By Nicholas DiBella
The Teatro Olimpico was Palladio’s last project he worked on before his death in 1580. The theater is also one of the only surviving examples of a renaissance theater. Theaters of the renaissance were not typically permanent structures but were temporary. The temporary structures were only setup in the nicer times of the year when it was not too hot, nor too cold for plays to be held in open air. The theater was commissioned by the Accademia Olimpica, a group of intellectuals comprised of twenty-one citizens. This Accademia Olimpica was in need of a place to hold meetings, concerts and plays all in the name of cultivation of the arts. The Accademia was located in Vicenza, Italy and needed a place to call its own instead of continuing to use the palazzi of its members to host meetings and gatherings. One of the prime members of the group was the first to suggest that a theater be built, that man was Palladio himself, who would end up designing the theater. Palladio was well known in the 1580s by the city of Vicenza, due to the fact that he designed twenty-two other buildings in and around the town. Palladio had designed a few theaters before the Teatro Olimpico but none were permanent structures. It was commissioned to be the first permanent Renaissance theatre, and Palladio was tasked by the Accademia Olimpica with drawing upon his extensive knowledge of ancient Roman architecture to create a classical Roman-styled theatre adapted to a restrictive setting as well as to the innovative times of the Renaissance. This building fuses ancient Roman concepts, strict Vitruvian rules, Palladian style, and it does it in a unique existing building. This study will analyze the Teatro’s physical site limitations, its stylistic inspiration, and its main quality, the perspective views, which brought it to the present times of the Renaissance.
The Teatro Olimpico was Palladio’s last building that he worked on before his death, so it can be assumed that when Palladio was tasked by the Accademia Olimpica to have the theatre built, it was well known that Palladio was well-versed in Roman architecture. By this time, Palladio had already illustrated parts of Daniele Barbaro’s translation of Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture, which was an increasingly popular text among Renaissance architects. His earlier works were known to be heavily influenced by classical Roman style to the point of imitation, but by the time he was commissioned for Teatro Olimpico, he had moved more towards adapting strict classical ideas to fit his own personal taste. “He never lost sight of Vitruvian doctrine or Roman vocabulary in his post 1565 designs; however, his handling of the elements gained a more personalized identity.”1 The Accademia Olimpica did, however, ask for a classical, Roman-style theatre, so a stricter interpretation is likely was what expected of him.
The Teatro Olimpico was commissioned to be the first permanent Renaissance theater, as other Renaissance theaters at the time were intentionally built to be temporary. The Teatro was allocated the space inside of a building that used to be an abandoned fortress and prison, so the existing space had some limits. Inside this space, “Palladio was asked to design an antique theatre in the best humanistic-archaeological manner.”2 There are some differences in shape and proportion in Palladio’s design of the Teatro than what Vitruvius wrote, and these differences will be examined further on. Some scholars believe that the differences are the result of mistaken interpretations that Palladio had of some of Vitruvius’ writings. It is possible, however, that these differences were fully intentional on Palladio’s part, and that they were choices made as a way of adapting the ideals of Roman theatres into the restricted indoor space that was provided to him. The former fortress was not the traditional open-air setting for which Roman theatres were designed. The limitations set upon Palladio could easily have led Palladio to seek out even less-conventional ways of applying Roman inspiration to this space that would otherwise feel small and tight.
The physical space that was originally made available to Palladio could not suffice alone. Palladio had a large portion of a wall be demolished in order to make room for the stage. The room that now contains the auditorium has a trapezoidal shape to it, but the exterior walls were left unchanged, and the auditorium seats were tightly fit into the space contained by the trapezoid (Fig 2). Once the space for the stage was freed up from the demolishing of the large wall, Palladio constructed the main wall for the frons scaenae (meaning the permanent architecturally decorated Roman theater stage backdrop) six meters back on the stage. There was an existing wall that provided enclosure on the left side of the stage. Palladio must have seen this as a useful characteristic because he kept that wall and even added a similar wall to the other side of the stage.3 While there are questions about whether the elliptical shape of the auditorium was a mistaken attempt to imitate Vitruvius’ writings, it seems likely upon viewing the plan of the space that Palladio’s choice was the maximize seating space within the walls provided. That is not to say that Palladio would not have preferred to have a semi-circular auditorium. The narrow nature of the space in 1580 “which compelled Palladio to make his auditorium elliptical certainly did not permit him to entertain ideas of stupendous illusionistic effects – even if the grant of additional land, made in 1582, could be foreseen.”4 The space was surely so limiting that some compromises had to be made, even if some differences were intentional.
Classical Roman Inspiration (Ornamentation & Construction)
Palladio was likely chosen to be the architect of Teatro Olimpico because of his extensive research and studies on Roman architecture. Palladio knew exactly how Roman theaters were designed and constructed by the time he was commissioned for this project. At this point in his career, if he was designing a theater, he chose to use Roman theaters as inspiration while making adaptations that were more appropriate for the site and for more modern theater. After becoming well-versed in Roman architecture, Palladio came to use that knowledge to see ways of “organizing and integrating complexes of spaces and masses, especially in patterns grouped about a central axis composed of major spaces.”5 He used the knowledge as a framework on which to base his work. There are claims that “he saw only what, and how, he wanted. He could be irrational, using elements of ancient architecture pictorially rather than tectonically.”6 These claims are based on the assumption that Palladio was blind to an entire side of Roman architecture, but it is more likely that he understood it all and decided for himself which aspects he wanted to follow or which aspects make more sense to follow given his current project. While Palladio became much more likely to adapt classical ideas to current times, with this particular project, his “problem is to create a theatre that shall be an organic spatial structure; and to do it in Roman terms.”7
One aspect of Roman architecture that Palladio brought into the Teatro Olimpico in a more pictorial way than in a tectonic way is the triumphal arch. The center of his frons scaenae is a “true and formal triumphal arch: it records in its reliefs the triumph of Hercules, the triumph of Virtue over the Vices.”8 Palladio utilizes the triumphal arch as a sort of replacement to the typical proscenium-frame (meaning the central arched opening found in ancient Roman theaters) wall separation on the stage. This use of the triumphal arch has turned out to be a beneficial adaptation of Roman architectural ideas to the Renaissance use for the building, as it allows the stage to breathe between spaces upstage and downstage.
Another aspect of Roman architecture, or rather Vitruvian architecture, that Palladio brought into the Teatro Olimpico is proportion. The concept of proportion was used in ancient Roman architecture as general rules of thumb, providing general frameworks upon which to build. Roman architecture itself was often not precise with proportion, as context for the buildings often led to adaptations on architects’ and builders’ parts. Vitruvian architecture, however, is a strict attempt at summarizing these ancient Roman techniques that proved useful. Vitruvius, in his writings, specifies numerical proportions that certain building types must follow. What Palladio has done, whether intentionally or not, is break off from strict Vitruvian architect in probably the same way that Romans broke away from their rules of thumb. Palladio respects Vitruvius’ proportions with height of scenes and arcades, but other proportions are considerably different (Fig 4).
Fusion with Renaissance Art (Stage Fusion)
The original land acquired for the theatre’s construction was ceded in February of 1580, and construction began in March of 1580. Palladio passed away that same year in August, before the land for the back section of the theatre was acquired in 1981.9 After Palladio’s passing, architect, writer, and pupil of Palladio, Vincenzo Scamozzi inherited the remaining work on the Teatro Olimpico. Scamozzi was the designer of the vanishing perspective views which famously stand behind the frons scaenae as a backdrop and as stage entrances and exits. Perspective views as an art form are one of the most well-known innovations to come out of the Renaissance, so the incorporation of perspective views into theatre was clearly not a characteristic of classical Roman theatres.
The use of the concept of perspectives in theatre was not brand new in the Renaissance. Previously to the Teatro Olimpico, there were theatres which used a solid background with a perspective view painted onto it. Scamozzi’s execution of a vanished perspective taking physical space more as a set than a backdrop was a new way of incorporating the perspective, “for this was the first time in a century that the making of a theatres had been seen this way. Until now the problem had been one for painters and scene-designers.”10 What the world has ended up with now is this metamorphosis of Palladio’s Roman-inspired yet modern adaptation of a theatre with Vincenzo Scamozzi’s illusionistic perspective as an even more boundary-pushing abstraction of Vitruvius’ ideals. This theatre, while too modern to be completely classical, and too classical to be completely modern, “still displays – though the terms of the relationship have changed – that fusion of the illusionistic and the formalistic that characterizes the Vitruvian theatre.”11
Palladio’s arrangements of the theater plan and the frons scaenae are some of the driving factors that made the space notable. The taxis of the plan of the theater radiates out from the center point where the main axes intersect. The intersection of the axes happens at the front of the stage where the central perspective aligns with the edge of the stage. The columns that define the extents of the audience radiate from that central point. The main perspective of the theater and the two perspectives on the extents of the frons scaenae focus in on the same point. The radiation of the elements from the central point makes the interior space feel circular, like the ancient theaters of Rome, even though this theater was built in a rectilinear existing building.
Palladio took the traditional ideals of Roman order and used them in a mannerist style. In section, the building follows an a|B|B|B|A|B|B|B|a pattern, and Palladio continued that pattern in the elevation of the frons scaenae as well. This pattern split the theater elevation into three parts, which was also done in ancient Roman theaters. Palladio continued the idea of a pattern using three elements in the scaenae. However, unlike in Roman theaters, the genera of the Teatro Olimpico creates order by starting with Corinthian columns on the first level of the scaenae. On the second level the Corinthian columns begin to flatten into Corinthian pilasters and then finally become quasi-Doric columns on the third level. Palladio’s understanding of original Roman ideals of taxis, genera, and figure allowed him to take the design of the theater into a mannerist style while still being grounded in traditional ideals of theater design.
We will never know what Palladio himself was thinking. He was not, however, an architect
with just one note. He was highly experienced by the time he was designing the Teatro Olimpico, so his plans for the theater could not have just been an attempt at copying someone else’s ideas. By breaking out of the rules implicated by Vitruvius, Palladio expressed classical Roman ideals in a larger sense while adapting to a non-traditional setting. The Teatro ties a Roman past into the Renaissance present with the perspective artwork, making it an overall diverse piece of architecture. The fact remains that it is one of the only remaining examples of a Renaissance theater, so it should never stop being analyzed and rethought in the same way that the Renaissance rethought and analyzed Roman art and architecture.
1. Oosting, J. Thomas. “The Teatro Olimpico Design Sources: A Rationale for the Elliptical Auditorium.” Educational Theatre Journal 22, no. 3 (1970): 263. Accessed October 31, 2020.
2. Oosting, “The Teatro Olimpico Design Sources” 263.
3. Guido Beltramini, Howard Burns, Centro internazionale di studi di architettura “Andrea Palladio” di Vicenza, and Royal Academy of Arts. (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2008).
4. Magagnato, Licisco. “The Genesis of the Teatro Olimpico.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 14, no. 3/4 (1951): 217, http://proxy-um.researchport.umd.edu/login?url=https://www.jstor.org/stable/750339 (Accessed October 31, 2020)
5. Ackerman, James S. 1966. Palladio. (Harmondsworth: Penguin) 182.
6. Ackerman, Palladio, 182.
7. Magagnato, “The Genesis of the Teatro Olimpico.” 217.
8. Magagnato, “The Genesis of the Teatro Olimpico.” 216.
9. Oosting, “The Teatro Olimpico Design Sources” 264.
10. Magagnato, “The Genesis of the Teatro Olimpico.” 214.
11. Magagnato, “The Genesis of the Teatro Olimpico.” 218.