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  • La place du prince: Perspective et pouvoir dans le théâtre de cour des Médicis, Florence (1539-1600)
  • James M. Saslow
Dorothée Marciak . La place du prince: Perspective et pouvoir dans le théâtre de cour des Médicis, Florence (1539–1600). Études et Essais sur la Renaissance 50. Paris: Honoré Champion Éditeur, 2005. 382 pp. + 31 b/w pls. index. illus. bibl. €70. ISBN: 2–7453–0997–8.

This syncretic study of the development of perspectival stage apparatus for aristocratic theater traces correspondences between mathematics, visual art, drama, [End Page 147] literature, political theory, and rhetoric, in search of a unifying discourse about power, representation, and performance. Its span is broader than its title: three thematic sections move from the Quattrocento birth of one-point perspective, through its adoption in Medici spectacles to the full flowering of absolutist court theater under Louis XIV, "le roi performatif" (333). The author tracks the practical and philosophical development of the gaze, that conjunction of vision and power, as an index of human control, showing how it ascended from political metaphor — Leonardo Bruni's evocation of a bird's-eye view of Florence — to the highest metaphysical level, the all-knowing overview that Nicholas of Cusa called "the vision of God," and earthly monarchs claimed for themselves by taking the one seat in the axially-planned auditorium where the 3-D illusion "worked."

Space precludes outlining the manifold texts, creators, and philosophical concepts touched upon in this sometimes breathless survey, or its lengthy and sometimes tenuous chain of connections. Marciak's interest is ultimately rhetorical: to show how the visual language of the Renaissance stage served as "instrumentum regni" (171), communicating the uniquely perfect power of royalty not merely through the texts performed in their presence, but in the structure of the theater itself, from sophisticated scenery to hierarchized seating.

None of this is news, and the author's grand abstractions often restate established opinion. Although she claims parallels and influences, many already familiar, linking Alberti to Machiavelli and to the Baroque stage technician Sabbattini, she provides frustratingly little narrative through-line for her argument, stringing her brief units together like isolated beads. But the book is problematic less for its structure than its underlying methodological assumptions and goals.

Few would disagree that Renaissance epistemology understood the universe as "a world of signs" (259). But signs must be perceived to be meaningful, and the receiver gets short shrift here. Marciak assumes that all the subtle and far-flung references she posits were known and understood by original audiences, and her near-mystical faith in the power of an "émanation de l'ordre idéal" (241) from such representations to imprint itself on the spectator's eye and mind sidesteps individual agency and social context.

She briefly acknowledges the first problem (249, 274-77), citing just one example of what we might call the "Pavoni factor," after Giuseppe Pavoni, who left an often-clueless account of the 1589 wedding performances in Florence. Overwhelmed by the spectacle and no more educated in mythology than most, he identified the allegorical figure of Doric Harmony simply as "una donna." But Marciak brushes off the nagging question: how thoroughly did anyone's cultural antennae pick up the symphony of meanings she has constructed?

Nor do audiences absorb intended messages passively. Marciak briefly raises this question, too, at the end — "Did it work?" (344) — but again it deserves more attention. All those courtiers who did not sit on the central axis knew that the harmonious stage picture was a constructed illusion, and that from where they sat, visually or politically, things might not "look right." Absent enough patronage or [End Page 148] charity in the material realm, claims of all-powerful beneficence could ring hollow, or at best tedious. Surviving sources speak of boredom during ceremonials and, while Renaissance viewers may not have used the term in our modern pejorative mode, they could still resist propaganda not concordant with everyday reality as "mere rhetoric."

In Marciak's hermetic discourse, there is virtually no space for irony or cognitive dissonance, little sense of the contested social and material reality that produced court performance, and few spectators...


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