Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Imaginary Palaces and Garden Theatres - the illusions of despotism

Palladio's interior of Teatro Olimpico, 1580-83, with Scamozzi's fixed illusionist set receding into the distance beyond. [Photo source: Web Gallery of Art]
 Theatres were built to look like palaces, and palaces looked like theatres....
In the age of Baroque, the trompe l'oeil scenery of ceilings and walls of state rooms beguiled onlookers with dynastic achievements and aspirations in three dimensions; the hall of mirrors played with light to create multiple illusions of space.

The grandest staircases and courtyards were used as background settings; outside, the gardens were enchanted places of outdoor theatre.  
Le Pautre's 1676 engraving of Lully's opera Alceste, performed in the Marble Courtyard at Versailles in 1674. [Photo source: Web Gallery of Art]
How often these 'spectacles' in performance more closely resembled le Cirque du Soleil rather than la Cour du Roi-Soleil we cannot tell - the propaganda of the ancien régime disarms our scepticism in the surviving prints, engravings and paintings, where ephemeral beauty and elegance reign for ever over stage storms and monsters, the technical disasters and sometimes fatal accidents of performers and workmen forgotten.  

The ruling dynasties of Europe commissioned grand architectural and landscape designs, for performance just as much as appearance, and many of them, following Louis XIV's example, inaugurated their own court ballets. 

Some of the most visually enchanting of these theatrical fêtes, which included plays and music by the greatest writers and composers of the day, were staged in the royal gardens of Europe, masterpieces of outdoor theatre in themselves, designed and planted as exercises in perspective, in which sculpture, fountains and parterres were arranged in formal patterns like a ballet, 
The Three Fountain Grove at Versailles, painted by Jean Cotelle the Younger, 1688-90. [Galerie de Grand Trianon, Versailles. Photo source: Web Gallery of Art]
where illusion could be perfected in the eye-deceiving merging of painted trees with real trees, of statues with human dancers, the change from day to night with artificial lighting.
Backstage view of the garden theatre at Herrenhausen, Hanover. Photo: Martin Huebscher

The surviving shiny splendour of baroque palaces and the serenity of their gardens, every avenue, canal, parterre and statue positioned in perspective to achieve the illusion of order and harmony for eternity, take our minds off the impetus for their construction. Their architectural discipline and classical order were inherited from the High Renaissance, exemplified by Palladio's buildings, reinterpreted in the new era with unrestrained expression of emotion. The elaborate illusions of absolutism were created out of fear of a return to the civil wars, depositions, executions and chaos that had torn Europe for the first half of the century. Versailles, behind its magnificence, its functions as government office, and games and entertainments palace to keep the nobility soft, was built outside Paris as a fortress, impregnable for a hundred years. 

Later, European governments tried as much as possible to move the theatre of war to other countries, ravaging them to feed their armies and deter resistance.

The surviving evidence of buildings, gardens and images that still delights our imaginations, also distracts us from the reality of the despotic regimes that built them: the stench of the court; the corruption, mistakes, terror and genocide.

Velasquez, Pavilion of Ariadne, Gardens of the Villa Medici, 1630. [Museo del Prado. Photo source: Web Gallery of Art]