Renaissance Theatre: Italy


         Wilson and Goldfarb. Theatre: The Lively Art, 7th edition: Chapter 13, pages 274 - 282.

Outside reading...
         Barnard Hewitt, editor. The Renaissance Stage: Documents of Serlio, Sabbattini and Furttenbach. Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press. 1958.

         Claudio Monteverdi. Orfeo
         Giuseppe Verdi. Aida

1. When was the Italian renaissance?

1400 to 1620.

2. What was the Commedia dell'arte?

A Comedia Performance
The commedia, the "comedy of professional artists," was the popular theatre of Renaissance Italy.

3. How did it differ from other theatre groups?

There were no scripts. All of the dialogue and much of the business was improvised.

4. What type of comedy did the commedia perform?

Farce. Low comedy. Comedy of pain. Slapstick. Four names for the same type of humor.

5. Why is physical comedy also known as slapstick comedy?

Much of the humor in a commedia presentation was produced by one character beating another. The prop used to administer these beatings was called a batacchio or bataccio -- a "slapstick" in English. It was supposed to produce more sound than pain.

6. What was the scenario?

The plot outline posted back stage.


Bits of comic business, performed by the actors, which were inserted into the play. The specific lazzi to be performed was often indicated in the scenario.

7. Why can many of the commedia's lazzi not be used on stage today?

Because many of these bits, especially those dealing with bodily functions would be considered obscene, or at least in bad taste, by a modern audience.

8. Describe the stock characters used by the commedia.

The Straights
The straights-- A pair of young lovers. They were handsome, well-educated and witty. The dapper young man was usually opposed in his love affair by one of the masters (or perhaps his father). The young lady was sophisticated, noble and innocent.

The character roles were divided into two major groups --

The Masters and...

Il Capitano
Il Capitano-- a pompous braggart and coward who boasted of his great prowess in love and battle, but was usually discredited in both.

Pantalone-- a greedy, lustful, meddling old man. Often a merchant.

Il Dottore-- often a friend of Pantalone. He was a professor (or physician) who spouted inaccurate Latin. His standard dress was the academic cap and gown.

The Servants.

Il Zanni
There were at least two servants or zanni. One smart and one less smart. The less smart servant was usually an insolent liar, thief and/or drunkard. Much (perhaps most) of the humor came through the actions of the servants. The stock comedia characters, in their traditional costumes, can be seen in the painting on page 277.

9. How do these characters compare with those used by Plautus?

The stock characters of the commedia were very similar to the characters which appeared in Plautus' Roman comedies.

10. What was the commedia's influence on Moliere and Shakespeare?

Both Moliere (France: 1622-1673) and Shakespeare (England: 1564-1616) borrowed (or stole) both characters, bits of comic business (lazzi) and plots from the commedia. Moliere's The Doctor in Spite of Himself is based on a commedia scenario. There are scenes in Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew and All's Well That Ends Well that come directly from the commedia.

11. What was the first Opera?

Jacopo Peri
Dafne (1597), text by Ottavio Rinuccini (1562-1621), music by Jacopo Peri (1561-1633) was staged during the pre-Lenten Carnival at Palazzo Corsi. Rincuccini's text (but not Peri's music), which included a prologue and six scenes, was published in 1600.

     What group produced it?

The Camerata Fiorentina, an association (or "academy") of wealthy Italians who studied the arts (including music and drama) of ancient Greece and Rome.

     In what city were they located?

The Firenze Cathedral
Firenze, or Florence in English, was the center of medieval trade and finance and was one of the wealthiest cities of the time. This northern Italian town is considered by many to be the birthplace of the Renaissance.

12. What were they attempting to do?

Recreate an "authentic Greek tragedy." They knew from Aristotle that music was a major part of Greek drama. But they did not know what ancient Greek music sounded like, so they created their own, which was probably more Renaissance than Greek. The earliest surviving opera is Peri's setting of Rinuccini's Euridice which was performed for the marriage of King Henry of Navarre to Marie de Medici at the Medici's Palazzo Pitti in Florence on October 6, 1600. Unlike Dafne, the score for Euridice was published in 1601.

13. Who do most music historians consider the first great opera composer?

Claudio Monteverdi
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), a court composer from Mantua. His first opera, Orfeo (1607), like both Dafne and Euridice were adaption of Greek legends.

14. What changes did he make in the original musical style of opera?

He increased the size and importance of the orchestra. He established a formula which would be followed into the 20th century. This formula divided an opera into two units: One was musical and consisted of solos, duets, trios, and choruses; the other was dramatic and consisted of chanted, semi-sung, dialogue. The musical part gave the show color, and helped establish characters; the dramatic part moved the "play" along, relating the action of the opera to the audience.

15. What is the difference between an aria and a recitative?

Aria-- A solo sung by one of the opera's major characters.

Recitative-- The chanted dialogue which joined the opera's musical moments.

16. Who is the most often produced opera composer on the stage of Metropolitan Opera in New York City?

Giuseppe Verdi
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901).

    In which century did he live?


    Where was he from?

Italy. He was born in Parma and died in Milan, the home of Teatro alla Scala (La Scala Opera)

17. What opera did he compose for the opening of the Cairo Opera House?

Aida (1871). It is probably his most famous, and grandest opera. It is also one of the few, perhaps only, Verdi opera which is not based on an earlier drama. It was an original story drawn from Egypt's colorful history.

18. Who was Richard Wagner?

Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883) was a German composer who believed that opera should be a "total art work." He created music dramas (not operas), based on Teutonic myths and legends, which unified the elements of music, drama, design and movement. In Wagner's music drama, there was no longer a distinction between a recitative and an aria, instead there was one long continuous melody line. In his later work, these melody lines were created by combining musical themes (motifs) which represented different characters, objects, and emotions in the drama.

19. What is a leitmotif?

Leitmotif is a clearly defined musical theme, representing a person, object or idea, which appears at the appropriate moment in a dramatic (usually an opera or film) work. In addition to the music dramas of Wagner, leitmotifs can be seen in John Williams' scores for the three Indiana Jones and six Star Wars films.

20. What is considered Wagner's masterpiece?

Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876). The "Ring" is actually four music dramas: Das Rheingold ("Rhinegold"), Die Walkure ("The Valkyries"), Siegfried and Gotterdammerung ("The Twilight of the Gods") with a combined playing time of seventeen hours. Wagner began working on Rheingold in November 1851 and finished Gotterdammerung, the last of the series, in November 1874. The premiere performance in August 1876 was on the stage of Wagner's just opened opera house (Festspielhaus) in Bayreuth.

21. Who was Marcus Vitruvius Pollio?

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, better known as Vitruvius (90-20 BCE) was a Roman writer, architect and military engineer who we believe served both Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus.

     What was the title of his most influencial work?

de Architectura libri decem (ca. 27 BCE) -- "The Ten Books on Architecture" -- describe existing Roman and Greek practices, not only in design and construction, but also in engineering. His ten books include topics on the manufacture of building materials, machines for heating water for the public baths, speech amplification in the theatre, and the design of roads and bridges. Book V covers public buildings including both Greek (Chapter 7) and Roman (Chapter 6) theatres. In the text he not only describes the buildings, but gives advice on how they should be built:
I have therefore given such definite directions for the conduct of works, that those already executed, as well as those hereafter to be constructed, may be by you well known and understood. In the following pages I have developed all the principles of the art.
(Preface, Book I, Joseph Gwilt's translation, 1826).
Vitruvius' manuscript was rediscovered in 1415 and published, in Latin, in Rome in 1486. Daniele Barbaro's (1513-1570) Italian translation, published in Venice in 1556, contained 125 illustrations by Andrea Palladio (1508-1580). The effect this work had on Renaissance architecture is monumental.

22. What is the Teatro Olimpico?

Teatro Olimpico di Vicenza
Teatro Olimpico (1580 - 1584), a 3000 seat "academic" theatre, is the oldest surviving Renaissance playhouse. It is a combination of the old - a classical Roman facade (scaena frons) designed by Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) and the new -- a perspective vista of the seven road to Thebes -- designed by Palladio's student: Vincenzo Scamozzi (1552-1616). In the photo to the left, note the perspective vistas (street scenes) behind each of the archs, the level stage floor in front of the openings, the oval orchestra, and the steep cavea. Compare the Teatro Olimpico (the image on the left and the photograph on page 279) with the Roman Theatre at Orange (page 235) or the Teatro Romano di Volterra.

The Front Entrance to the Teatro Olimpico (left) and a Modern Performance on Stage (right).

A Floor plan (left) and Cross Section (right) of the Teatro Olimpico.

     Where is it located?


     What was the architect attempting to acomplish?

The architect, Andrea Palladio, was attempting to create for the Accademia Olimpica an accurate, miniature, indoor Roman theatre for the presentation of classical drama (Scamozzi's vistas were created for the 1585 Accademia production of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex). He based his design on Vitruvius' de Architectura, which he had illustrated in 1556 and his study of the ruins of Teatro Berga di Vicenza.

23. What is the relationship between the Teatro Olimpico and Teatro Olimpico di Sabbioneta?

Plan and Section
Teatro di Sabionetta
The Teatro di Sabbioneta (1588-1590) also known as the Teatro Olimpico di Sabbioneta and the Teatro all'Antica di Sabbioneta was designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi, the architect who created the perspective vistas for Palladio's Teatro Olimpico. This small, intimate, 250 seat playhouse contained only five rows in the cavea and a scenic vista containing a single street. It is generally believed that this playhouse is the first European indoor theatre built specifically as a theatre. (Teatro Olimpico was built into an existing structure.) Carved into the exterior facade of the playhouse is ROMA QUANTA FUIT IPSA RUINA DOCET (How great Rome has been herself the ruins teachs). Note in Scamozzi's plan and sectional study to the left the sharply raked stage floor and the location of the perspective vanishing point outside of the building.

The Cavea (left) and Stage (right) of the Teatro di Sabbioneta.

24. What is the importance of the Teatro Farnese? In what city was it located?

Teatro Farnese
The 3000 seat Teatro Farnese, the first permanent proscenium theatre, was built into the Great Hall (a former armoury) of the Palazzo della Pilotta in Parma for the 1618 visit of Cosimo II de' Medici. Because the visit was canceled, the first presentation on the stage, Monteverdi's Mercurio e Marte, was not given until December 1628. The theatre was used, primarily for offical state functions (such as a Royal wedding), for 104 years before being abandoned. The palazzo was almost completely destroyed by Allied bombs during World War II (1944). It was rebuilt, following Giovanni Battista Aleotti's (1546-1636) original plans in the 1950 and reopened in 1962. See the photograph of the Teatro Farnese auditorium on page 280. Link to a virtual tour of three Parma Theatres including Teatro Farnese.

The Cavea of the Teatro Farnese as seen from the Stage (left) and the Stage as seen from the rear of the house (right).

A Cross Section of the Teatro Farnese. Note that the theatre is on the second floor of the Palazzo.

All three Rennaisance theatres -- Teatro Olimpico di Vicenza, Teatro di Sabbioneta, and Teatro Farnese di Parma -- still exist.

25. Who was Sebastiano Serlio?

Serlio (1475-1554) was an Italian writer and court architect. He wrote one of the first stage craft manuals, Regole generali di architettura, (1545) which not only described the sets for three types of plays, but also gave instructions on how to lay out the theatre within a palace's great banqueting hall, create the perspective scene, light the set and seat the patrons.

26. In his book di Architettura he described and illustrated three sets which he believed could be used for all plays. What did they look like?

Serlio: Tragic Set
Tragedies-- Halls of government: Court buildings, war memorials, civil monuments...

Comedies-- Where the people live: Inns, guild halls, churches, homes...

Pastorals-- In the woods.

Serlio's Comic (left) and Pastoral Set (right).

     Who was Serlio's source?

Marcus Vitruvius. In Book Five of de Architectura he states (in Latin) ...
There are three sorts of scenes, the Tragic, the Comic, and the Satyric. The decorations of these are different from each other. The tragic scenes are ornamented with columns, pediments, statues, and of the royal decorations. The comic scene represents private buildings and galleries, with windows similar to those in ordinary dwellings. The satyric scene is ornamented with trees, caves, hills, and of the rural objects in imitation of nature.
(English translation by Joseph Gwilt, 1826)

27. Briefly describe how they were laid out.

All three used the same basic layout. There was a street center stage, with three "houses" on each side. At the back was a triumphal arch (in the tragic set), or an entrance to a church (in the comic set). A backdrop was hung upstage to hide the backwall. Scamozzi's vista for the Teatro di Sabbioneta is based on the writings / drawings of Serlio.

28. What is the difference between a wing, a border, and a backdrop?

Wing-- A piece of scenery (a wood frame covered with linen) on the side of the stage used to mask the side walls of the theatre.

Border-- A piece of scenery hung above the stage used to hide the rafters, pulleys, and ropes used to change the scenery.

Backdrop-- A large piece of scenery at the rear of the set used to mask the back wall. In many renaissance theatres the "backdrop" was actually a pair of shutters (a large wood frame covered with linen) which could split in the center for storage off stage.

Two Wing-Border-Backdrop style sets from the late 19th century. A woodlands scene on the left and King Salmon's Treasury on the right.
Each scenes is composed of a back drop up-stage, a portal (wing and border combined into one unit) down-stage and a cut drop (a full drop with openings) mid-stage. Note that in both scenes there is an entrance through the mid-stage drop just beyond the center line.

29. Who were the first stagehand to work an Italian renaissance theatre?

Italian sailors. Much of theatrical terminology (Deck instead of floor; ladder instead of steps; line instead of rope; batten instead of pipe; shivs instead of pulley) comes from the sea.

E-mail questions and comments to Larry Wild at
Last updated: October 25, 2011
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Larry Wild, Northern State University, Aberdeen, SD 57401