How a Family Transformed the Look of European Theater
Many of us haven’t seen the inside of a theater in over a year. But with performance rooms across the country poised to reopen, the Morgan Library & Museum offers a quietly amazing reminder of what we missed.
Open until September 12th at the Morgan, “Architecture, Theater and Fantasy” is a small but fine exhibition of drawings by the Bibiena family that changed theater design in the 17th and 18th centuries. The exhibition is organized around a promised gift of 25 Bibiena works by Jules Fisher, the Tony Award-winning Broadway lighting designer, to the museum, the first in the United States of family drawings in over 30 years.
From Lisbon to St. Petersburg, Russia, the Bibienas dominated every large court theater in baroque Europe. Their innovations in perspective opened up new dramatic possibilities, and their lavish projects cost huge sums of money, with individual glasses having budgets of up to $ 10 million in today’s dollars. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote to Alexander Pope about an opera performed outdoors in Vienna in 1716 to celebrate the birth of the Austrian Crown Prince and described a massive stage built over a canal. Gilded flotillas sailed underneath – a spectacle, she wrote, “so big that it is difficult to bear the eye to the end”.
The designer of this production, Ferdinando Galli Bibiena (1657-1743), came to Vienna in 1711 as the official stage designer for the Habsburg court of Charles VII. His father, the Tuscan painter Giovanni Maria Galli (1618-65), came from a village in Arezzo called Bibbiena and took his name. The young Ferdinando began in Bologna as a master of the quadratura or illusionistic ceiling painting. But his theatrical talents took his career in other directions in the 1680s.
Until then, the European landscape mainly used the single point perspective. This optical technique, perfected in the Italian fine arts of the 15th (a Bibiena drawing that is already in Morgan’s collection, makes the regression dizzying, almost frighteningly steep.)
The technique gained popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries and gradually conquered Europe’s indoor theater in the Age of Reason. It gave designers the ability to make a flat stage space appear much larger by using only painted surfaces in grooves that ran parallel to the proscenium.
The single-point “Perspectiva Artificialis” produced images of infinite depth, like a single central street running away from the viewer. In practice, however, the illusion only worked for a privileged viewer – usually an emperor or prince who was seated in the center of the auditorium. Everyone else’s vision was distorted. In addition, maintaining the trick kept the actors largely backstage; when they moved back onto the stage, they seemed to grow into giants.
Sometime around 1687 Ferdinando began to modernize this convention. For a regal entertainment staged in April in honor of the Duke of Piacenza’s birthday, he flipped the vanishing point away from the stage and added a second on the other side of the game room. Suddenly two views opened up.
Ferdinando’s two-point perspective made it possible to view the stage scenery as if from an angle, which is why the device became known as the “scene vedute per Angolo” or simply “Scena per Angolo”. It opened the stage to a wider range of perspectives and eventually became ubiquitous.
The oblique gaze worked better than a point to depict massive, magnificent interiors that temptingly suggested spaces beyond the visible on the stage. Ferdinando’s skill in squaring helped him convincingly mimic the underside of blankets. Suddenly flat panels conveyed the amazingly powerful and monumental illusion of three-dimensional, vaulted chambers.
These pictures seem to pull their viewers into the picture plane by an almost gravitational force and pull them over the proscenium threshold. You triumph in the virtual reality of the theater. Actors could now move more plausibly, and a wider audience in the auditorium could receive the scenic illusion without the risk of inadvertent anamorphosis or visual distortion.
One can only imagine what the sets looked like in performance. Although the Bibienas dominated European stages for a century, their work has survived today almost exclusively in the form of sketches and renderings. Most of the more than a dozen theater buildings they designed eventually burned down; The most notable exception is the magnificent, recently renovated Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth, Germany, built in the 1740s by Giuseppe Galli Bibiena (1695-1757) and his son Carlo (1721-87). (Richard Wagner briefly considered it the site of his epic “Ring” cycle.)
Nevertheless, the drawings exude an irresistible sensuality. Especially in black and brown ink, busy hand markings trace rough motifs and ornaments everywhere and touch almost every surface. Paintable effects can be achieved with wash or watercolor, the drawings underline the charm of dreamy distances. (Or forbidden: A scenic sketch in the Morgan exhibition, a prison interior by Antonio Galli Bibiena, one of Ferdinando’s sons, seems to anticipate the labyrinthine “imaginary prisons” of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who knew the Bibiena style well and maybe even has it of the family.)
Several drawings provide information on the design process. “A Colonnaded Stage”, mostly colored black, sports garlands that were later drawn in brown. Some severed feet are left over from a statue that was once collaged into the picture and then partially removed – perhaps reminiscent of experimenting with the set pieces to be used. In “Left Part of a Palace Hall” the viewer sees how three flat panels with the designations F, G and H converge to form a three-dimensional portal.
While other architects and designers, such as Andrea Pozzo and Filippo Juvarra, had been exploring the multi-point perspective when Ferdinando was innovating, technique quickly became his brand and soon there was international demand for his new style. Together with his brother Francesco (1659-1739) and son Giuseppe, Ferdinando founded a sprawling family business that consisted of a handful of great talents and a number of lesser-known talents.
The Bibienas were famous for a hundred years. Its heyday ended when tastes changed in favor of more modest attitudes in the mid-18th century. The designs linger like lovingly preserved ruins, fragments of a lost world. As the art historian AH Mayor once wrote, the family was “heir to the whole of the Baroque, everything that Bernini and Borromini had dreamed of but had to undo”. These earlier artists had practically invented baroque theatrics in their sculptural and architectural works, but the Bibienas translated it into stage decorations. What’s more, they made it go viral.
“On their drawing boards,” Mayor wrote, “unimpeded by the need for permanence, the cost of marble, the delays of masons, the whims or deaths of patrons, the Bibienas, in as arbitrary drafts as the mandates of the autocrats they gave served, summarized the great emotional architecture of the baroque. “
Joseph Cermatori, Assistant Professor of English at Skidmore College, is the author of Baroque Modernity: An Aesthetics of Theater, which will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in November.