As proof that Louis XIV’s power was absolute, Nature itself was subservient to him in the water gardens of Versailles. The fountain jets of le bosquet du théâtre d’eau (replaced in the early 1770s by a plain grass covered grove, and recently excavated) were designed, according to the fontaineer Claude Denis, to perform “obeisance to the king of kings”.
For over a hundred years, the official pretexts for the exquisite staged illusions in the chateau’s grounds were usually celebrations of royal weddings and new-born heirs, as you would expect of a fairy tale, but also, on occasion, the birth of a son to the king’s favourite mistress of the moment, and the acquisition of territories through war, ruinously expensive in money and lives. “I have loved war too much”, confessed the dying king, forty years later, when he bequeathed toxic, bankrupt splendour to his five year old heir.
Feu d’artifice: Firework display on the canal at Versailles, one of the divertissements held at Versailles to celebrate the reconquest of Franche-Comté in 1674. On previous days of the festival, Lully’s ballet Alceste had been performed in front of the Marble Court and Moliere’s Le Malade Imaginaire in front of the Grotto of Thetis. Engraving by Le Pautre, 1676. Image © RMN, Musée du Louvre/Photo Thierry de Mage
Advanced technology and artistic talent mythologized life at court, enabling the refulgent monarchy to divert the nobility into acquiescence during peacetime, and dazzle friends and enemies abroad, with ballets, plays, operas, tricks of the eye, dancing fountains, musical gardens and artificial fire. The population excluded from wealth and political power, the artisans and peasants, were invited to marvel at the pleasures of the elite from a safe distance, on the terrace behind the palace or in the branches of the garden trees.
Louis XIV had always intended Versailles should be a theatre. The members of the Accademia Olimpica in Vicenza who commissioned Palladio to design a permanent theatre in 1585, would have approved of the main stage facade looking like a palace, because the theatre was an idealised representation of their own power in the real world, which included the vistas of Scamozzi’s wooden set of streets and buildings glimpsed through the three main arches of the stage in perfect perspective.
Renaissance palaces had always been theatres; now theatres were being built to look like palaces, a fashion…..which long outlived Baroque good taste into the beginning of the 20th century.
Gradually during the 17th and early 18th centuries the demand for these palaces spread from the royal and aristocratic elites to the general public in all the major cities of Europe. The talented Bibieni family, predominant in architectural and set design in Europe for over a century, became involved in building theatres in towns as well as creating grand illusions at the courts of their royal patrons.
The theatrical backdrop of architectural splendour and the secular conviviality of the cast of characters eclipses the religious plot in Paulo Veronese’s Feast at the House of Simon, 1570-72.
The painting, originally commissioned by a Venetian convent, was given to Louis XIV by the Republic of Venice in 1664. Oil on canvas. Musée National du Château, Versailles. Image source: WGA
Architectural splendour did not always accompany the building of an opera house – an innate enthusiasm for music and drama was going to fire people on a smaller budget and in the face of religious opposition. The first purpose built opera house in Germany was not at a princely court, but was conceived, financed and managed by private citizens in the independent mercantile republic of Hamburg in 1678.
Middle class and commercial interest in the high arts was able to flourish even in the ancien regime; opera was only briefly the exclusive art form of a social elite, starting in the 1590s with a small group of Florentine humanists dedicated to reviving the classical tradition of tragic poetry combined with music with poetry.
The first public opera house in Italy, Teatro San Cassiano in Venice, was opened in 1637. In 1669, Louis XIV, the balletomane sans pareil, with the advice of his finance minister Colbert, created the Académie Royale de Musique in order to train dancers – originally only male ones – and promote professional performances of opera and ballet in Paris and other French towns.
At the same time that he promoted theatrical professionalism in the country at large, King Louis was ordering the expansion of the chateau of Versailles into the most theatrical of palaces and gardens, where entertainments featuring courtiers and members of the royal family continued to be held against the backdrop of L’ Escalier des Ambassadeurs, in other rooms and in temporary structures in the garden’s groves and colonnades, long before and after the building of a permanent theatre within the palace.
La Princesse d’ Elide, ballet performed on a temporary stage in the gardens at Versailles in 1664 as one of the fêtes, called les Plaisirs de L’Isle enchantée, to celebrate the birth of a son to the king’s mistress, in an engraving by Israel Silvestre, Paris, 1673-4. The real avenue of hedges and trees is incorporated into the make-believe world of the entertainment. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
To keep up with this royal impresario, every prince in Europe was obliged to commission grand architectural and landscape designs, for performance just as much as appearance, and many inaugurated their own court ballets.
Some of the most visually enchanting of these theatrical fêtes, which included plays and music by the greatest writers and composers of the day as part of the entertainment, were staged in the royal gardens of Europe, masterpieces of outdoor theatre in themselves, designed and planted as exercises in perspective, in which sculpture and parterres were arranged in formal patterns like a ballet, where illusion could be perfected in the eye-deceiving merging of painted trees with real trees, of statues with human dancers.
The modern parallel to the scale of the Baroque State’s theatre budget, technical and artistic expertise, and politico-cultural influence is Hollywood, now over a hundred years old, a combination of idealization, apologia and self-regulated satire that serves as the USA’s permanent public relations company to the rest of the world.
Some of the items illustrating architectural illusion in the Courtauld collection prefigure epic film sets – the out-size arches and vast courtyards of Serafino Brizzi’s stage fortresses could have been used for countless Robin Hoods; the neo-classical stage interiors of the Teatro Olimpico would serve as the home of superheroes; the brooding atmosphere of Piranesi is recaptured in dark gothic fantasies.
The dramatic fore-shortening of figures in the ceiling paintings of baroque artists would have had the same sensational effect on spectators as watching a movie in 3D has on us. Surfaces shine, looking good enough to eat, a surfeit of worldly delights, dizzying the spectator.
There were plenty of undignified, sometimes fatal, accidents during royal shows – but then there are still serious accidents with high-tech machinery in the West End and on Broadway nowadays, despite modern Health & Safety regulations. It is impossible that everybody in the audience was uncritical of the extravagance and pretentiousness of these royal ‘spectacles’, and there’s an irreverant temptation to wonder if sometimes they were closer to le Cirque du Soleil than the court of le Roi-Soleil – but in the surviving prints, engravings and painting the allegorical propaganda of the ancien regime looks charming, disarming latent disapproval with a vision of a place where ephemeral beauty and elegance reign for ever.
PART FOUR of THEATRES OF POWER 1580-1780 coming soon
© Pippa Rathborne 2014
Adapted from an article published as Exhibition Review | STAGES AND SCENES on Rogues and Vagabonds Theatre Website in 2008, with permission of Sarah Vernon and with many thanks to The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London for permission to use images from their collection.