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Farnese Theatre

Giovani Battista Aleotti

alias Teatro Farnese
history of the theatresupplementtechnical dataHistoric equipment

Important events

(detail)21.12.1628 | Opening
Opened with Monteverdi's opera "Mercurio e Marte".
(detail)1944 | Wooden interior burnt down

(detail)1956 | Restauration

People

(detail)Giovani Battista Aleotti |main architect
Aleotti, who built the Teatro Farnese, was one of the reputed inventors of flats, or 'wings'.

Enzo Bentivoglio |architect
Luca Reti |sculptor

History

The theatre lies hidden inside the vast Palazzo della Pilotta. It was inserted in 1617–18 by Giovanni Battista Aleotti in a spacious hall that had up to that point served as an armoury. The frescos and two triumphal arches transform the interior into a monumental square. It was commissioned by the Duke of Parma, Ranucci I. Farnese, who wanted to celebrate the visit of Cosimo II. Medici and arrange a political marriage. But Cosimo did not show up, and thus the inauguration took place only in 1628 on the occasion of the marriage of Odoardo Farnese and Margherita Medici; on the programme: Monteverdi’s “Mercurio e Marte.” The theatre was designed for tournament operas, a mix of opera and fighting. It became a model for Baroque theatre by virtue of its size and a new element: a monumental proscénium that divides the stage (with the first movable scenery in theatre history) and the auditorium. The action on stage could be continued in the arena of the auditorium which could also be filled with water to host sea battles. Performances in the Farnese Theatre were rare and restricted to special occasions. Following an air raid, the wooden interior burnt down in 1944 and was reconstructed in 1956.

 

Visits: Tue – Sun 8:30 – 14:00 (box office closes at 13:30). Closed Mondays and 1 January, 1 May, 25 December

Tel. +39 0521 233617 / 233309, E-mail: sbsae-pr@beniculturali.it, www.gallerianazionaleparma.it

 

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This is the oldest preserved theatre, the stage of which has been equipped with a permanent proscenium arch. This was the first time the spectators were provided with a frame through which they could observe the theatrical performance. Deep-perspective theatre thus came into being. The parterre of the auditorium was not occupied with seating, but instead employed for dance and additional celebrations (the parterre could also be flooded). An auditorium of almost stadium type was consequently formed above the parterre.

 

Teatro Farnese at Parma  was commissioned in 1617 by Duke Ranuccio I, the great-great grandson of Paul III, the Farnese Pope who had established the family at Parma. The designated site was a hall on the first floor of Ranuccio's vast Palazzo Pilotta, a palace which, though unfinished and partly destroyed by bombing, is still large enough to house the archaeo­logical museum, the city art gallery and half the municipal offices of Parma. The theatre plan, a long rectangle, was therefore not a free choice on the part of the architect, Gian-Battista Aleotti, and he was denied the possibility of the more manageable square.

Aleotti was an experienced and versatile engineer-architect (he was seventy-one years old in 1617), who had earlier served the Estes of Ferrara and had, among a multitude of other activities, already built a theatre there—the famous Teatro degli Intrepidi of 1606, altered in 1640 and burnt down in 1679. Although also constructed within an existing building (a granary), this embodied the most up-to-date features of Italian theatre design, in particular the proscenium arch, or 'picture frame', embracing the whole stage, which had probably developed first in Florence. At the same time Aleotti in this earlier design had followed Palladio in retaining the architectural elaboration of the scaenaefrons, though placing the acting area behind it rather than in front; the set seems to have been a permanent 'tragic' street scene painted on a backcloth. The auditorium was semi­circular.

Ranuccio's theatre at Parma was to be on a larger scale and altogether richer in its decoration. Associated with Aleotti in its construction were a noble amateur, the Marchese Enzo Bentivoglio, the Lombard sculptor Marco Luca Reti and the Bolognese painter Lionello Spada. Aleotti himself was called away on legal business before it was completed, and there is reason to think that some of the planning should be credited to Bentivoglio.,

The work suffered several setbacks. It was not finished until ten years later, after Ranuccio's death, and the first performance in fact celebrated the wedding of his son and successor Odoardo to Margherita de' Medici on 2i December 1628. (These spectacular celebrations, incidentally, also included the building of a temporary wooden theatre by the Baroque architect Rainaldi in the courtyard of the palace; all that history records about this is that the audience was so cold that the stamping of feet drowned the music.)

The basic shape of the Teatro Farnese has much more in common with Buontalenti's Uffizi theatre than with Palladio's at Vicenza. It is almost two and a half times longer than it is broad. Aleotti utilized this extra length by making the auditorium a deep U-shape. As at Sabbioneta, there is a space between the auditorium and the stage (where the orchestra pit of a modern theatre would be) into which two doors open, surmounted by equestrian statues of two earlier Farnese dukes, Ottavio and Alessandro. The stage itself is set back in a monumental composition of giant Corinthian columns on pedestals, with niches between them holding allegorical statues. On the cornice perch other allegorical figures and putti, two of whom hold the Farnese coat of arms over the centre of the stage.

Movable scenery was intended from the beginning, a mark of modernity in 1617, and the stage is deep enough to accommodate nine or ten rows of sliding flats. The action, however, was not intended to be confined to this area; it could spill forward into the arena in front of the scaenaefrons and even into the middle of the U-shaped ranks of seats.

The auditorium, which has fourteen rows of seats, could hold 3,000 spectators. The seats descend not to ground level but to a point six feet or so above the floor, where they are enclosed behind a balustrade.'

This may be one of Bentivoglio's modifications to Aleotti's plan. A model now in the museum at Drottningholm shows the seats coming right down to floor level. Behind the seats rises a two-storey arcade, following the precedent of antique theatres and of the Teatro Olimpico, but based more specifically on Palladio's 'Basilica', a re-casing of the Town Hall, at Vicenza. At the back of the room it is a genuine arcade with space behind, but at the two sides it is merely applied to the wall, giving a strong sense of architectural unity to the whole design.

The opening performance was one that tested the theatre's resources to the full. It was an extravagant opera-ballet called Mercury and Mars by Achillini. Among the composers invited to Parma to provide music was Monteverdi, but his contribution is lost. It included a display of horseman­ship and ended with a scene in which Neptune, enraged at the hero's escape, flooded the stage and central arena to a depth of two feet; storms, shipwrecks and fights between sea monsters ensued, to be pacified only by the descent of Jupiter from the sky with a hundred attendants.

 

In: TIDWORTH, Simon. Theatres: An Illustrated History. London: Pall Mall, 1973. p. 65-68

 

 

Author: Simon Tidworth

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