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Eleanor Selfridge-Field. The Calendar of Venetian Opera. Song and Season: Scientific culture and theatrical time in Early Modern Venice.

Eleanor Selfridge-Field. The Calendar of Venetian Opera. Song and Season: Scientific culture and theatrical time in Early Modern Venice. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2007. 394 pp. $60.00. Review by R. BURR LITCHFIELD, BROWN UNIVERSITY.

This is a very detailed and interesting study of the Venetian theatrical year in its different genres in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries: improvised comedy (Commedia del Arte), opera, opera buffa, scripted comedy, and musical performances. The main subject is presented in the context of ancillary subjects, where the details sometimes go beyond what is needed to support the main theme, but which are also interesting. About the first third of the book is devoted to the cultural relativity of marking time from place to place in pre-modern Europe. The ancient world had a tendency to begin the calendar year in the spring, in March; although the ancient Hebrews preferred the fall. The revised calendar of Julius Caesar began the year in January, just after the winter solstice and the re-birth of the sun. However, despite the reform and reinvigoration of the Julian calendar by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, the March convention continued. Much of Italy began the calendar year on March 25th (the Annunciation) into the eighteenth century. The Venetian calendar year began on March 1st.

The calendar year, however, was supplemented by the civil political year of the Senate and the Consiglio Maggiore, which met in the mornings in summer and in the afternoons in winter; the annual villeggiatura of the Consiglio Maggiore began about St. Luke's day in October and lasted until the beginning of Advent. The Church liturgical year began after St. Andrew's day (November 30th) with its typical "seasons": Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and Ascension, punctuated by saint's days, some celebrated only "in chiesa" and others publicly "in piazza." The accounting year began at the start of Lent; agricultural wages were paid after plowing in the spring and after harvesting in the fall. Daily hours of the academic school year were longer in summer than in winter. The wages of opera singers were paid at the beginning of Lent; theatrical contracts were negotiated in the spring. During the day, Venice observed the 24 "Italian hours" beginning the new day at sunset, which meant that it had to be advanced or delayed every two weeks to account for the changing setting of the sun-acceptance of Greenwich Mean Time did not begin to spread in England and later in Europe until the 1880s. There were large public clocks, but few private clocks, and hours were divided into fractions, minutes appearing only in the eighteenth century. Thus Venetian time was marked by a cacophony of bells of different institutions. (Did the bell ringers use hour glasses to know when to ring them?)

Although there were other earlier and continuing performance spaces, theatres began in the 1630s with the Teatro di San Cassiano (1637) and the Teatro di SS. Giovanni e Paolo (1639) where Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea was presented in 1642. Selfridge-Field provides details about more than ten of these, ranging in seating capacity from 197 down to 107 boxes or less. They were mostly under the patronage of noble families; the Teatro La Fenice (1792) was sponsored by an academy. A mean of six theatres a year were open concurrently in the 1680s, four and a half in the 1740s. When theatres could open was regulated by the Council of Ten: a fall season around St. Luke's day in October to St. Martin's day in November, a plethora of openings at St. Stephen's day (January 26th), many theatrical performances during Carnival, and another short season at Ascension. There could be other brief "carnivals" on special occasions, as for the election of a new Doge. Musical presentations: oratorios and cantatas (sung by nuns in ospedali), motets and serenades, could be presented throughout the year. Carnival-time expanded from just a week before Shrove Tuesday in the sixteenth century to as much as two months beginning in early January, depending on the beginning of Lent, in the eighteenth century. Theatrical genres were somewhat seasonal, comedies being popular in the late fall, operas in the winter, and comedies again in the spring. Genres evolved. Improvised comedies were popular in the seventeenth century, but gave way increasingly to operas, especially with the classicizing influence of the Roman Arcadia in the 1690s. Opera buffa was introduced by a Neapolitan company in the 1730s. The calendar of the Parisian theatrical season was similar to the Venetian one. Under French influence, improvised comedies gave way to scripted comedies in the eighteenth century, particularly through the satirical comedies of Carlo Goldoni, who was very influential from the 1730s until his departure to Paris in 1762, and through the fairy tale comedies of Carlo Gozzi.

The content of productions is viewed through a lengthy separate assessment of gazettes and avvisi (that takes up a tenth of the book), but content does not seem to have varied much predictably by season. There was a liking for subjects that memorialized the successes of the Venetian Republic, but the author confesses "Subjects were chosen at the discretion of the librettist, impresario, or theatre owner" (356). There does not seem to have been much censorship by the Council of Ten, although more attention might be given in this work to attempts at clerical censorship. For instance, Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea has a definitely pornographic content, something that might have been more difficult to present under the influence of the Jesuits, who the Republic reluctantly allowed into Venice in the 1660s.

With the end of the Republic in 1797, and the final establishment of Austrian rule in 1814, things changed. Already in the eighteenth century Venetian time was becoming more similar to time elsewhere in Europe. Observation of the transit of Venus in 1761 cast doubt on the validity of "Italian hours." From the 1760s Venice began to observe the beginning of the year according to the Julian/Gregorian calendar on January 1st. Also, the theatrical season lengthened. Carnival began to extend into Lent (Giuseppe Verdi's Ernani was first presented on 9 March 1844 at La Fenice, and his Simon Boccanegra was first presented there on 12 March 1857); Ascension-time lengthened too. The author concludes: "In contrast to the measurement of time, which became progressively more precise, theatrical time remained necessarily vague" (357). This book will be of interest to anyone interested in Venetian theatre. And we still today have an opera season that extends from the mid-fall into the mid-spring.
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Author:Litchfield, R. Burr
Publication:Seventeenth-Century News
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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