vespasiano, the Emirs, Mayors and despots who commission monuments to their glory, have shown themselves to be somewhat loath to get by with a simple box locked into the city fabric; they want to bamboozle outwardly, to cavort, to make as much noise as possible. It’s worth noting, though, that there is one weird parallel with Vespasiano: in a recent competition for a Gulf-State opera house, potential architects were exhorted to ensure that the front row be extra- wide so that the top brass could enter the auditorium from the side -as in Sabbioneta- in their stretch limos, which would deposit them right in front of their seats and exit on the other side.



With thanks to Andrew Todd.

Originally published in Common Sense (Montreal: Rightangle International, 2016)




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