Teatro all’antica in Sabbioneta
A Renaissance Lesson in Proportion and Perspective
In the Renaissance artist and architects began experimenting with optical illusions. They wanted to represent objects with the appearance of depth or distance. A famous example is Teatro all’antica in Sabbioneta.
In 1588-1590 Teatro all’antica in Sabbioneta was among the first permanent theatres to be constructed in Italy.
A 16th Century Status Symbol
Today rulers demand helipads, gold curtains or private movie theatres in connection with their palaces, but in the Renaissance a permanent stage house ranged high on the list of prestigious, modern status symbols. Among the first to embrace this new and coming trend was Vespasiano I Gonzaga. A nobleman, diplomat and military engineer who had taken it upon himself to construct an ideal Renaissance city on the sandy banks of the Po river in Lombardia between Mantova and Parma.
One of the distinguishing features of this ideal city – appropriately named Sabbioneta – was to be a permanent theatre based on classic Roman principles, so Vespasiano hired the only architect with any kind of experience in this line of work. Vincenzo Scamozzi had successfully completed Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, when the original architect Andrea Palladio died only six months after construction had started in 1580, and Scamozzi’s stage set was particularly innovative and impressive.
The magic of Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza was the elaborately decorated architectural background scaenae frons, which transformed the Medieval fortress to a palace with several archways through which the spectator could see at least one of several remarkable trompe l’œil street views. In this period Italian painters and architects had just discovered the wonder of perspective. Using scaled objects and the correlation between them in relation to the vantage point of the spectator, Scamozzi managed to force perspective and create the illusion of a much deeper space than the actual stage.
He was expected to do something similar in Sabbioneta, but it wasn’t as easy as you might think. Where Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza was constructed in the spacious old Castello del Territorio, Teatro all’Antica in Sabbioneta had to be fitted into a long, narrow corner building. Scamozzi was faced with the challenge of putting a quart into a pint pot.
For instance, there wasn’t room for the semicircular seating area known from ancient Roman theatres in the rectangular room. In Teatro all’antica the semicircle was squeezed into the shape of a horseshoe with a steep incline and a narrow bench that doubled as walking area. Fortunately, the theatres of the Renaissance were not public spectacles but entertainment reserved for the nobility. As a court theaters Teatro all’antica only had to accommodate the Duke and his family and friends, and presumably they had the space they needed without stepping on anyone’s fingers or toes.
As in Vicenza, the gallery above the seating area is lined with statues of mythological beings. This helps to give the 16th century theatre a historic atmosphere. The windows behind the gallery could light up the stage as a daytime supplement to lamps, candles and torches that apart from causing much work smoke and odor produced ingenious effects.
Scamozzi also abandoned the scaenae frons that had been the defining feature of Teatro Olimpico. In Sabbioneta he opted for a single perspective view: A street scene of rapidly diminishing false-front buildings over a compressed distance. To emphasize the illusion, the floor level rose and made the buildings seem to shrink vertically.
The Legacy of a Renaissance Man
The scenic elements painted in perspective inspired architects all over Europe, but Scamozzi’s ambition was not just to be recognized as a great, innovative architect. As a highly productive Renaissance man, Scamozzi wanted to assemble all the historical and technical sources relative to architecture as a scientific discipline. Being well educated and with a strong interest in mathematics and “mechanics”, he tried to resolve the dialectic between theory and practice, when he was not designing buildings. Scamozzi thought this could be achieved in an organic and exhaustive way through an analysis in twelve volumes.
Scamozzi began writing his great treatise right after the completion of Teatro all’antica in the 1590s, and he worked on it for more than 25 years. At the end of his life in 1616 only six volumes were published. His final attempt was a luxurious edition of the folio ‘Idea dell’architettura universale‘ which was printed at his own expense in 1615. At his death, Scamozzi had 670 unsold copies of this publication, but they were purchased in bulk and sold on to north European architects as the primary resource for design in accordance with the strict classical proportions and rational order of Vitruvius.
Scamozzi died without a family, and unlike other 16th century architects he had never had a protégé. Instead he established a scholarship for young students of architecture from Vincenza, stipulating that they adopt his surname. This happened 200 years later, when Ottavio Bertotti adopted his name, but it was through his writings – however incomplete – Scamozzi influenced generations of architects and ensured his legacy.
Visit Teatro all’Antica in Sabbioneta
You can visit Teatro all’antica as part of a Unesco World Heritage tour of Sabbioneta.
Opening hours from April to October:
Tuesday to Friday: 09:30 – 13:00 14:30 – 18.00
Saturdays and Sundays: 09:30 – 13:00 14:30 – 18.30
Opening hours from November to March:
Tuesday to Friday: 09:30 – 13:00 14:30 – 17.00
Saturdays and Sundays: 09:30 – 13:00 14:30 – 17.30
Closed on Monday (except holidays)
Admission fee: €12,00
The ticket gives access the Palazzo Giardino /Galleria, Teatro all’Antica, Palazzo Ducale, and the Synagogue
More about Vincenzo Scamozzi
This book from 2014 offers the first English-language overview of Vincenzo Scamozzi’s (1548-1616) contributions to Renaissance architecture. Vincenzo Scamozzi is presented as a traveler and an observer, who is familiar with the expansion of knowledge in both natural history and geography. Ann Marie Borys highlights his contribution to make geography and cartography central to the knowledge of the architect, and argues that Scamozzi articulated the first fully realized theory of place.
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