Spectacle as Drama

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It was through reading more than thirty years ago Sacheverell Sitwell’s perpetually engaging book Southern Baroque Art (first published in 1924) that I first discovered the work of the Bibienas. From the mid-17th century onwards, four generations of this Tuscan family worked throughout Europe as artists and architects, but above all as theatre designers. In some instances they were responsible for the design of buildings in which theatrical and musical performances were held. (The best-known being in Mantua, and now called the Teatro Bibiena: by Antonio Bibiena it dates from the 1760s.) But they are now better remembered for their work on the stage side of the proscenium arch.
The family’s origins in this field lay with Giovanni Maria Galli da Bibiena, born outside Florence in 1625. A painter who studied with, and then worked as assistant to, Francesco Albani, he was based in Bologna at the time of his early death aged forty. His daughter Maria Oriana who remained in that city also became a painter, specializing in portraits and history pictures. Meanwhile her two brothers led more peripatetic lives, with Francesco designing theatres as far afield as Verona and Vienna. The latter city proved particularly important for the Bibienas since it was here that Maria and Francesco’s sibling Ferdinando and then his son Giuseppe became the most celebrated stage designers of the age.

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Born in Bologna in 1656, Ferdinando Galli Bibiena spent some thirty years based in Piacenza working for the Duke of Parma. But in 1708 he travelled to Barcelona to organise the wedding festivities of the Habsburg Archduke Charles. When the latter became Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor in 1711 Fredinando Galli Bibiena moved to Vienna where he designed elaborate theatre scenery and also oversaw court festivities. He returned to Bologna in 1716 but his second son Giuseppe remained in Vienna and in effect inherited his father’s position as the Emperor’s chief designer, remaining such until Charles VI’s death in 1740. Of the Emperor, Sitwell wrote ‘Music, like everything else, required a setting which would reflect honour on this Caesar, and so he retained in his service a whole race of Italians, to whom he entrusted the decorations of a theatre, a procession or a masque with the subsequent banquet. In this way a building which seemed to have the permanence of a Versailles could be put up in a few days, and by the next morning it had disappeared from the ground, as if by enchantment. The Bibiena family of Bologna were in command of the nocturnal army…It is as though the Italians, having matured their plans so far in earlier times, now that their imagination was unfettered and had the skill to play how it liked, found themselves without the money to realize their schemes, and so were forced to take opportunities abroad and produce in plaster and canvas that which they had planned in brick and marble.’

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The Bibienas were renowned for the ingenious use of perspective in their stage designs, the ability to suggest infinite horizons within a severely limited space. In his work Ferdinando was the first to replace a central, vertical, axis with a diagonal, thereby increasing the impression of distance. He and his son created fantastically grand architecture intended to be dismantled within days of its construction. An examination of Giuseppe’s extant designs indicates that he developed his father’s initiatives in this field to produce complex interiors in which colonnaded passages seem to run in every direction and seemingly without ever coming to a close. Vaulted ceilings tower over the figures beneath, while the walls are smothered with ornament including niches, brackets and curvilinear frames. Against this painted backdrop figures would act out complex emotional dramas, often to texts written by another Italian, Metastasio who in 1729 was appointed Court Poet in Vienna: in the mid-18th century there was scarcely an opera composer in Europe not dependent on a Metastasio libretto (as late as 1791 Mozart used one for La Clemenza di Tito). Surely his lofty language and noble sentiments influenced Bibiena’s designs, and vice versa? The most celebrated castrato of the age Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli, made his debut at the age of fifteen singing music composed by his teacher Nicola Porpora set to a text by Metastasio. When Farinelli (of whom it was said, ‘One God, one Farinelli’) sang in Vienna in 1731 – once more to music by Porpora and words by Metastasio – the Emperor advised he should cease trying to astonish listeners with his vocal prowess and instead engage their emotions through the purity of his tone; ‘you are too lavish of the gifts with which nature has endowed you; if you wish to reach the heart, you must take a more plain and simple road.’ Perhaps Charles VI felt there was already enough virtuosity on stage thanks to the designs of Giuseppe Galli Bibiena.

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These notes on the Bibiena family are inspired by the room seen here today, the double height entrance hall at Gloster, County Offaly. The most perfect baroque interior in Ireland, it was almost certainly designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce in the early 1720s; he was a first cousin of the property’s then-owner Trevor Lloyd. Whether Pearce actually oversaw the execution of his work is more open to question as some of the detailing is not quite as refined as might otherwise have been the case. Even so, Gloster’s entrance hall is something of a coup de theatre, clearly intended to make an impact on anyone stepping into the space. The view from the front door is of walls heavily covered in plasterwork panelling, with a focus on the pedimented doorcase directly ahead; on either side of this are niches with fanlights above that match those of the facing doors. Obviously the hall’s height adds additional drama, and the feature is emphasised by a band of elaborate scrolling plasterwork positioned at what would be cornice level; the effect is to divide the vertical into two sections. Continuing up, the eye is next caught by a series of round-headed niches on either side wall which contain busts on plinths. These are matched on the entrance wall by three windows which ensure the hall is exceptionally bright: they are arched on the inside although rectangular on the exterior in order to match those on the rest of the thirteen-bay facade. Facing the windows are three arched balconies, part of a first floor gallery accessed via an inner hall that has flanking staircases to its rear. The gallery is a superlative piece of work. Entered through a screen of Doric columns and rising to a coffered, barrel-vaulted ceiling, it features a pair of monumental pedimented chimneypieces with glass in the upper sections so that one reflects the other. To one side of these run long corridors, barrel-vaulted like the landing, which lead to the main bedrooms and provide the ensemble with an additional sense of drama. Indeed it the combination of these passages and the balconies overlooking the entrance hall that particularly bring to mind the designs of Ferdinando and Giuseppe Bibiena. As a piece of design it evokes the grandeur and solemnity of Metastasio’s texts, combined with the virtuosity of Farinell’s singing in a fashion rarely seen in Ireland. It is easy to imagine baroque opera being played out in such a setting (what might the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle have filmed in the house). These spaces have recently been redecorated by Gloster’s dedicated owners, who deserve accolades for all that they have already achieved here. The results are breathtakingly exciting and highlight the outstandingly theatrical quality of the architecture.

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More about the glories of Gloster on another occasion…

Carve the Year with Pride

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A detail of the carved oak chimneypiece in the entrance hall of Salterbridge, County Waterford. Although the core of the present house was built around the middle of the 18th century, it was subject to several alterations and aggrandisements thereafter. Some of these are sufficiently documented but the date of other interventions remains unclear. In the case of the entrance hall carving, even though the craftsman responsible for the work is nameless we can be sure when he undertook this task since the panelling to the left of the chimneypiece carries the year 1884.

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Without Permission

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Demonstrating that a laissez-faire attitude towards building without first securing the relevant permission is no recent phenomenon in Ireland: Burrishoole Priory, County Mayo. This Dominican house was established in 1469 by Richard de Burgo, who then resigned his secular position as Lord of Turlough and entered the priory where he remained until his death four years later. Unfortunately neither he nor the friars had thought to seek Papal approval before settling at Burrishoole, an omission that could have resulted in excommunication. However in 1486 Innocent VII instructed the Archbishop of Tuam to pardon their presumption and the occupants were allowed to remain in situ. They continued to do so even after the Reformation , a certain number of Dominicans recorded as remaining at Burrishoole into the 18th century on the site. It was only in 1793 that the church roof collapsed, thereby ensuring it became the ruin seen today.

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A Note on New Ruins

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‘New ruins have not yet acquired the weathered patina of age, the true rust of the barons’ wars, not yet put on their ivy, nor equipped themselves with the appropriate bestiary of lizards, bats, screech-owls, serpents, speckled toads and little foxes which, as has been so frequently observed by ruin-explorers, hold high revel in the precincts of old ruins (such revelling, though noted with pleasure, is seldom described in detail; possibly the jackal waltzes with the toad, the lizard with the fox, while the screech owl supplies the music and they all glory and drink deep among the tumbled capitals)…’

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‘But new ruins are for a time stark and bare, vegetationless and creatureless; blackened and torn, they smell of fire and mortality. It will not be for long. Very soon trees will be thrusting through the empty window sockets, the rose-bay and fennel blossoming within the broken walls, the brambles tangling outside them. Very soon the ruin will be enjungled, engulfed, and the appropriate creatures will revel. Even ruins in city streets will, if they are let alone, come, soon or late, to the same fate. Month by month it grows harder to trace the streets around them; here, we see, is the lane of tangled briars that was a street of warehouses; there, in those jungled caverns, stood the large tailor’s shop; where those grassy paths cross, a board swings, bearing the name of a tavern…’

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‘We stumble among stone foundations and fragments of cellar walls, among the ghosts of the exiled merchants and publicans who there carried on their gainful trades. Shells of churches gape emptily; over broken altars the small yellow dandelions make their pattern. All this will presently be; but at first there is only the ruin; a mass of torn, charred prayer books strew the stone floor; the statues, tumbled from their niches, have broken in pieces; rafters and rubble pile knee-deep…’

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‘But often the ruin has put on, in its catastrophic tipsy chaos, a bizarre new charm. What was last week a drab little house has become a steep flight of stairs winding up in the open between gaily-coloured walls, tiled lavatories, interiors bright and intimate like a Dutch picture or a stage set; the stairway climbs up and up, undaunted, to the roofless summit where it meets the sky. The house has put on melodrama; people stop to stare; here is a domestic scene wide open for all to enjoy. To-morrow or to-night, the gazers feel, their own dwelling may be even as this. Last night the house was scenic; flames leaping to the sky; to-day it is squalid and morne, but out of its dereliction it flaunts the flags of what is left…’

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‘”Ruinenlust” has come full circle: we have had our fill. Ruin pleasure must be at one remove, softened by art, by Piranesi, Salvator Rosa, Poussin, Ckude, Monsti Desiderio, Pannini, Guardi, Robert, James Pryde, John Piper, the ruin-poets, or centuries of time. Ruin must be a fantasy, veiled by the mind’s dark imaginings: in the objects that we see before us, we get to agree with St Thomas Aquinas, that quae enim diminuta sunt, hoc ipso turpia sunt and to feel that, in beauty, wholeness is all.’

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The above texts come from the concluding chapter (‘A Note on New Ruins’) of Rose Macaulay’s wonderful 1953 book Pleasure of Ruins. The photographs above show the interiors of a set of now-abandoned farmyard buildings in County Westmeath.

Off the Cuffe

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The remnants of Castlecuffe, County Laois its height exaggerated by distinctive Jacobean chimney stacks. The house was built in the early years of the 17th century by Sir Charles Coote, perhaps around 1610 to mark his marriage to Dorothea Cuffe from whom the property takes its name. The land on which Castlecuffe stands had previously belonged to the O’Dunnes and in the Confederate Wars of the 1640s it came under attack and was so badly damaged as to be rendered uninhabitable. The Cootes, on the other hand, thrived and diverse branches of the family established their presence around the country, as can still be seen in the fine houses still extant at Ballyfin, County Laois and Bellamont Forest, County Cavan.

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Taking the Cure

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A corner cabinet in Bedroom No.15 at Birr Castle, County Offaly. This is also known as the Conroy Room since it contains memorabilia associated with Sir John Conroy, quondam Comptroller to Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent: in the same year Victoria came to the throne, Conroy’s son Edward eloped with Lady Alicia Parsons, daughter of the second Earl of Rosse. On a table beneath the cabinet is a box holding a 19th century travelling pharmacy, including such supposed cures as Tincture of Rhubarb and Paregoric Elixir. The latter was an opiate first developed in the early 18th century as a cure for asthma.

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On the Town VIII

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Bank Holiday Monday morning and a coach pulls into the main square of Macroom, County Cork. The passengers step gingerly down, a few of them take photographs outside the former castle’s entrance but most wander about for a few minutes looking bewildered. Then they all climb aboard again and the bus departs. It doesn’t help that in the middle of a town which promotes itself as the tourism gateway to West Cork and South Kerry not a single premises is open for the visitors. No chance of getting a cup of coffee, or buying a postcard, or bringing home a souvenir of Macroom. Nothing to look at but shuttered shops and the residue of Sunday night’s revelry on the streets. No wonder the bus didn’t linger.

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Deriving its name from the Irish Maigh Chromtha, believed to refer to a crooked oak that once stood in what is now the main square, Macroom was of some significance in pre-Christian Ireland. However, its modern history really begins with the construction of a castle above the river Sullane, probably first begun in the 12th century by the O’Flynns who then controlled this part of what was the Kingdom of Muskerry. The McCarthys subsequently became the dominant family and at various dates they both enlarged and improved Macroom Castle. The building suffered a series of assaults in the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1602 Cormac McDermot Carthy, Lord of Muscry was arrested by the government authorities and the castle besieged, during which time it caught fire. Then in 1650 Boetius MacEgan, Bishop of Ross who was a leading figure in the Confederate camp (and clearly not a pacifist) assembled a force at the castle which was set on fire rather than allow it fall into the hands of the approaching English Commonwealth army led by Roger Boyle Lord Broghill. In an ensuing battle the bishop was captured but promised his freedom if he persuaded the garrison of Carrigadrohid Castle to surrender: instead he exhorted those inside the castle to ‘Hold out to the last’ and was accordingly hanged from a nearby tree. Seemingly Macroom Castle was then burnt again by the New Model Army’s General Henry Ireton, presumably prior to his death after the Siege of Limerick in 1651. Macroom next passed briefly into the hands of Admiral Sir William Penn of whose son, the Quaker convert William Penn, would found the state of Pennsylvania in America in the 1680s. Meanwhile following the restoration of Charles II in 1660 Macroom had been restored to the McCarthys who renovated the castle before losing it again in 1691 owing to their allegiance to James II. The need for the English government to pay troops who had fought in Ireland led to the castle being sold at auction in 1703 when it was bought by that speculative entity the Hollow Sword Blade Company. In turn this organization resold it to lawyer and politician Francis Bernard (popularly known as Judge Bernard after he became a Judge on the Irish Court of Common Pleas). By the middle of the 18th century Macroom Castle was occupied by the Hedges Eyre family who acquired the building outright in the 19th century. When Robert Hedges Eyre died childless in 1840, Macroom was inherited by his cousin, the Hon William Henry Hare Hedges-White who, following the death of his elder brother twenty-eight years later, became third Earl of Bantry. In 1850 his eldest daughter, Lady Olivia Hedges-White was born in Macroom Castle which she eventually inherited.

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The town of Macroom effectively grew up around, and in order to service the needs of, the castle at its centre. However the advantageous location at a river crossing on the main route from east to west also helped to encourage development as a centre for commerce: seemingly the original market house was erected here by the McCarthys in 1620 (its sandstone successor, now the Town Hall, dates from two centuries later). Writing in 1837 Samuel Lewis described Macroom as consisting ‘of one principal street, nearly a mile in length, and towards the western extremity having a wider space, in which is the newly erected market-house, forming one side of a square, of which the opposite side is occupied by the hotel and the castle gateway: the inhabitants are supplied with water from springs and public pumps recently erected by subscription…There are no fixed sources of public amusement, but the town is frequently enlivened by the lovers of field sports and steeple chases, for which the neighbourhood is celebrated. There are two flour-mills and two tanyards at present in operation; and there were formerly a distillery and saltworks, which have been discontinued. The principal trade is in corn, which is brought into the town daily by the farmers, and purchased on account of the Cork merchants; the quantity sold during the year 1835 exceeded 39,000 barrels. The market is on Saturday, and is abundantly supplied with butchers’ meat, vegetables, and provisions at a moderate price; and from January till May there is a weekly market for pigs, many of which are slaughtered here and afterwards sent to Cork. From May till the end of the year, cattle fairs are held on the 12th of every month alternately in the town and at the village of Masseys-town, the property of Massey Hutchinson Massey, Esq., a little to the southwest.’
Masseytown mentioned above is a district to the immediate west of the Sullane that includes a particularly charming terrace of houses dating from the early 1860s; these are overlooked by the fine limestone courthouse with central Venetian window. The building probably dates from the 1820s, as does the Church of Ireland across the river which was designed by George Pain. Most of the houses in the immediate vicinity likewise were erected in the first half of the 19th century when the mud cabins hitherto occupied by many of Macroom’s residents were replaced by the present structures.

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Nothing better represents Macroom’s current state than the condition of its castle remains. The building which had already survived so much damage over the previous centuries, was burnt one last time by Anti-Treaty forces in 1922 and two years later the castle and demesne were sold by the widowed Lady Ardilaun (previously Lady Olivia Hedges-White) to a group of local businessmen. The structure survived until the 1960s but so poorly supported that the greater part of it then had to be demolished. What remains is a section of the western wall with a three-stage square tower at its north-west corner, the whole perched above the river and providing a dramatic view from the other side of the bridge, not dissimilar to that at Lismore with the castle above the Blackwater. But unlike Lismore what remains of Macroom Castle appears as insufficiently maintained, and as vulnerable to demolition, as what has already been lost. So too do the buildings directly below it, several of which are now vacant (a not uncommon condition throughout the town). Likewise the early 19th century Church of Ireland directly across the road to the castle: this is now boarded up and its stained glass windows in perilous condition (several have already been broken). Two years ago the National Roads Authority controversially tacked a pedestrian crossing onto the old stone bridge: while such a facility was obviously necessary, its siting and design (or want of same) took no account of the historical context. The same is true elsewhere in the town. Visitors passing through the old castle gates on the square will not find open parkland but a series of ugly buildings developed from the 1930s onwards as a secondary school: again no doubt an important facility for the townspeople but the location is ill-chosen, particularly when in the background can be seen the remnants of the castle falling into irreparable decrepitude. An opportunity to exploit the castle’s significant history, not least to American visitors thanks to a link with William Penn, remains grossly unexploited. But this is the case throughout Macroom, a town that markets itself as a tourism destination and then does little to encourage tourists to linger. No wonder those bus passengers soon climbed back onboard and drove away.

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