There was a torture chamber hidden under the fairytale palaces, those vanishing flower-garlanded places where laughing, well-fed putti carry on playing long after the people, surfeited on Rococo, have died or fled.
Apollo with the Graces and Muses painted for the ceiling of the Théâtre de la reine, at Trianon, Versailles, by Jean-Jacques Lagrenée, 1779. Image source: Wikipedia
The restrained imagery of the later Stuart monarchy reflected the bloodless 1688 revolution in political realities. Baroque was sobered down, mannered. Its architecture was perceived as heavy and florid, and was already going out of fashion by the time its last great palace, Blenheim, was finished in 1716, to complaints from the owner, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, about the impracticalities of the design. The architect, John Vanbrugh, whose other most famous building is the fairy tale Castle Howard, a fantastical stage set on the Yorkshire moors, was also a dramatist, author of two of the greatest English comedies of manners.
William and Mary Presenting the Cap of Liberty to Europe, sketch by James Thornhill for his design of the painted ceiling of the Great Hall, Greenwich Hospital, 1708-1712, the last great public illusionist interior of English Baroque.
Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The idea of putting William and Mary’s apotheosis on a painted ceiling never occurred in their lifetime; after the queen died to almost universal lamentation in England and the Netherlands, the completion of the project for a Hospital for wounded and disabled seamen was chosen as the most fitting memorial to her charitable character, a sign of a new, recognizably modern, kind of monarchy.
Thornhill’s grandiose commission for the interior of the Great Hall of Greenwich Hospital celebrating the Protestant Succession was issued in the next reign, under Queen Anne, and completed under George I, in justification of the Hanoverian right to rule.
By 1690, even the fashion in clothes had become architectural, the cut…..of dresses and coats more rigidly fitted and angular, festooned with ribbons and sashes, the ladies’ overskirts looped back and draped over hoops, revealing, like theatre curtains, the decorated skirt in front, tiered lace structures set high on the their methodically curled hair, huge wigs of cascading curls, parted at the front in two high points, for the men, exaggerated wide cuffs and long shoe tongues, high heels for both sexes, and the look of travesty augmented by accessories of canes, fans, snuff boxes, muffs, carried like stage props, and black face patches when necessary.
At the same time as artifice was fashionable, and Baroque spontaneity was being reined in and formalized, new fantasies of a simpler, purer way of life began to hold sway. Ninety years before a farmhouse and dairy, with real well-behaved animals, were built for Marie Antoinette at Trianon, Mary II, a sensible and dutiful queen, took delight in an ornamental dairy made for her at Hampton Court, the fittings made in her favourite style of blue and white china.
Her contemporaries did not see Mary’s dairy as a luxurious toy, mocking the workplace of starving peasants, nor condemn her for frivolity and irresponsibility; they saw in her choice of role-play and architectural illusion yet another sign of her domestic and regal virtue, a feminine preference for humility, decorum and hygiene that reflected the purity of her mind. She died in 1694; her sensibility presaged 18th century taste and aristocratic awareness of the social obligations of hereditary privilege.
She was eulogized as an exemplary woman and queen; her death bed was a model of Anglican piety and personal restraint, transfused with passion from the most surprising of sources, the overwhelming grief of the husband who had been notoriously churlish to his wife while she was alive. Even MPs wept when the news of her death was formally announced to the House of Commons.
The drama and expense she was so painstakingly trying to avoid were instigated by other people – she was among the three most extravagantly mourned royal women in British history, who all died young. In each case the outpouring of feeling was spontaneous, not government manufactured, signs of atavistic goddess worship, and shock at another proof of the randomness of human existence, rather than attachment to an institution.
The public perception of Mary’s benevolence and graciousness had created a sympathetic personification of the Glorious Revolution, in which, as the usurping daughter of a deposed king in a coup d’etat planned by her husband and seven members of the English ruling elite, she had been allotted the most difficult part to play.
Her state funeral was the last great piece of English Baroque public theatre, at which Purcell’s specially prepared anthem and elegies reverberated in musical notes the innermost emotional apprehension of mortality that men and women can feel.
Even at Versailles, the solemnity and dramatic passion of Baroque was displaced in the next century, under a young king trying to hide the weight of his great-grandfather, Louis XIV’s, terrible legacy. The tradition of fantastical allegorical displays lived on in the playful, ironic style of Rococo. The extravagance was the same, but the deeper resonance was lost.
At the Ball of the Yew Trees in the Hall of Mirrors in 1745 the only event of historical significance was the first meeting of Louis XV, dressed as a yew tree, with the future Madame la Pompadour disguised as the goddess of chastity.
Le bal des Ifs, the masquerade ball given in honour of the Dauphin’s marriage, in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, 1745. Black ink and watercolour by Charles-Nicolas Cochin fils. Louvre. Image source: Wikipedia
Seventeenth and eighteenth century courts realized that if their in-house entertainments were to reach standards of excellence, they required, in addition to writers, composers, designers and ballet masters, professional dancers and actors to improve the amateur courtiers’ performances. There was a symbiosis quickly in place between amateur and professional – actors still relied on the court for patronage and for providing their real-life models for royal and aristocratic parts, while royalty seized on the services of professional actors and actresses to improve public speaking and presentation skills.
Queens Mary II and Anne, while young princesses, were given elocution lessons by Mrs Betterton in the early 1670s, and nearly a century later the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa hired French actors to teach her youngest daughter to speak French, as part of her training to be the future queen Marie Antoinette at Versailles.
One of Marie Antoinette’s greatest personal pleasures was putting on and starring in fashionable plays in her private theatre at Versailles. The entertainments were frivolous entertainments, intended to amuse herself and her friends, not public events reflecting back the effulgence of dynastic glory, which the court knew was outdated and inappropriate. Baroque was long dead, abandoned by the ancien regime.
Her Petit Théâtre was a pretty confection in blue and gold, with a tiny auditorium designed to seat a hundred friends and courtiers, decorated with a painted ceiling and gilded sculpture, an architectural illusion made of wood and papier-mâché, built in the grounds of le Petit Trianon which, with its model village and dairy, was the stage-set for the queen’s fantasies turning inward, while the public image and political power of the monarchy was disintegrating.
The Courtauld’s Stages and Scenes exhibition included some of Piranesi’s etchings of the mid-18th century, which are sinister in comparison to the playfully exuberant visions of his older contemporaries, because his realism subverts their fantasy that the power of grand architecture and government is always benign.
He had been taught theatre design by Valeriani, and there are similarities to the work of his predecessor Alessandro Galli Bibieni in the drama of arches and traversing lines, but his oppressive buildings belong to a different imaginative world than the soaring luxury of the Baroque.
The perspectives of Round Tower are designed to intimidate, not charm, revealing a torture chamber hidden under the fairytale palaces, the vanishing flower-garlanded places where laughing, well-fed putti carry on playing, long after all the people have died or fled.
Vincenzo dal Re (d.1762): Interior of an imaginary palace 44.1cm x 33.6cm, pen and ink (brown) & watercolour (grey) & chalk (black) on paper Copyright: The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
© 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.