Teatro all’Antica in Sabbioneta: the first permanent theater of the modern era
The concept of the ideal city first flourished in ancient times, but it was in the Renaissance that it became the focus of debate and came to be seen as the hub of human activity. This theme brought forth a series of proposals, some utopian in nature, conceptualized in famous paintings such as the one displayed at the National Gallery of Marche, in Urbino, while other proposals were more concrete and realistic, including Sabbioneta, a small town not far from Mantua.
The city dates back to Roman times, but was transformed through a project by Duke Vespasiano Gonzaga who, from 1554 to 1591 (the year of his death), created a polygon-shaped ring wall, with only two gates, to encircle the city. Inside the bastions, along the symmetrical layout of streets and squares, he planned a series of buildings, decorated with elaborate fresco cycles, and monuments with antique statues and sculptures, which made the small city center a fine example of urban planning in the classical style, particularly Roman.
Teatro all’Antica, literally, “Theater in the style of the ancients”, is one of the best examples of this period, which lasted slightly more than thirty years and still evokes a certain unique aura. It is a symbolic building in which Vespasiano was keenly interested, and embodies the Lord’s strength and the apotheosis of his power. In one of the many strange twists in the history of art, it is similar to buildings from the Veneto region. The reason is as follows. In 1587, during an official visit to Venice, Vespasiano met Vincenzo Scamozzi, the architect who completed the Teatro Olympico in Vicenza after Andrea Palladio’s death.
Vespasiano decided to commission him for a permanent theater. This was a new and bold idea, in a period in which shows were staged in streets, squares or in front of churches. The project was presented in June 1588 and took nearly two years to complete. It became the first permanent theater in modern Europe, in other words, not built on a previous building that had carried out the same function.
The Duke was able to enjoy his success for only a few months, as he died in 1591.
The theater’s exterior is simple and harmonious. Looking from the first floor to the second floor, you can see a string-course with the Latin inscription “Roma quanta fuit ipsa ruina docet” or “Rome’s ruins reveal its greatness”, a nod to the project’s inspiration. In the area below, the windows are encircled with polished ashlars, while the upper part offers classical stylistic elements, with pediments and niches that once held statues.
The inside of the theater is surprisingly vibrant, recalling the splendor of the past without confining it in a display case, but rather lets it breathe as if it were here in the present with us, in a sort of time continuum.
The structure is classical with a semi-circular cavea (the seating area in ancient theaters), an orchestra and a stage, but at the same time, adds modern elements such as the foyer in the entrance area, and the changing areas for the performers.
The theater has a raised dais, at the back of which was a permanent backdrop envisaged by Scamozzi, which was destroyed in the second half of the 1700. Scholars were able to determine what the architect had planned, an urban landscape featuring a street lined with elegant houses and buildings.
A curtain connected the original stage to the ceiling, which is today made of wooden trusses. The roof was itself a remarkable set design. It was conceived as an upside-down hull to which a false, vaulted ceiling was added made from woven reeds, plastered and painted a light blue, to give the impression of being under the sky.
As was previously pointed out, the theater’s style was similar to that found in the Veneto region, and many of the artisans who worked on the murals were from this region as well. Painters from Paolo Veronese’s workshop created the frescoes. In fact, the frescoes featuring various individuals in the upper part of the theater could have been taken directly from a villa in Veneto.
The open gallery with trabeated beams that support twelve statues of Olympian deities is also impressive. Several Roman emperors are portrayed on the wall between the columns. In the center, Vespasiano is depicted in a strategic location, in accordance with the seat that the Duke would have occupied in the theater.
The link with ancient Rome is further emphasized by two urban scenes, one of Campidoglio square and the other of Castel Sant’Angelo.
An interesting detail is the celebration of Vepasiano’s personal physician, depicted in his office and famous for having drilled a hole in the Duke’s head to alleviate his migraines. Amazingly, the Duke survived this rather unorthodox treatment.
As noted above, Vespasiano did not get a chance to enjoy his theater and after his death, the city fell into a gradual decline. After its opening in February 1590, the theater was used as a military barracks and warehouse, was flooded by nearby rivers and in the 1950s became a cinema. Finally, in the 1980s, there was an initiative to restore it to its original splendor, a splendor which continues to reward those who enter it.