CONSTELLATORY THINKING: BAROQUE, VENICE, THEATRE, Philosophy
In the essay “Eduard Fuchs: Collector and Historian,” Walter Benjamin declares that any contemplation of history that has the right to call itself dialectical proceeds from a state of unrest and uncertainty. “This state of unrest,” he writes, “refers to the demand on the researcher to abandon the tranquil contemplative attitude toward the object in order to become conscious of the critical constellation in which precisely this fragment of the past finds itself in precisely this present” (227). Dialectical thinking, adamantly opposed to the pseudo-scientific procedures of positivist his- toricism, forces the researcher to surrender claims of certainty to the caprice of the objects under consideration, and to forsake the desire to know what (ostensibly) really happened in favor of illuminating the present stakes ofcritical thinking; and to do this by, all the while, attending to the fraught relationships between historical objects and historical inquiry.
Baroque, Venice, Theatre, Philosophy assembles various theatre and performance practices from sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Venice in order to rethink the baroque as a gathering of social practices aimed at cultivating modes of subjectivity, understood here as subject positions that coincide with recognizable identity categories (e.g. Protestant, Christian, converted, Venetian, Paduan, etc.). Culminating in a proposal for recognizing these social practices as cultivators of a diarchic self, a self driven by (at least) two opposed rulers and founded on a complex internal difference, my research forges numerous links between theatre-making and philosophical inquiry, and presents these links as an historical form of performance philosophy. Distinct from the phrases “Baroque Venetian Theatre” or “Baroque Philosophy,” which send our focus to theatrical practices modified by a baroque sensibility and Venetian historiography, on the one hand, and philosophies devised during a specific historical period, on the other, the constellation Baroque, Venice, Theatre, Philosophy presents a riddle for contemplation. Moving between the dramaturgy of Jesuit spiritual exercises, the political theatre-making of Angelo Beolco (aka Ruzzante), and the civic governance of the Venetian Republic at a time of great tumult and collapse, this study rethinks the baroque as neither a time period nor an artistic style but as a collection of bodily practices developed from clashes between governmental disciplines and artistic excesses. As such it imagines Venice as a stage upon which unfolded performances of the theatre of the world, a conception nurtured and cultivated by the narratives of the Republic itself. My work also resituates theatre outside of its commonplace definition as a permanent structure or a scripted fictional performance occurring inside that structure, choosing instead to theorize theatre as an act of taking place, an act that prefigures all dramatic repertoires and grounds theatre as a political art form. Finally, philosophy appears not as an institutionalized discourse of knowledge-production that explains the presuppositions subtending specific artistic offerings but as a concerted and systematic mode of doing life and of maneuvering through various socially constructed obstacle courses with the aim of thinking and experiencing the world anew.
What Benjamin identified as a “tranquil contemplative attitude” has stabilized baroque theatre into an historical period and set of aesthetic principles. This mindset (or scholarly praxis), while birthing numerous instructive studies on architecture, music, and theatre machinery, has frozen the chaos of baroque contestations into intelligible, static images.7 Against this attitude, Baroque, Venice, Theatre, Philosophy stages an histor- ico-philosophical analysis in order to offer an interpretation of historically specific performance practices that established theatres of the world through which individuals thought about themselves and the socio-political environments in which they lived and, given the legacies left by both the Jesuits and Ruzzante, continue to live now. By unearthing a tension produced by clashes between spiritual and civic modes of governance, on the one hand, and modes of artistic excess, on the other hand, in Venice during the sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries, the book argues that the nascent Jesuit Order, the Venetian government, artistic patrons such as Alvise Cornaro, and the performer known as Ruzzante harnessed theatrical expression to coerce allegiance for and/or act out against dominant ideologies establishing themselves at the time.
Whether one talks about the ideal citizen of a Republican government, the spiritual purity of an ideal Christian, the intellectual acumen of wealthy property owners, or the virtuosity of public and private theatrical performers, all conversations lead back to the ideology of the self (i.e. a thinking agent capable of affecting the world) and the proper performance of the subject. The theatrical expressions of the cast of characters gathered together in this study and the ideologies those characters supported and/or sought to disarm all informed a subjectivity bound inextricably to various notions of performance and to philosophies of il teatro del mondo. Not, then, a noun modified by intriguing adjectives (Baroque Venetian Theatre, Baroque Philosophy) but a list of worlds coinciding at a particular time and a particular place; Baroque, Venice, Theatre, Philosophy maps the political and aesthetic networks of early modern Venice in order to contribute to discussions of the baroque concerned with subjectivity formation and the battle for individuals’ allegiances waged through highly theatrical means and involving the highest of stakes.
Commencing from a reconsideration of Benjamin’s and Theodor W. Adorno’s philosophical practice of negative dialectics and its relation to the fields of theatre history and performance philosophy, this book’s image of the baroque coalesces through an inductive research methodology that stitches together play texts, architectural plans, spiritual concerns of the self articulated by Jesuit priests, Venetian historiography, Scholastic and other Medieval philosophical proposals, and archival documents mined from L’Archivio di Stato Venezia (the Venetian Archive of State), La Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (the Marciana National Library), and La Biblioteca del Museo Civico Correr (the Library of the Correr Civic Museum). Once assembled like so many tiles within a mosaic, each fragment displays a glimpse of the baroque embedded within everyday actions, such as attending theatre events, practicing confession, and administering to the general upkeep of civic life in and around Venice. As such, the historico-philosophical procedure adopted for this project aims to harmonize with the irreducibly complex qualities of the baroque as well as those of theatrical performance in early modern Venice.
At its heart, the content of this book oscillates around two seemingly opposed entities: the Jesuits and Ruzzante. Founded in Venice and conceived as the militant arm of the Catholic Church under the guidance of
Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuits, or Society of Jesus, instituted a daily practice of discipline, cultivated through a spiritual cleansing ritual known as the spiritual exercises. Its aim: to teach the manner of acting in accordance with the Church so as to open oneself to God’s truth and love. By distinction, Ruzzante, frequently appraised by theatre and cultural historians as the most important performer of his time, made his living through a profusion of licentious and politically contentious plays, some offered in five acts, others performed as monologues or stripped-down dialogues inside private homes and on vast mainland estates.8 At first, Ruzzante seems to embody precisely the excess resisted and rejected by Jesuit disciplinary practices; however, once recognized as theatrical modes of expression unfolding in the same space (Venice and its surrounding territories), at the same time (the first half of the sixteenth century), and consisting of an uncannily similar repertoire of gestures (each cultivated from explicitly theatrical vocabularies and philosophies), “the techniques of self" practiced by Loyola’s followers and Ruzzante yoke the two historical figures into what Adorno called a non-identical pair. Each member of the pair, rather than relying primarily on or inclining ultimately toward either discipline or excess as its fundamental disposition, derives its momentum from a dialectical interplay between both discipline and excess. To understand the historically specific nature of both the early Jesuit order in Venice and Ruzzante, I pair these unlikely entities together and develop the surprising relations revealed through such a pairing.
Traditionally given over to empirical historicism, theatre-specific studies of the baroque tend either to pursue architectural history or the evolution of stage machinery. This book, however, develops a theory of the baroque as a collection of social practices that reveals theatre as an act of taking place instead of as a permanent building in which specific performances occur. Meanwhile, the rich field of Venetian historiography has provided numerous insights into the stimulating world of Europe’s most prolific republic, and yet those studies tend to treat theatre and performance as anthropological case studies or examples of Venetian governmental eccentricity.9 In contributing to these fields of scholarship, my book builds on the momentum of the new terrain of Performance Philosophy. Scholars in this evolving terrain understand theatre and performance as ways of being and becoming that, once understood as philosophical practices, help us in the present to rethink the nature of the self and the mutually constitutive relation of art and thinking. All thinking coursing through and visible in this book owes a great debt to the works of
Venetian historiographers (from Gaetano Cozzi, Frederic C. Lane, and Felix Gilbert to John Jeffries Martin, Dennis Romano, and Elisabeth Crouzet-Pavan) but the thought performed here also aims at dismantling any artificial boundaries that would attempt to keep theatre and performance in a subservient position as something to be used to explain a philosophical concept or as an example of a specific ideology. Theatre and performance, here, think. These artistic practices produce knowledge and offer critiques just as much as they represent extant knowledge and embodied critical inquiries. Moreover, the work of this book aims at exposing theatre, Venetian state-building, spiritual exercises, political reformation, pastoral poetic language, and philosophical frameworks inherited from antiquity as mutually constitutive entities that form a constellation of thought still visible and legible today.