British Library logoTreasures in Full: Renaissance Festival Books
back Back  

The performance and staging of courtly theatre

Roger Savage


Excerpted from Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly, 'The Early Modern Festival Book: Function and Form' in J.R. Mulryne, Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly and Margaret Shewring (eds.), 'Europa Triumphans': Court and Civic Festivals in Early Modern Europe (Aldershot and Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2004) vol. I, pp. 5-18.

Court Festivities in the Renaissance often included theatricals. For such politically and artistically charged occasions, it was important that the organizational details should all be in place. The activities of Leone Ebreo de’ Sommi (c.1526-1591/2) at the Gonzaga court in Mantua, for example, place him in that long line of courtiers, skilful in taking prime responsibility for arranging festivities for noble Italian houses, which runs through the 16th and into the 17th century.

Major decisions about a festive court show might be made on a collaborative basis, as in devising and mounting the spectacular intermedi for La pellegrina, the Sienese comedy part-authored by Giacomo Bargagli which was premièred on 2 May 1589 in Florence during festivities marking the marriage of Ferdinando de’ Medici and Christine of Lorraine. Over a year before, the Tuscan humanist Giovanni de’ Bardi (1534-1612) was ordered to lay plans for these intermedi. He was soon working with Bernardo Buontalenti (1531-1608), the Medici’s gifted architect, engineer and designer of shows, to conceive and rehearse a mythological-philosophical sequence celebrating the neo-Platonic theme of harmony.

A handful of specialist treatises appeared that set out to reveal the whole art of professional scripting and staging. For instance, in the late 1560s de’ Sommi writes some lively manuscript dialogues on theatre arts, the Quattro dialoghi in materia di rappresentazioiini sceniche. A more specialised court-theatre treatise, Nicola Sabbatini’s Pratica di fabricar scene e machine ne’ teatro (published 1638), contains most of what anyone in the early 17th century might need to know about setting up a temporary theatre at court.

The figure that looms largest through this range of documentation is the prince himself. Sabbatini has a chapter in the Pratica, ‘How to Place the Prince’s Seat’, stressing that it must be located at that particular elevation and distance from the stage where ‘all the objects in the scene appear better… than from any other place’.

Apollo and the Muses confront the Furies
Apollo and the Muses confront the Furies. La Joyeuse and magnifique Entree de Monseigneur Francoys, Fils de France, ... Duc de Brabant, en sa tres renommee ville d'Anvers. C. Plantin: Antwerp (Belgium), 1582.
BL C.22.c.12, plate 20. Larger image

Proficiency in the art of acting, according to the anonymous manuscript treatise Il corago (about 1630), is one of the skills a modern supervisor of productions will need most: a skill which is ‘concerned not only with training a particular actor in the rudiments but also with furnishing all the crowds attending on the actors with suitable moves and postures, as well as directing those of the chorus’.

Aside from acting, a modern stage-manager must have real training and proficiency in stage-machinery: ‘of all the things which can be presented on a stage, none… more ravishes the minds of the spectators than the machines… It is a source of great delight to witness things which are seemingly supernatural: such as an earth-bound person mounting to the sky; the appearance of a cloud filled with players and singers; seeing a temple rise up through the earth… seeing the ocean suddenly appear and in it tritons, gods, ships and other trompes-l’oeil’.

A production team needed to plan rehearsals and performances carefully. Il corago asks all the right questions: have safety-measures been checked, are the actors properly dressed, the instrumentalists tuned up, the machine supervisors and operators at their posts, the tailors ready to help with any quick changes, the lightsmen in position?

As analogues to the descrizioni of particular court performances from Italy, we have among northern counterparts the printed masque-texts in England and ballet-livrets in France. And such things are not found in England and France only. There are interesting financial accounts from Sweden, for instance, in connection with the Ballet de la félicité of 1564, the last of Queen Christina’s shows in her native country.

In the French court ballet of the six decades from 1580, the documentation suggests that shows were conceived, managed and rehearsed in a way that would have made sense to the Gonzaga and Leone de’ Sommi. Getting these multimedia events right played a major part in Louis XIII’s life. For instance, court diary-entries in January and February 1619 record how very often he was at rehearsals of the elaborate Ballet de Tancrède.

Across the English Channel, no separate Particular Commentary on the Art of Masquing seems to have been written for the Stuart court masques mounted in London between 1604 and 1640. However, the papers of Bulstrode Whitelocke (1605-1675), offer a fairly full history of preparations for The Triumph of Peace, presented to Charles I and Henrietta Maria at Whitehall in 1634. The Masque was ‘incomparably performed in the Dancing, Speeches, Musick and Scenes; the Dances, Figures, Properties, the Voices, Instruments, Songs, Airs, Composures, the Words and Actions were all of them exact, and none failed in their Parts of them, and the Scenes were most curious and costly’. Whitelocke here discusses a courtly show in terms that would have made sense at many other European court theatres.

© The British Library