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  • Visual Experiences in Cinquecento Theatrical Spaces by Javier Berzal de Dios
  • Robert Henke
VISUAL EXPERIENCES IN CINQUECENTO THEATRICAL SPACES. By Javier Berzal de Dios. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019; pp. 216.

Javier Berzal de Dios’s excellent Visual Experiences in Cinquecento Theatrical Spaces persuasively rebuts received narratives regarding Italian Renaissance theatre architecture and design, offering a more complex, nuanced picture that includes the heterogeneous, sometimes messy experiences of actual spectators.

The standard view (only slightly exaggerated): Italian Renaissance theatre designers and scenographers, such as Baldassare Peruzzi in his decisive 1514 design for a production of La Calandria, rationalized their designs with the new art of linear perspective, which created the illusion of an ideal representation whose unity aligned with neo-Aristotelian notions of the dramaturgical unities. This single, unified picture was passively received by spectators functioning as a homogenous unit, except insofar as they were aesthetically and politically subordinate to the sovereign, who was positioned at the ideal perspectival point in the audience. This new, Renaissance view of seeing in the theatre decisively broke with medieval habits and shaped a linear progression of these tendencies running the course of the sixteenth century, from Peruzzi to Serlio in the mid-sixteenth century to the Teatro Olimpico and Teatro all’antica at Sabbioneta. The old humanist paradox obtains in this narrative as elsewhere: what seemed new was really a return to classical ideas.

Berzal de Dios’s short but incisive book demolishes these received notions. In his account, theories of spatial unity were not in concert but actually clashed with humanist experimentation, the desire for non-orderly aesthetic effects such as wonder and the heterogeneous experiences of actual spectators conceived more as participants in civic dialogue than as cheerfully obedient ducal subjects. Neo-classical restraint, order, and symmetry were contradicted by impulses towards excess, surplus, and saturation. The ideal of a unified visual picture, governed by the cool laws of perspective, is belied by the displacements, truncations, and distortions revealed in the surviving stage representations of Rome, Pisa, Siena, Florence, and other Italian cities. The author invites us to see Peruzzi’s iconic stage design for La Calandria, touted in traditional theatre histories as the epitome of the unified scenographic vision, as downright weird. The linear perspective located in the downstage part of the drawing tells only half the story, as Berzal de Dios examines the incongruities of what is illustrated on the backdrop, or flattened space in the background. There, the Colosseum is shrunk, and the Pantheon is sandwiched in front of the Castel Sant’Angelo. Linear perspective emerges not as the be-all and end-all, but merely “one of many tools, all of which were at the service of the artistic process” (15).

Peruzzi’s Rome, too, is one of ruins and overgrown vegetation, hardly the ideal city abstracted from some versions of art history. To see such scenographers’ impulses to elicit wonder, surprise, and even religious awe is to contest the narrative that may have begun with artist and historian Giorgio Vasari, who in touting Peruzzi and others celebrated what he perceived as a rupture between Renaissance and medieval ways of thinking about the the stage. Berzal de Dios’s challenge to Vasari’s historiography helps us make more sense of Brunelleschi’s period-defying role in Italian theatre: the master of Renaissance perspective and engineering who designed wonder-inducing machinery for fifteenth-century religious plays (sacre rappresentazioni).

Chapter 2, “The Artificial City on Stage,” examines designs by Beccafumi, Salviati, and others to show how designs for Pisa, Siena, Florence, and other Italian cities were characterized by “spatial dissonances, visual tensions, inquietudes, and internal inconsistencies that demonstrate the prevalence of a taste for playfulness” (37). These were [End Page 111] the work of experimental artists who played with classical ideas—not theorists and mathematicians bound by the idée fixe of consistency. Cinquecento spectators did not see through a two-dimensional window as passive viewers to a three-dimensional perspettiva but were embroiled in what the author calls the “apparato”: the entire complex of the stage, the scenography, the auditorium, and the “spectators’ act of viewing as made possible and conditioned by the space” (5...


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pp. 111-112
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