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Olimpic Theatre

Andrea Palladio

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(detail)3.3.1585 | Opening


(detail)Andrea Palladio |main architect

Italian architect, whose surname (from Pallas) was bestowed on him by his benefactor, J. G. Trissino, and has in turn given its name to the Palladian style of architecture, based on the principles of antiquity as Palladio interpreted them in his buildings and in his Quattro libri dell'architettura, published in Venice in 1570. This was translated into English by Inigo Jones, who was a pupil and admirer of Palladio and imported his ideas into England, influencing both the theatre and public architecture there. Palladio designed the Teatro Olimpico, which was finished after his death by his pupil Scamozzi.


IN: Hartnoll, Phyllis, ed. The concise Oxford companion to the theatre. 1st ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.  ISBN 0-19-281102-9. p. 413


Andrea Palladio began this masterwork on behalf of the “Accademia Olimpica” in early 1580. Following the unexpected death of the architect on 19 August the same year, it took five years to complete the building. Inside a closed space reminiscent of an ancient open-air theatre, Palladio placed a monumental Scenae frons (stage wall) and semi-elliptical auditorium with thirteen steps for the audience, crowned by a colonnade. Statues of members of the Academy dressed as Romans and reliefs with the adventures of Hercules adorn the room. Through the three arches of the Scenae frons the streets of Thebes are visible – a wooden, permanent stage decoration created by Scamozzi for the first performance in this theatre on 3 March 1585, “Oedipus the tyrant” by Sophocles. Next to the auditorium there are richly decorated halls. In one of them a monochrome fries from around 1595 documents events organized by the Academy.



Visits: Tue – Sun 09:00 – 17:00. Closed Mondays and during special events

Tel.: +39 0444 222800, Fax: +39 0444 222804, E-mail: museocivico@comune.vicenza.itwww.museicivicivicenza.it, www.comune.vicenza.it/vicenza/teatroolimpico.php




Teatro Olimpico - “A Roman theatre enclosed in a building”. The highest situated seats are lined with a colonnade with statues. The ceiling is painted as the sky in order to create an airy impression. The orchestra is supplemented by a vanishing point stage with decorations, depicting urban architecture of streets. The stage thus becomes a square where everything takes place. All of the perspective is on the level of the eyes of the ruler sitting in the middle of the half-circular orchestra. The illusion of this central perspective is complete as children move about in the spaces of the rear, small and low scenes dressed in the same costumes as the older actors in the foreground of “the street”.


The back of the auditorium is formed by a colonnade which at the ends and at the centre is filled in and provided with niches and statues, but which is left open in the direction of the corners. The fact that the auditorium is semi-elliptical, not semi-circular, was probably due to the site. Palladio's solution to the problem which was to trouble nearly all subsequent theatre designers, of how to fit a curved hall into a square building, was to use the corners for staircases.
It is not clear how Palladio intended to treat the ceiling. As Scamozzi completed it, the whole of it may have been originally like the part over the stage, in a heavy, coffered, so-called 'Ducal Palace' style. In the nineteenth century it was covered by a pseudo-tent roof, imitating the velarium of the Romans (this can be seen in some of the old photographs). In 1914 the coffered roof was reinstated over the stage and the rest painted to represent the sky.
The present perspectives that fill the arches are also by Scamozzi. Did Palladio plan them from the beginning? The issue is complicated by the fact that when the Vicenza theatre was begun there was actually no room behind the scaenaejrons; it was only after Palladio's death that the Academy acquired the ground on which they are built, and the fact that the masonry between the old and the new work shows a straight joint supports the theory that they were an afterthought. On the other hand, the Academy's very first proposal mentions perspectives, though Palladio's drawing now at the R.I.B.A. shows nothing in any of the arches.
At any rate, Palladio can only have intended scenery in the central arch, the other two being too small. It was Scamozzi who enlarged them so that they were big enough for perspectives. The final set consists of five radiating streets, diminishing sharply as they recede; the effect from the auditorium is convincing but of course it is impossible for the actors to do anything with them. They represent a heroic attempt to combine practicality with Vitruvius.
Around the central arch stand statues of Vicentine heroes, generals, scholars and the rich citizens who had contributed towards the building. Above them is a painting of the theatre, the words HOC OPUS and an inscription which means: 'Through their virtue and genius the Olympian Academy raised this theatre upon its foundation in 1584.' By a fantastic piece of luck the Academy still exists and so, therefore, does the theatre. The festivals of classical drama that are held in it become annually more popular, despite the crippling discomfort of its seats.


In: TIDWORTH, Simon. Theatres: An Illustrated History. London: Pall Mall, 1973.



Author: Simon Tidworth

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