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…

9 comments on “Spectacle as Drama

  1. Dear Irish Aesthete – I am currently researching portrait and decorative marble terracotta and plaster busts of the early/mid 18th century. see – http://bathartandarchitecture.blogspot.co.uk/ The busts in these photographs are very interesting to me – do you know more? I am looking for more information on 18th century busts and their uses in Irish houses and would be most grateful for any suggestions.

  2. Perfection. Exactly the sort of post to lift the spirits on a dreary Monday morning when the mundane tasks of the week loom over one.

    The Bibiena were quite something. I recall being shown some framed watercolours at the Soane Museum (by a more than usually accommodating room custodian) which were concealed, most times, behind one of those clever panels in the Picture Room. Precisely ‘which’ of the Bibiena’s work was displayed there I cannot say, but they were executed with astonishing freedom.

    Charles VI’s advice to Farinelli, about reaching the heart without resorting to vocal pyrotechnics, ought to be taught to anyone who takes the stage, be it cabaret artistes or opera singers–though admittedly, one does occasionally wish to be thrilled to the marrow by vocal skills.

    Lastly, the way in which the Bibiena were woven into imagery of the double height entrance hall at Gloster, County Offaly, seems to me a brilliant example of associative thinking, for want of a better term. Many thanks for this particular treat.

  3. lawrieweed says:

    This truly one of the most beautiful rooms ever!

  4. Kevin-Andrew says:

    The rooms have an ethereal quality to them. Quite lovely.

  5. stunning details, loving your blog. Miriam

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