Saturday, 28 July 2012

Magic cloak

Fashionable sports' kit for female athletes, 
4th century AD. 
Detail of mosaic in a private room of
Villa Romana del Casale, Siciliy
where it is always warm enough to wear bikinis.

Awe and Wonder during Austerity for £27 million 

We know sporting spectacles have always been political, even before the first chariot race in the Colosseum. They have never promoted peace - ancient Greek city-states suspended civil wars to send athletic teams to compete at sacred sites, and then resumed killing each other as soon as the games were over - but they have been invaluable public pacifiers and propaganda tools for governments....
Totalitarian, sometimes tottering, states have always used huge outdoor displays of entertainment to define national identity, impress rival nations, and distract attention from privation and oppression.  We know that the Olympic Games' are an opportunity for the democratic British government to do some domestic crisis management with a smokescreen for releasing ugly economic facts and a lot of flag-wrapped, medal-awarded incentives to higher personal enterprise. (It could learn also a simple popularity test from the Romans by providing free tickets and free food - to the unemployed or homeless for instance, or to nurses and emergency staff - instead of exclusive prices and empty seats.)

 Extravagant ephemera, 1637 : Florentine mock battle with athletic feats 
and flying monsters
Della Bella, Stefano (1610-1664): Stage designs for 'Le Nozze degli Dei' Scene V, 1637, etching,  
The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

The opening ceremony was the first essential part of an international rebranding programme, that could make all of GB look like a winner for the first time since 1945. Many of us, not converted to the expense and inconvenience of hosting the Games, sceptical about the sustainability of medal tables, and preferring small-scale entertainment to multimedia circus, were just hoping this extended commercial for GB in decline would come off without security breaches, transport chaos or artistic disasters embarrassing the director, technicians and thousands of committed performers. A single torch that does not light can ruin a person's life.

Last night, Danny Boyle and his design team, avoiding just another giant techno variety show with laser beams, revived the Renaissance tradition of pageantry and allegorical mummery transfigured by illusionist effects, produced by state of the art machinery. They used lighting and pyrotechnology to tell a story, not just dazzle, that combined with live performance and film to create a swirling modern fantasy round the central conceit of the industrial forging of the olympic rings (an artistic triumph to metamorphose such a banal logo into memorably fiery imagery) and the quest to light the  magic cauldron.  

They produced a show that was endlessly inventive, often messy and repetitive but only sometimes ridiculous and musically monotonous, that kept its socialist integrity by paying tribute to national treasures without descending to reverence or nostalgia, that was neither pompous nor iconoclastic, and, miraculously for its scale, occasionally genuinely funny. They ignited public enthusiasm with a new national myth that fulfilled its domestic and foreign policy functions.

Four centuries ago, there were a couple of English monarchs who played parts in court masques; using the Queen and her show-stealing corgis to play themselves in a mock James Bond moviette was a courtly masterstroke unsurpassed since Sir Walter Ralegh laid down his cloak to keep the first queen Elizabeth's feet dry......


The starting point of the exhibition Stages and Scenes: Creating Architectural Illusion at the Courtauld Gallery in 2008 was the model of a stage set of the interior of an opulent palace, the sort that Sleeping Beauty would fall asleep in....
Giuseppi Valeriani: Set of designs for a stage set, 17th Century. 
The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

the size of toy theatre you wanted to play with when you were a child, arranged in layers of painted flats to create the illusion of depth and space.

It was designed in the early eighteenth century as a seven piece set by the Italian Russian artist Giuseppe Valeriani with pen and brown ink, watercolour and judicious use of gold leaf on paper. It is enchanting.

Pretty and delicate as it looked, this model was the first piece chosen by the eight students on the Curating the Art Museum MA programme for a small exhibition, and inspired their theme of architectural illusion, in the scenery of opera and play houses and the huge outdoor entertainments produced by the powerful states of Baroque Europe to propulgate and consolidate their power, until the revolutions and Napoleonic conquests of the late 18th century swept away the old structure of patronage.

A modest exhibition of only 29 items, few of great artistic merit but all illustrating the thesis that "Through skilled rendering of architecture and perspective, the smallest stage can be converted into the most expansive of settings". By making the connection between artistic experiments with perspective and the political propaganda of absolutism, Stages and Scenes opened out into a reflection of the illusions at the heart of state power.

The inherently theatrical gestures and imagery of Baroque art and architecture were born out of the urgent need of European countries, splintered by decades of ideological conflict and political division, to restore order and redefine faith. It was a personal, secular and religious movement, particularly essential to governments needing legitimization of despotic centralizationthrough a coherent public image, and to the Roman Catholic Church seeking to reignite enthusiasm for the Counter-Reformation. 

Outwardly, it continued as the style of visual communication long after the passionate drama of Rubens and Bernini was sedated, and the subtler sensuality of Van Dyck turned blowsy, by later 17th century artists, to be superseded in the 18th century by the decorous elegance of Tiepolo and the light-hearted scepticism of the Rococo, embarrassed by the religious fervour and overt emotion of the past.

Rubens' oil sketch on panel, Esther before Ahasuerus, designed in 1620 for the ceiling of the Jesuit Church of Antwerp (the decoration all destroyed by fire in 1718), one of the few paintings in the exhibition, unites the themes of architectural illusion and public show with dramatic figure-painting in glowing, sumptuous colours and bold composition.  Here and in the accompanying scene Solomon Receiving the Queen of Sheba, featuring a show-stealing parrot, he used the equivalent of a telephoto lens effect of leading our eyes upward at a vertiginous perspective, to catch a glimpse of dramatic interaction of characters standing between palatial columns and staircases under looming arches.

Rubens' bravura technique is easy to dismiss as vulgar and superficial, his fleshly obsession verging on the pornographic, distracting attention from the thoughtfulness of his compositions and the expressiveness of his figures, their gestures and faces caught in the very moment of emotion, not in tranquillity before or after, in operatic intensity.

Baroque imagery, even when superbly executed by artistic geniuses, did not always succeed as political message in the patron's favour or keep the King or Queen's head on during a revolution, but it worked as art. Van Dyck's portraits, etherealising Charles I and his court, are as much of a theatrical device as Inigo Jones' fantastical masque designs, creating an ineradicable illusion of aristocratic grace and virtue in parallel with the historic reality of an unpopular and flawed regime.  

Fortunately for the development of public theatre, the more autocratic and aggressive a government's policies were in reaction to religious, social and political tensions, the more theatrically ambitious and extravagantly fanciful their allegorical entertainments became, particularly once the musical and dance elements of masques were formalized into opera and ballet, which demanded bigger, increasingly elaborate, moveable wing and drop scenery for the temporary court stages, and, eventually, the construction of permanent buildings to store them. 

These decorative fantasies derived from late Italian Renaissance Italian artists using perspective for illusory effects in architectural capricci, which were adapted into designs of receding vistas of idealized buildings and landscapes for the court and outdoor public entertainments of the City States. The use of newly invented cloud machines that could carry performers dressed as gods through the air, of wave, storm and fire machines and of atmospheric lighting changes added to sophisticated spectaculars that raised government prestige at home and abroad.
Intermezzo at the Medici court theatre, engraved by Callot, 1617. Image source: Wikigallery

Catherine de Medici introduced these techniques to the French court during the 1560s - 80s to enhance her famous charm offences, the politically motivated “magnifences” that were an astonishing multi-media experience, incorporating masque, ballet, song, street theatre, traditional tournaments and mock battles, and avant-garde adult entertainment, all to win support and loyalty for the Valois in breaks during the Wars of Religion. 
A scene from Le Ballet Comique de la Reine, Paris 1581. 
Engraving. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
The infinite metaphorical possibilities of theatre to enhance public perception of government by beguiling spectators, were fully assimiliated into political and cultural thought, long before scientific and artistic innovations made it possible for artists to put their designs into as many dimensions and different materials as they chose. The convention of representing royalty in their portraits as theatre, complete with regal props and a fixed palatial or celestial set, was already established. 

In the famous Ditchley portrait of 1592 (National Portrait Gallery), Elizabeth I is standing on a globe painted with a map of southern England, floating imperiously through the sky - but, in the style of iconography the queen preferred, the painting is flat, shadowless, an elaborately wrought emblem without any depth of field.  
Elizabeth by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, 1592. National Portrait Gallery. Image source: Wikipedia
Forty years later, Van Dyck's painting of Charles 1 on horseback (National Gallery), shows the king riding under a triumphal arch that could be from a stage set, with painted backdrop beyond, straight towards the spectator, who has to look up in awe at all the approaching majesty of man and animal, an image in which the mastery of perspective and theatricality is designed to create a breathtaking immediacy. 

Charles I with M. de St Antoine by Van Dyck, 1633, Royal Collection. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
The members of the Accademia Olimpica in Vicenza who commissioned Palladio to design a permanent theatre in 1585, would have approved of the main stage facade looking like a palace, because the theatre was an idealised representation of their own power in the real world, which included the vistas of Scamozzi's wooden set of streets and buildings glimpsed through the three main arches of the stage in perfect perspective. Renaissance palaces had always been theatres; now theatres were being built to look like palaces, a fashion which long outlived Baroque good taste into the beginning of the 20th century. 

Arch, Teatro Olimpico by Palladio and Scamozzi. 
Photograph Copyright The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Gradually during the 17th and early 18th centuries the demand for these palaces spread from the royal and aristocratic elites to the general public in all the major cities of Europe. The talented Bibieni family, predominant in architectural and set design in Europe for over a century, became involved in building theatres in towns as well as creating grand illusions at the courts of their royal patrons.

Architectural splendour did not always accompany the building of an opera house - an innate enthusiasm for music and drama was going to fire people on a smaller budget and in the face of religious opposition. The first purpose built opera house in Germany was not at a princely court, but was conceived, financed and managed by private citizens in the independent mercantile republic of Hamburg in 1678.

Middle class and commercial interest in the high arts was able to flourish even in the ancien regime; opera was only briefly the exclusive art form of a social elite, starting in the 1590s with a small group of Florentine humanists dedicated to reviving the classical tradition of tragic poetry combined with music with poetry. The first public opera house in Italy, Teatro San Cassiano in Venice, was opened in 1637. In 1669, Louis XIV, the balletomane sans pareil, with the advice of his finance minister Colbert, created the Académie Royale de Musique in order to train dancers - originally only male ones - and promote professional performances of opera and ballet in Paris and other French towns.

At the same time that he promoted theatrical professionalism in the country at large, King Louis was ordering the expansion of the chateau of Versailles into the most theatrical of palaces and gardens, where entertainments featuring courtiers and members of the royal family continued to be held against the backdrop of L' Escalier des Ambassadeurs, in other rooms and in temporary structures in the garden's groves and colonnades, long before and after the building of a permanent theatre within the palace.

To keep up with this royal impresario, every prince in Europe had to commission grand architectural and landscape designs, for performance just as much as appearance, and many 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 as part of the entertainment, were staged in the royal gardens of Europe, masterpieces of outdoor theatre in themselves, designed and planted as exercises in perspective, in which sculpture and parterres were arranged in formal patterns like a ballet, where illusion could be perfected in the eye-deceiving merging of painted trees with real trees, of statues with human dancers.

Le Roi-Soleil: Louis XIV dancing in La Ballet de la Nuit, 1653. Image source: Wikipedia
There were plenty of undignified, sometimes fatal, accidents - but then there are still serious accidents with high-tech machinery in the West End and on Broadway nowadays, despite modern Health & Safety regulations. It is impossible that everybody in the audience was uncritical of the extravagance and pretentiousness of these royal 'spectacles', and there's an irreverant temptation to wonder if sometimes they were closer to le Cirque du Soleil than the court of le Roi-Soleil - but in the surviving prints, engravings and painting the allegorical propaganda of the ancien regime looks charming, disarming latent disapproval with a vision of a place where ephemeral beauty and elegance reign for ever.  
Two engravings by Jacques Callot in the Courtauld exhibition gave an idea of the ambitious scale of the spectacles laid on by the Medici, including a mock water battle to celebrate the visit of the Prince of Urbino in 1619, which was watched by 30,000 people. In modern terms, these huge events were the equivalent of staging the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, and the intermezzi are comparable to Madonna's halftime show at the Super Bowl.

Stefano della Bella (1610-1664) Scene Five, "Hell", of a set of stage designs for Le Nozze degli Dei, 1637.
The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Stefano Della Bella's etchings of stage designs for The Wedding of the Gods in 1637 record the illusionistic splendour of production values on temporary stages at the Medici court, with machinery capable of lowering performers in the role of gods from the sky in front of painted cloud drops. In the fifth scene, flying monsters attack cavaliers from the air, like a scene from a modern sci-fi movie. With all these scenes and effects to get through, it is not surprising that the performance lasted four hours.

Stages and Scenes exhibited two 16th century Italian books on architecture, a 1536 edition of Vitruvius' De Architettura and Sebastiano Serlio's Tutte l'Opere de Architettura of 1551. Serlio included set design as an important architectural form, his enchanted turrets and woods and stately piazzas, all carefully drawn in perspective, providing a manual for all future illusionistic set design.

The origins of modern theatrical spectaculars and of classical ballet may be traced back to the coincidence of the dire political need of an effete French royal dynasty threatened with destruction in civil war and the incumbency of a culturally and politically sophisticated Medici Queen Mother. Catherine de Medici, building on the traditions of her own family court in Florence and of Francois I, was an outstanding impresario, who devised allegorical court entertainments to promote the policies and prestige of her son' governments. She recruited the best available talent for her "magnifences", combining music, poetry, dance and illusionistic scenery. The culmination of her work was the festival held in 1581 to celebrate a family wedding, which included a ballet, commissioned and performed by her daughter-in-law, Louise of Lorraine, who made her entrance in a vast fountain chariot, and dismounted with her ladies to perform the first formal ballet de cour, the most refined of the French monarchy's performing arts from which classical ballet developed.

The Fountain Chariot designed by Patin that carried Louise of Lorraine, wife of Henri III of France, her ladies and musicians in Le Ballet Comique de la Reine, 1581, one of the joyeuse magnificences devised to celebrate the marriage of the queen's sister to the king's favourite. Image source: Wikipedia
Late 17th century court ballet inspired by Louis XIV's example continued to be a ritualized, exquisitely designed declaration of political agenda and ideology, occasions prickling with controversy, just as much as the Jacobean court masques and the dumb-show of Hamlet's play within the play. 

Contemporary princes were expected to use theatrical performance to make a political point, even if by nature they were not graceful dancers or talented actors. A serious vocational soldier-statesman like the young William of Orange, who preferred architecture and gardening to any of the performing arts, appeared in a ballet at his court in 1668 as a codified message to the Dutch Republic and the foreign states that he intended to restore the authority of his family as a major European power, just as King Louis had done in France. 

Like today's royal family, there were plenty of monarchs by the 18th century who restricted their performance art to official ceremonial functions, weddings and funerals, reviewing the troops, but earlier there had been  natural actors and star personalities like Elizabeth I and Louis XIV (who made his debut as a ballet dancer in 1651 and first appeared as le Roi Soleil two years later) or queen consorts like Anne of Denmark and Henrietta Maria, who enjoyed performing in masques. Henry VIII and Charles I were the only reigning monarchs who played parts.

It didn't even matter if, as in the case of James I, the royal client lacked star quality, so long as an international art star like Rubens was available to apotheose the Stuart brand on the ceiling of Indigo Jones' Banqueting House, a stage set itself, designed as much as a symbol of monarchical power as a dining and entertainments venue, and later chosen by the regicides as the fitting location for Charles I's execution. 

Even governments opposed to public playhouses could not resist using theatrical forms as part of their own communications strategy. Whenever a modern government minister tries to run down public investment in drama and music, never let him forget that Britain's most successful Parliamentarian, Oliver Cromwell, ordered a masque at his own quasi-regal court as part of the celebrations of his daughters' weddings, the text supplied by Andrew Marvell.

In the English royal court, the masque which had reached perfection as an art form under Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson, lapsed out of use in the reign of Charles II, the last big-budget production (£5000 - nearly two thirds of a million in today’s terms) being Calisto in 1675, in which courtiers and young Stuart princesses were joined by professional actors, singers and dancers at the Hall theatre in Whitehall, built by Webb for Charles II. Masques was no longer a crucial element to government propaganda: Calisto was just a bit of fun, beautifully designed and lit, with an erotic lesbian theme to keep the blasé Restoration courtiers awake.

In 1688 the monarchy’s prerogatives were effectively shrunk for ever, Parliament recapturing ground lost since the Restoration. With the official deposition of the divine right of kings, the transfer of magical illusionism from royal court to the professional public theatres and popular entertainment was complete.

The restrained imagery of the later Stuart monarchy adapted to the bloodless revolution in political realities. The new regime of William and Mary did not consider commissioning a grand apotheosis on a ceiling: Thornhill’s commission to exalt the Protestant Succession in the Hall of Greenwich Hospital was issued under George I, in justification of his right to rule.

Even at Versailles, the solemnity and dramatic passion of Baroque was displaced in the new century, under a young king. The tradition of fantastical, extravagant allegorical displays died out more slowly, but presented in the playful, ironic style of Rococo. At the Ball of the Yew Trees in the Hall of Mirrors in 1745 the only event of historical  significance was the first meeting of Louis XV dressed as a yew tree with the future Madame la Pompadour dressed as the goddess of chastity.

The only modern parallel to the scale of the Baroque State's theatre budget, technical and artistic expertise, and politico-cultural influence is Hollywood, 106 years old this year, a combination of idealization, apologia and self-regulated satire that serves as the USA's permanent public relations company to the rest of the world,. Some of the pieces in the Courtauld collection prefigure epic film sets - the out-size arches and vast courtyards of Serafino Brizzi's stage fortresses could have been used for countless Robin Hoods; the neo-classical stage interiors of the Teatro Olimpico would serve as the home of superheroes; the brooding atmosphere of Piranesi is recaptured in dark gothic fantasies. The dramatic fore-shortening of figures in the ceiling paintings of baroque artists would have had the same effect on spectators as watching 3D has on us. 

Seventeenth and eighteenth century courts realized that if their in-house entertainments were to reach standards of excellence, they required, in addition to writers, composers, designers and ballet masters, professional dancers and actors to improve the amateur courtiers' performances. There was a symbiosis quickly in place between amateur and professional - actors still relied on the court for patronage and for providing their real-life models for royal and aristocratic parts, while royalty seized on the services of professional actors and actresses to improve public speaking and presentation skills. Queens Mary II and Anne, while young princesses, were given elocution lessons by Mrs Betterton in the early 1670s, and nearly a century later the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa hired French actors to teach her youngest daughter to speak French, as part of her training to be the future queen Marie Antoinette at Versailles.

One of Marie Antoinette's greatest personal pleasures was putting on and starring in fashionable plays in her private theatre at Versailles. The entertainments were frivolous entertainments, intended to amuse herself and her friends, not public events reflecting back the effulgence of dynastic glory, which would have been outdated and inappropriate. The Baroque era of absolutism was over. Her Petit Théâtre was a pretty confection in blue and gold, its tiny auditorium decorated with a painted ceiling and gilded sculpture, an architectural illusion made of wood and papier-mâché, built in the grounds of le Petit Trianon which, with its model village and dairy, was the stage-set for the queen's fantasies turning inward, while the public image and political power of the monarchy was disintegrating.

Stages and Scenes included some of Piranesi's etchings of the mid-18th century, which are sinister in comparison to the playfully exuberant visions of his older contemporaries, because his realism subverts their fantasy that the power of grand architecture is always benign. He had been taught theatre design by Valeriani, and he shares architectural similarities to the work of his predecessor Alessandro Galli Bibiena, in the drama of arches and traversing lines, but his buildings belong to a different imaginative world than the fairytale palaces of the Baroque. 

The perspectives of Round Tower are designed to intimidate, a torture chamber hidden inside the beautifully proportioned fairytale palaces of the Baroque, the vanished flower-garlanded places where cherubs eternally play. 

Vincenzo dal Re (d.1762): Interior of an imaginary palace 44.1cm x 33.6cm, pen and ink (brown) & watercolour (grey) & chalk (black) on paper The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

© Pippa Rathborne  2012
Adapted from an article published as Exhibition Review | STAGES AND SCENES on Rogues and Vagabonds Theatre Website, with permission of Sarah Vernon and with thanks to The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London for permission to use images from their collection.