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Seicento Religious Theater and the Visual Arts: Contemporary References in Art Treatises

Arnold Witte, Universiteit van Amsterdam
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow, June 3–July 31


Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Il Guercino, A Theatrical Performance in the Open Air, c. 1621. British Museum, London; © Trustees of the British Museum

Vasari’s Lives contains many references illustrating the relationship between the visual arts and the theater, indicating that Renaissance artists were frequently involved in the staging of plays, often as part of liturgical festivities. These examples also imply reciprocity of influence between theatrical performances and religious art in this period. The discovery of a play written for the Carmelite church of San Martino ai Monti in Rome that is an almost perfect fit with decorations commissioned in 1647 from Gaspar Dughet (1615–1675) suggests that this exchange between the visual and the performing arts continued well into the Seicento. The theatrical character of baroque art has become a truism, but the real exchange between the visual arts and dramatic performance is only rarely studied. Therefore, my research focuses on ways in which Seicento biographers such as Filippo Baldinucci (1624–1697) referred to crossover between these two artistic disciplines and on how it can be understood as an artistic phenomenon. On another level, this inquiry leads to the question of how early modern concepts of narrativity and the link between images and words developed around 1600 from a sequential reading of multiple images to the equation of a narrative with a single image.

The lives of artists in Baldinucci’s Notizie de’ professori del disegno (1681) contain numerous references to theater. General terms indicate theatrical performances: commedia, rappresentazione, and spettacolo refer to actual performances while scena and prospettiva point to the design of backdrops. Baldinucci mentions macchina and apparato when discussing stage machinery, which was often designed by architects and artists. Quite a few biographies elaborate on artists whose work functioned in theatrical contexts, and often a positive verdict shines through; for instance, Baldinucci states that in his designs for the theater “Buontalenti surpassed himself.” Specifics, however, are exceptional. On the other hand, Baldinucci’s biographies regularly refer to the activities of artists as actors or musical performers but leave undiscussed any interaction between the performing and the visual arts. In the life of the Florentine sculptor Antonio Novelli (1600–1662), an acquaintance of the playwright and poet Michelangelo Buonarotti the Younger (1568–1646), for example, we learn that he collaborated in the festive decorations for the marriage of Cosimo III de’ Medici in 1661 and that he was a prolific poet and able musician, but no mention is made of his artistic involvement in the staging of either secular or religious plays.

This silence seems to have been the result of the ubiquity of such commissions; Baldinucci wrote in the life of Buontalenti, “If I wished to mention here all the stage machinery, floats, triumphal arches, and other noble inventions made by our Bernardo Buontalenti . . . for comedies, jousts and tournaments, farces, masquerades, ball games, banquets and feasts, decorations for funerals, and other sacred events, I would never arrive at the end.” Furthermore, the ephemeral nature of these events entailed a loss of the artistic material that formed the basis of Baldinucci’s biographies. Religious plays were mostly commissioned by confraternities and monastic communities, and this type of patronage further limited the survival of relevant material. Finally, the very recurrence of these events led to a scarcity of references to religious theater in diaries and chronicles, as had been the case with Brunelleschi’s famous stagings in Florence, the only account of which comes from a Russian prelate visiting the city. The lack of descriptions of religious theater in seventeenth-century sources therefore cannot be taken as an indication that this tradition had vanished in the Seicento. On the contrary, the quantity of printed and manuscript theatrical texts indicates a prolific culture of popular sacred plays in the seventeenth century, whether staged inside churches or in front of them, in public squares, as documented in an exceptional drawing of such an event by Guercino (1591–1666).

The hybridization of theatrical genres in baroque Italy resulted in a plethora of terms denoting these plays: poema sacro drammatico, rappresentazione spirituale, tragirappresentazione sacra, and many more. Nevertheless, the literary form of these plays followed rather constant narrative formats, in which the main story, invariably the life of a saint or an Old Testament character, was preceded by a prologue and interspersed with intermezzi that spelled out for the audience the moral and religious lessons to be drawn from the story. As the example of San Martino indicates, these various levels of poetic abstraction could all be translated into visual form. This potential in turn raises the issue of how sequences in theatrical narrative predetermined the way the contemporary audience “read” decorative fresco cycles in churches and chapels, and how this influence changed around 1600 as a result of new theories of word and image as formulated in the concept of ut pictura poesis.