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The upper inner stage in the illusionistic theatre.


At the invocation of the two goddesses, clouds drifted in from all sides, splitting open in the centre to give a view of a golden palace studded with jewels in Doric, Ionic, and Roman architecture. It had, in front, a roofed courtyard with steps at the sides and long rows of columns that seemed to support, under plain arches, a construction of great height (Worsthorne 1984, 180.)

Bellerofonte, Act II, Scene 3

The libretti and other descriptions of many of the spectacular productions in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries included the display of large scenic units or of many gods revealed in the heavens. Etchings and drawings of some productions illustrate these spectacular effects. Figure 1 shows the palace in the clouds from Act II, scene 3, of Giacomo Torelli's design for Bellerofonte. Similar effects were presented to audiences as early as 1589. At the end of La Pellegrina, a comedy with intermezzi, produced at the Teatro Mediceo for the wedding of Duke Ferdinand de Medici and Christine of Lorraine, the stage was filled with clouds and then "the heavens opened revealing a consistory of some twenty pagan deities ..." (Nagler 1964, 89). Ser Jacopi, the engineer entrusted with the supervision of the technical production, recorded that the crew "stood ready by the grooves in which the shutter was pushed to expose the central opening in the heavens" (Nagler 1964, 78).


From the descriptions of the heavens or shutters opening, it is apparent that this effect took place on the inner stage. The inner stage (prospetta) was located upstage behind the shutters that closed the main performance area. The inner stage was used primarily to extend the perspective scene or to preset spectacular machinery that would be revealed to the audience. The inner stage was described or depicted in all of the books on theatres and stagecraft and shown in the collections of drawings of theatres that were published in the seventeenth century. However, none of these sources describe an upper level on the inner stage that could be used for these spectacular displays.


Both Nicola Sabbattini's 1638 Pratica di Fabricar Scene e Machine ne' Teatri (1) and Josef Furttenbach's 1640 Architectura Recreationis describe late sixteenth- or early seventeenthcentury stage houses. Although Sabbattini does not refer to an inner stage, he discusses several machines that are located behind the shutters. Unfortunately there are no full floor plans or sections in Sabbattini's Pratica (Hewitt 1958, 37 ff.) to show the size or details of the inner stage area. Josef Furttenbach, however, shows an inner stage area in his plans and sections in his 1640 Architectura Civili (Hewitt 1958, 184 ff.), but they do not include an upper inner stage. A computer model of the stage and scenery necessary for plays with intermezzi as described by Sabbattini are shown in figure 2. This reconstruction and the ones that follow have been simplified for clarity by removing the borders and overhead details.


Later in the seventeenth century Fabrizio Carini Motta described the construction of theatres in his 1676 Trattato sopra la struttura de' Theatri e scene and the theatrical machinery and stage house details in his Costruzione de teatri e macchine teatrali dated 1688. Like Sabbattini's stage, Motta's stage used shutters to close the rear of the scene (prospettiva). Motta does not refer to an inner stage, but a plan shows an area behind the rearmost shutter designated for manually placed wings to extend the perspective vista. His drawings do not show nor does he discuss an upper inner stage. Figure 3 is a computer model based upon Motta's instructions for his "ideal theatre." (2)




A series of drawings (3) of the 1688 Hannover Opera House published in the 1744-1748 Ausf[u..]rliche Anleitungen zur Burgerlichen Bau-Kunst "constitute the only complete sets of plans for an actual seventeenth-century opera house known to exist" (Ault 1992, 18). An inner stage area (hinterstage) behind the shutters was used for manually placed wings, but no upper inner stage is shown in the drawings. Figure 4 is a computer model based upon the Hannover Opera House drawings.

Another source, the 1688 travel journal of Nicodemus Tessin the Younger details several of the theatres and many machines in the Venetian opera houses. He described the manual placement of wings in the inner stage area, but he makes no mention of an upper inner stage. A more limited source, the floor plan and section of the seventeenth-century Venetian Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo, (4) shows an inner stage area, but again does not have any indication of an upper inner stage. No seventeenth-century stages have survived in their original form.

The eighteenth-century publications are no more helpful. The Encyclopedie, edited by Diderot and d'Alembert, details the stage house of the large 1770 Paris Opera. There was no inner stage or upper inner stage shown, although one plate identifies a room at the back of the stage that could be used to extend the perspective on the already very deep stage. The other major eighteenth-and nineteenth-century publications such as Dumont's Parallele des plans des plus belles salles d'Italie avec des details de machines the atrales (1763) and Contant and Filippi's Parallele des principaux the atres modernes de l'Europe et des machines the atrales francaises, allemandes et anglaises (1860) that detail theatres and their stage houses do not illustrate an upper inner stage in any of the many theatres depicted in the publications. A number of eighteenth-century court, monastery, and civic theatres have survived, but none of them have an upper inner stage. In fact, they do not have a significant inner stage area at all.

In spite of the fact that the major published sources from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries do not show or describe an upper inner stage, there are several unpublished manuscripts that do show it. The earliest technical drawings that show such an upper inner stage are for Florimene, a pastoral play with intermezzi, produced in the great hall in the Whitehall palace in London in 1634. The production was designed by Inigo Jones who gained much of his knowledge of spectacular production techniques while visiting Florence. Figure 5 is a computer model based upon the Florimene drawings in the Lansdowne manuscript in the British Library. It shows the permanent Serlian-style side wings and the shutters closing the rear of the scene. The floor level shutters were opened to reveal different relieve scenes (5) on the inner stage for the intermezzi. Above the inner stage was a seating area for the gods that could be revealed by opening the upper shutters. At the end of the play "the heavens open, and there appear many deities" (Orgel 1973, 635), much like the description of the intermezzi with La Pellegrina. A similar raised area is shown in John Webb's 1665 drawings for the Hall Theatre, but it is labeled "Musick" (Orrell 1985, 173). No later English theatre seems to include this feature or any type of upper inner stage.


Two manuscripts show the machinery and structure of the Venetian Teatro San Salvatore in 1675-76, but neither manuscript contains textual descriptions of the theatre. The most detailed manuscript is MS 3708 in the Biblioteca Palatina, Parma, which contains twenty-four drawings of scenes and fifteen drawings of stage machinery. Although the manuscript does not identify the production or the theatre, Cesare Molinari has made a convincing argument that eleven of the scenes and thirteen of the machinery drawings are for the production of La Divisione del Mondo, produced at the Teatro San Salvatore in Venice in 1675. (6)


Figure 6 is a view of the stage from this manuscript. In addition to the mechanized wing change, it also shows a large elevator behind the upstage shutters and an inner stage area with an upper inner stage. The front part of this upper stage could be raised like a drawbridge. Three other drawings in the manuscript also show the upper inner stage used in conjunction with various machines. Figure 7 is a computer model of the 1675 Teatro San Salvatore. The most impressive use of the upper inner stage in La Divisione del Mondo was for the finale. Figure 8 shows the celestial display for the finale of the opera, and figure 9 shows the stage right half of the machinery used to create the effect. The device consisted of a folding staircase, walkways, and an arc-shaped framework that were lowered into view as the curtain was raised to reveal the remainder of the display preset on the upper inner stage. Another drawing in the manuscript shows a brailed curtain that was probably used to reveal the upper inner stage. Another manuscript, entitled Dessins de decorations et de machineries pour le The atre San Salvatore, de Venise (1675), at the Bibliotheque-musee de l'Opera in Paris contains drawings of scenery and machinery for two operas, Germanico sul Reno and Adone in Cipro. A machinery drawing for the prologue of Germanico sul Reno shows an upper inner stage far in the background.


If the only evidence of the upper inner stage was for a single theatre in Venice in the seventeenth century, it might be considered an experiment in that theatre alone. However, the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm has two other drawings that show an upper inner stage. Each is a section of a Parisian theatre that was designed or modified by a theatrical designer imported to the French court from Italy.

Figure 10 is a section of the Salle des Machines built in the Tuilleries Palace in 1662 by Carlo Vigarani. Per Bjurstrom has determined that the section and the accompanying floor plan of the theatre were made between about 1710 and the middle of the eighteenth century, probably by Giovanni Niccolo Servandoni. The drawing clearly shows an upper platform at the back of the stage area. A computer model of this theatre and its inner stage is shown in figure 11

A section of another seventeenth-century Parisian theatre, the Palais Royal Opera House, is shown in figure 12. This drawing is more problematical because the upper inner stage appears to have been drawn later as was the capstan shown under the stage. This drawing also includes a notation of the height of the upper inner stage above the stage floor as "9 pied." Figure 13 is a computer model of the theatre shown in this sectional drawing and its companion floor plan. When Giacomo Torelli was brought to Paris from Venice, he installed his spectacular stage machinery in the Petit Bourbon and in the Palais Royal Opera House. The Palais Royal Opera House stage was a little smaller than the stage of the Venetian Teatro San Salvatore, but the stage of the Salle des Machines was over twice as deep. They all included an upper inner stage.


It may seem strange that such a spectacular effect, the celestial display of temples or gods, would be recorded only in descriptions and a very few manuscript drawings. One reason is that the only seventeenth- and eighteenth-century theatres that have survived intact are relatively small eighteenth-century private theatres that provided limited spectacle. Furthermore, the upper inner stage does not seem to be a typical part of the Baroque theatre since the published sources fail to mention it.

The upper inner stage seems to have been used only in seventeenth-century (and perhaps the late sixteenth-century) opera houses. This relatively brief life may be explained by the change in the nature of opera in the early eighteenth century. Seventeenth-century opera seria using mythological characters gave way to opera buffa with domestic characters in the eighteenth century. Therefore, there was less need for flying effects and spectacular displays. In addition, at the end of the seventeenth century scena per angolo settings began to be used and an upper inner stage would not be needed since it appeared as an extension of the scene only in center vanishing point perspective settings.

The upper inner stage may have been a feature in only the most spectacular theatres such as the Teatro San Salvatore, the fame of which lasted into the mid-eighteenth century as noted by Luigi Riccoboni: "As to the Decorations and the Machinery it may be safely affirmed, that no Theatre in Europe comes up to the Magnificence of the Venetian Opera; some of them will be handed down to our most distant Posterity. For Instance, the Opera entitled La Divisione del Mondo, ... exhibited in the Year 1675 ... at the Teatro San Salvatore (Nagler, 1964, 269).


Riccaboni seemed to believe that the spectacle of the Teatro San Salvatore was superior to that produced in his eighteenth-century theatres. Perhaps it was because of the displays on the upper inner stage.



Ault, C. Thomas. n.d. Theatre in Venice from the Diary of Nicodemus Tessin The Younger, 1688." Unpublished translation.

--1992. "Architecture in the Baroque Age of Theatre." Theatre Design & Technology (Winter): 17-30.

Bjurstrom, Per. 1959. "Servandoni et la Salle des Machines" Revue d'histoire du theatre. 11:220-225.

Contant, C., and J. Filippi. 1860. Parallele des principaux the atres modernes de l'Europe et des machines the atrales francaises, allemandes et anglaises. Paris.

Diderot, Denis, and Jean le Ronde D'Alambert. 1765-1772. The Encyclopedia. Paris.

Dumont, G. M. 1763. Parallele desplans des plus belles salles d'Italie avec des details de machines the atrales. Paris.

Hewitt, Bernard. 1958. The Renaissance Stage: Documents of Serlio, Sabbattini, Furttenbach. Miami: Univ. of Miami Press.

Larson, Orville. 1987. Theatrical Writings of Fabrizio CariniMotta. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press.

Molinari, Cesare. 1965. "Disegni a Parma per uno spettacolo Veneziano." Critica d'Arte: 47-64.

Nagler, A. M. 1964. Theatre Festivals of the Medici. 1539-1637. New Haven: Yale University Press.

--1952. A Source Book in Theatrical History. New York: Dover Publications.

Orgel, Stephen, and Roy Strong. 1973. Inigo Jones: The Theatre of the Stuart Court. 2 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Orrell, John. 1985. The Theatres of Inigo Jones and John Webb. New York; Cambridge University Press.

Southern, Richard. 1953. Changeable Scenery. London: Faber and Faber Limited.

Worsthorne, Simon Towneley. 1984. Venetian Opera in the Seventeenth Century. New York: Da Capo Press.

Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Tessin-Harleman Collection, Vols. S3, S4, S5, and S7.

Bibliotheque-musee de l'Opera, Paris, Res 853.

Biblioteca Palatina, Parma, MS 3708.

Archivio di Stato, Parma, Mappe e disegni, vol. 4.

British Museum, London, Lansdowne MS 1171.

Sir John Soane Museum, London, Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo drawing.


(1.) Nicola Sabbattini's Pratica di Fabricar Scene e Machine ne' Teatri was published in 1638, and he claims that the stage and machinery described was used at the Teatro del Sole built in Pesaro in 1637 for a production of Asmondo with elaborate intermezzi. However, his stage and machinery were out-of-date, since he seems unaware of the flat wing, a much more efficient device for scene changing, which was used in Parma as early as 1628.

(2.) Motta described several theatres of different sizes. The computer model in figure 4 was based upon his "ideal theatre."

(3.) Although these drawings were published in 1744-48, they were copied from drawings made in 1746, which, in turn, were made from original drawings made by Tomasso Giusti in 1688 (Ault 1992, 18).

(4.) The drawing, housed in the Sir John Soane Museum, London, is not dated. It appears to be drawn after 1678 (Worsthorne 1984, 29).

(5.) A relieve scene was located behind the shutters and was composed of several cutout panels to create a scene in depth (see Southern 1953).

(6.) The catalog description at the Biblioteca Palatina claims the drawings are for the Teatro Farnese, but the floor plan is not the size or shape of the Farnese theatre, and it has a scale in Venetian piedi. Molinari suggests that Gasparo and Domenico Mauro, who worked in Venice and went to Parma to design a production in 1690, might have brought the drawings to Parma.

Frank Mohler is Professor Emeritus at Appalachian State University. His research into spectacle Renaissance and Baroque spectacle has been recognized with numerous awards including two for articles in TD&T. His website, The Development of Scenic Spectacle, is at
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Author:Mohler, Frank
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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