Showtime, Venetian Style

Theatre in Lagoon land

Ludwig Passini, Venetian Procession

It has always been a place of artifice, where even the natural has a sprinkling of stage dust. It glitters. The houses and churches have the air of stage properties, sited for the convenience of the eye. The arches and the stairs are mere effects. The palace of the doge, and the basilica of Saint Mark, take their place before the proscenium of Saint Mark's Square.Peter Ackroyd, Venice: Pure City

Venice played a key role in the evolution of modern European theatre. The elaborate ceremonials surrounding the Doge, especially the Marriage to the Sea and religious processions were pure stage play.

Artists such as Gentile Bellini not only recorded events in the city but designed temporary stage sets, triumphal arches, ornate barges and other essentials for pageants and receiving VIPS from abroad. The state was always keen to impress and put on a good show, knowing full well that tales of its opulence and wealth would spread far and wide. The reception accorded the visiting Henry III of France in 1573 has gone down as the most over the top in history.

If the city was a stage, each citizen of the Serenissima had a role to play and dressed accordingly. Everyone was immediately recognizable by their clothes: from the doge (the only Venetian allowed to wear gold) and patricians in their long black gowns and the senators in sombre purple to the red and yellow authorized for prostitutes. There is an innate theatricality to the Venetian school of painting, from the staged city scenes by Gentile Bellini to the majestic stage settings of Veronese and Tiepolo.

In the mid-15th century, clubs of young nobles called calza (named after the jewels and pearls sewn on the right leg of their hose or calza), would put on theatrical performances for weddings and other festivities. But everyone could join in, and did, at Carnival, when one of the great joys was the freedom to don a mask and play at being someone else: a foreigner, perhaps, or a stock character out of the Commedia dell'Arte, the improvised theatre that emerged in Venice in the 1500s.

In 1565, the first prose theatre since ancient times was built in Venice; by 1700 the city had 18 full-blown public theatres, three times as many as much, much larger London. The Venetians were mad for drama, but rarely sat entranced by the plots; they chatted, visited, spat and gambled. The gondoliers who would be ferrying them home after the performances were admitted for free and were often paid to applaud or boo certain actors. Huge cheers would ring out whenever Venice was mentioned in a play. Comedies were greatly preferred to tragedies. The city's greatest playwrights, the two rival Carlos, Goldoni and Gozzi brought the local theatre to its summit in the 18th century.

Theatre combined with Venice's other great passion, music made it Europe's capital of opera. In 1663, the Tron family opened the first public opera house in the world, in Campo San Cassiano. By 1700 there were seven active opera houses. The last to be built, and rebuilt, and rebuilt again, La Fenice is true to its name and still going strong.

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