Many of us haven’t had a look inside the theater for over a year. But as performance spaces across the country are on the verge of reopening, the Morgan Library & Museum is quietly offering a surprising reminder of what we’re missing out on.
Open through September 12 at Morgan, “Architecture, Theater and Fantasy” is a small but outstanding show of paintings by the Bibina family, which transformed theatrical design in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Museum of 25 Bibiena Works Organized Around a Promised Gift Jules Fisher, Tony Award-winning Broadway lighting designer, the exhibition is the first of family portraits in the United States in more than 30 years.
From Lisbon to St. Petersburg, Russia, bibiennas dominated every major court theater in Baroque Europe. His innovations in perspective opened up new theatrical possibilities, and his grandiose projects cost large sums of money, with single spectacles running budgets of up to $10 million in today’s dollars. Writing to Alexander Pope of an opera performed outside in Vienna to consecrate the birth of the Austrian prince in 1716, Lady Marie Wortley Montagu described a huge stage built on a canal. The gilded flotillas sailed beneath him—a spectacle, he wrote, “so great that it is hard to take the eye to the end of it.”
The designer of that production, Ferdinando Galli Bibiena (1657–1743), arrived in Vienna in 1711 as an official view of the Hapsburg court of Charles VII. His father, the Tuscan painter Giovanni Maria Galli (1618–65), came from a village in Arezzo called Bibbina, and adopted his name as his own. The young Ferdinando started out in Bologna as a master of quadratura, or illusionary ceiling painting. But his dramatic talent took his career in other directions in the 1680s.
Until that time, European scenes had mainly used single-point perspective. This optical technique, perfected in 15th-century Italian visual art, arranged beautiful images around a central vanishing point, giving a glimpse of an infinitely diminishing space. (a drawing without Already in Morgan’s collection makes the withdrawal dizzy, almost terrifying.)
The technique gained popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries, gradually taking over the indoor theaters of Europe during the Age of Reason. This gave designers a way to make the space of a shallow stage appear significantly larger, using only painted flats set in grooves that ran parallel to the proscenium.
One-point “Perspective Artificial” Like a central street running away from the audience produced images of endless depth. But in practice, the illusion only works for a privileged audience – usually an emperor or prince seated centrally in the auditorium. Everyone else had a distorted view. What’s more, maintaining the trick kept the actors largely down; If they went backstage, they became monsters.
Around 1687, Ferdinando began to modernize the convention. In honor of the Duke of Piacenza’s birthday in April for a royal entertainment, he moved the vanishing point away from center stage, and added a second one to the other side of the playing space. Suddenly two grooves opened.
Ferdinando’s two-point perspective allowed scenes on stage to be viewed at an angle, so the device became known as “scene vedute per angelo” or simply “scene per angelo”. This opened the platform to a wider range of perspectives, and eventually became ubiquitous.
The oblique view did a better than one-point job at delineating the large-scale, luxurious interiors, suggesting spaces beyond what was visible on the stage. Ferdinando’s skill in the quadratura helped him imitate the roof underside. Suddenly, flat panels convey the startlingly powerful and monumental illusion of three-dimensional, vaulted chambers.
These images seem to draw their viewers almost into the picture plane by the force of gravity, pulling them into the proscenium threshold. They conquer the virtual reality of the theater. Actors could now move around more practically, and a wider range of audiences in the auditorium could achieve natural illusions without the risk of unintended anamorphosis, or visual warfare.
One can only imagine what the set looked like at the performance. Although Bibianas commanded the European stages for a century, his work survives today almost entirely in the form of sketches and renderings. They eventually burned most of the more than a dozen theater buildings; The most notable exception is the recently renovated Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth, Germany, built in the 1740s by Giuseppe Galli Bibiena (1695–1757) and his son Carlo (1721–87). (Richard Wagner briefly regarded it as the site for his epic “Ring” cycle.)
Still, the pictures exude an irresistible sensuality. Primarily in black and brown ink, busy handprints trace rough motifs and ornaments everywhere, touching nearly every surface. Using wash or watercolor to create a painterly effect, the paintings emphasize the allure of dreamy distances. (Or those who refuse: a beautiful sketch at the Morgan exhibition, a prison interior Antonio Galli Bibiena, one of Ferdinando’s sons, conjectures the labyrinthine “imaginary prison” of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who knew the Bibiena style well and may have studied with the family.)
In many sketches, you find clues to the design process. “A Colonnade Stage,” Ink in mostly black, sporting garlands, which were later drawn in brown. Some of the severed legs remain from a statue once struck in the image, then partially removed – provocative, perhaps, to experiment with set pieces. In “The left side of a palatial hall,” The viewer sees how three flat panels, labeled F, G and H, converge to depict a three-dimensional portal.
While other architects and designers, such as Andrea Pozzo and Filippo Juvarra, were dabbling in the multipoint perspective when Ferdinando made his innovations, the technique quickly became his brand, and international demand for his new style soon arose. Together with his brother Francesco (1659–1739) and his son Giuseppe, Ferdinando established a vast family business, which included some prominent talents and a group of lesser-known people.
Bibianus gained fame for a hundred years. Their heyday ended when tastes changed in favor of humble settings in the mid-18th century. The design lovingly preserved ruins, remain like fragments of a lost world. As art historian A.H. Meyer once wrote, the family was “the heir to all the Baroque, all that Bernini and Borromini had dreamed of, but had to be left undone.” Those earlier artists had practically invented baroque theatrics in their sculptural and architectural works, but Bibias translated it into stage decoration. The special thing is that he made it viral.
“On their drawing board,” Meyer wrote, “the need for permanence, the cost of marble, the delay of the masons, unaffected by the whims or death of patrons, Bibias, in arbitrary designs as the mandate of the autocratic people, of the Baroque. summed up great emotional architecture.”
Joseph Cermatori, assistant professor of English at Skidmore College, is the author of “Baroque Modernity: An Aesthetics of Theatre,” which will be published in November by Johns Hopkins University Press.