Thursday, 14 February 2013

Imaginary Palaces and Garden Theatres

Giuseppe Valeriani's set of designs for a stage set. 
The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

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. 
Inigo Jones's design for a temporary arch, decorated with the figures of Music and War, intended for a court entertainment glorifying the early Stuart monarchy.

The grandest staircases and courtyards were used as background settings; outside, the gardens were enchanted places of outdoor theatre, opera and ballet.  

Le Pautre's engraving of Lully's tragic opera Alceste, performed in the Marble Courtyard of Versailles, 1674 

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.
 Stefano della Bella, "The Garden of Venus", One of a Set of  Seven Stage Designs for 
the 'Wedding of the Gods', commissioned by the Medici, 1637.
The  Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

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

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

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 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, 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. The elaborate illusions of absolutism were created out of fear of a return to the civil wars, depositions, executions and chaos that had riven Europe for the first half of the century. The sophisticated functions of Versailles as government office, games and entertainments palace and art gallery, distracts from its basic purpose as the monarchy's fortress outside Paris, impregnable for a hundred years. 

In the second half of the century, governments started moving the theatre of war whenever possible to other countries, terrorizing populations by ravaging the land to feed their own armies, stealing arts, ideas and other fuel for life as they marched.

 Stefano della Bella, Scene Five "Hell", One of Seven Designs for a Stage Set, 1637
The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

related posts:
Renaissance Palace, 1526, by Albrecht Altdorfer