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Giulio Camillo’s Idea of the Theater: The Enigma of the Renaissance1 Albert R. Cirillo We have set thee at the world’s center that thou mayest from thence more easily observe whatever is in the world. We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that . . . as though the maker and molder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer.2 So, according to Pico della Mirandola, God spoke to man after the creation, giving him the power and the means to move up or down the scale of creation. The means was to be the universe from which he was to learn the wonder and wisdom of his creator; the power by which he was to make use of the cosmic drama was more ambig­ uous. In order to direct the will towards divine things, Pico recom­ mends filling the soul with the light of “natural philosophy,” 3 by which he means the wisdom of all ages and of all faiths which contribute to the esssential concord of truth. The man who could command this wisdom and truly recognize and control the divine influences on matter could not only penetrate the secrets of the universe, but, by contemplation, ascend the scale of created being to the eternal and reach the “one Almighty from whom all things proceed” and to whom all things return, though Indu’d with various forms, . . . But more refin’d, more spiritous, and pure, As nearer to him plac’t or nearer tending . . . Till body up to spirit work . . . (Paradise Lost, V. 473-8) Giulio Camillo, a man of whom it was said that through the highness of his thoughts he arrived where man through his own power does not ascend,4 embodied this knowledge of forms and their rela­ tion to spirit in an elaborate scheme of the universe, a model theater of the world which he constructed for Francis I. As Gamillo describes the art of his Theater in L’Idea del Theatro, it is essentially a magic one aimed at wedding earth to heaven and man to God through the techniques of the classical art of memory combined with the Neo­ platonic scala of meditation.5 His Theater is a setting for Pico’s man at the center of the universe as its observer and the molder of his own destiny. But the center at which Camillo wishes to place man is the heights, in the supercelestial world itself; for, as he says, one can only truly know low things by viewing them from above even though, as men, we can only reach the heights by means of the lower 19 forms.6 For man, knowledge of essences must flow from knowledge of effects, and he must proceed to spirit through the matter in which he exists. In Camillo’s scheme the variegated images with which he decorates his Theater express whatever is hidden in the depths of the human mind which is a reflection of the divine mind. Aligning himself with the most ancient writers who have always clothed divine secrets under dark veils,7 early in his work Camillo suggests the nature of his Theater in a comparison drawn from military life. Just as an earthly army has its captain, its trumpets, and insignia, so the divine militia has the words of the Lord and the angelic trum­ pets in the voices of the prophets and preachers. The insignia are the signs of visions which symbolize but do not declare [esprimono].8 While the comparison defines the basic enigma of the Theater— that it declares too infrequently— it also sheds light on the significance of this enigmatic character. The Theater is a symbol containing other symbols as initial referents for the contemplation of essential natures. Because of its nature and the careful obscurity under which Camillo cloaks it, the Theater is the kind of image peculiar to Renaissance Neoplatonic thought, one which actually contains the essence or Idea of the universe as a visual mystery which is supposed to affect as well as instruct.9 The Theater rises in seven tiers around an arena containing seven columns corresponding to the...


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pp. 19-27
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