scene design and stage lighting: The Renaissance to the Seventeenth Century

The Renaissance to the Seventeenth Century

The renaissance of scene design began in Italy. Sebastiano Serlio, in his Architettura, Book II (1545), interpreted what he thought were classic ideas on perspective and the periaktoi and published the first designs on the definitive types of sets to be used—for tragedy, palaces; for comedy, street scenes; for satyr plays, the countryside. The first permanent theater in Italy, the Teatro Olimpico at Vicenza (1584), was an attempt to recreate the Roman scaenae frons with five permanent perspectives.

In his teatro all'antico, built (c.1589) at Sabbioneta, Vincenzo Scamozzi employed a “solid drop” background and enlarged the central stage arch to make one perspective. In the early 17th cent., Giovanni Battista Aleotti was the first to use flats (painted canvas stretched over wooden frames) with decorative props painted on them, and in 1618 he introduced the proscenium arch. The realistic stage setting was not known; designs were always symmetrical and in perspective. Later in the century the mechanical innovations of Giacomo Torelli facilitated the simultaneous rapid shift of all the flats.

Nicolo Sabbattini and Leone de' Sommi wrote on the use of lighting in the 16th cent.; in addition, they developed footlights and techniques for colored lights and for the dimming of lights. From the Renaissance period until the triumph of gas lighting in the mid-19th cent., great use was made of lamps, candles, and torches. Although they caused much work, odor, and smoke, ingenious effects were produced.

A revolution in scene design occurred in the late 17th cent. with the initiation of multiple or oblique perspective by Ferdinando Galli Bibiena. He used either two points of perspective or only one placed indiscriminately. The great scene designers of the period were also the great architects and artists. Their designs, baroque and heavy with movement and detail, became increasingly fussy; the set, in conflict with the actor, became the main attraction.

In France the first permanent theater had been the Hôtel de Bourgogne (1548), and in England, the Theatre (1576; later known as the Globe). The early English designer Inigo Jones was influenced by the Italians, although in his time scenery was reserved for court spectacles; Shakespeare's plays were given on a bare stage. The Restoration period saw the development of a “popular” theater, although it was still primarily for the upper classes.

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