The origins of the theatrical spectaculars of the Baroque and our own time, and of classical ballet and opera, are usually traced by academics to the “magnifences” of Catherine de Medici, who, out of dire political necessity during the Wars of Religion, built on two traditions, the Valois court entertainments and the intermezzi of her own family’s court in Florence, to devise cultural showcases for dynastic policies.
Two engravings by Jacques Callot in the Courtauld exhibition gave an idea of the ambitious scale of the entertainments laid on by the Medici, including a mock water battle to celebrate the visit of the Prince of Urbino in 1619, which was watched by 30,000 people. In modern terms, these huge events were the equivalent of staging the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, and the intermezzi are comparable to Madonna’s half-time show at the Super Bowl, spectaculars that even people in countries across the sea might hear about and see in reproduced prints.
Stefano Della Bella’s etchings of stage designs for The Wedding of the Gods in 1637 record the illusionistic splendour achieved on temporary stages at the Medici court, with machinery capable of lowering performers in the role of gods from the sky in front of painted cloud drops. In the fifth scene, flying monsters attack cavaliers from the air, like a scene from a modern sci-fi movie. With all these scenes and effects to get through, it is not surprising that….. the performance lasted four hours.
Stages and Scenes exhibited two 16th century Italian books on architecture, a 1536 edition of Vitruvius’ De Architettura and Sebastiano Serlio’s Tutte l’Opere de Architettura of 1551. Serlio included set design as an important architectural form, his enchanted turrets and woods and stately piazzas, all carefully drawn in perspective, providing a manual for all future illusionistic set design.
The French court had been renowned in the first half of the 16th century for its culture and civilisation; it was, after all, where English aristocrats sent their daughters to be turned into great ladies, and where Mary, Queen of Scots was trained to be a European Renaissance and Roman Catholic princess.
François I, the rival in regal showmanship to Henry VIII, and a superior arts connoisseur, had established the expedient of keeping the nobility diverted at court with lavish entertainments. His sister, Marguerite, the grandmother of the future Henri IV, was a paragon of intellectual and moral humanism, a leading patron of the arts and an author in her own right, admired as much for her charity and character as for her mind.
Royal co-production by François I and Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, in June, 1520, where the spectacle included a temporary palace made of painted canvas over a timber framework, decorated with sculptures, and wine and beer fountains. Coloured print, 1774, by James Basire of the original painting, probably commissioned by Henry VIII, ca 1545.
In the second half of the century, fractured by brutalizing religious conflict, the artificial order of theatre was shaken out of real-life violence. Catherine de Medici, the widow of François I’s son, Henri II, and mother of the last three Valois kings, commissioned overtly political allegories refined by music, dance, poetry and illusionist scenery. She recruited the best available talent for her “magnifences” on a huge State budget during a time of endemic civil war. While her policies perpetuated dischord, and she lost influence over her sons’ governments, her ephemeral fantasies of peace and harmony created a lasting tradition in European State theatre and dance.
The culmination of her theatrical achievements was the festival held in 1581 to celebrate a family wedding, which included a ballet, commissioned and performed by her daughter-in-law, Louise of Lorraine, who made her entrance in a vast fountain chariot, and dismounted with her ladies to perform the first formal ballet de cour, from which classical ballet developed.
The Fountain Chariot designed by Patin that carried Louise of Lorraine, wife of Henri III of France, her ladies and musicians in Le Ballet Comique de la Reine, 1581, one of the joyeuse magnificences devised to celebrate the marriage of the queen’s sister to the king’s favourite. Image source: Wikipedia
PART FIVE 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.