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Prelude: Baroque Scenography and Beolco’s SCENOGARDENING

Theatre scholars trace the boom of Italian baroque scenographic practices back to the eighteenth century with the appearance of Ferdinando Galli- Bibiena’s section on theatrical scenery in L’architettura civile (Civil Architecture, Parma, 1711). In this work, Bibiena outlined the building principles behind the scene teatrali vedute per angolo: “scenes viewed at a forty-five degree angle” rather than “the traditional stage picture, conceived as an extension of the axis of the theatre and as running to a central vanishing point” (Ogden 43). Others point to the scenographic practices to Giacomo Torelli and his development of moving scenery, which allowed for multiple scenes to appear in one theatrical representation (Bjurstrom). In both cases, the baroque element of the stage designs appears within a surface effect produced by scenery attached to a stage inside a permanent theatre building. Thus, according to these studies, that which makes scenography baroque is a visual quality linked to traits identified in other artistic disciplines. Bibiena’s 45-degree angle within the scena per angolo calls to mind the introduction of oblique perspective in Tintoretto’s paintings. The movement of Torelli’s scenery evokes the movement within Michelangelo’s sculptures.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, I believe this disciplinary overlap confuses matters more than it helps, since the specificity of each artistic medium treated in these studies blurs into one set of formalistic traits, a move which, moreover, allows the temporal reach of the baroque to bracket a long duration from the early seventeenth to the end of the eighteenth century. Moving away from traditional studies of baroque scenography, I argue that Beolco/Ruzzante’s theatrical practice of taking place (of planting gardens within private territory, of holding audiences hostage instead of merely entertaining them) figures prominently within the social terrain of baroque scenography and aesthetics. Reading the warps and wefts of this social terrain requires a shift in the historical gaze away from theatrical representations conducted in permanent theatre buildings post-1580 and toward the performances within temporary sites, erected for certain times of the year in the sixteenth century (if not before), for which there tends to be less historical documentation. The current discussion of baroque sce- nography, then, attempts to identify a link between theatrical performance and the production of space. I am not concerned with the visual tricks of two-dimensional perspective or specialized machinery that scenic technicians used to create the appearance of depth on stage; rather, I want to known how Beolco’s theatre practice created points of view, windows that opened onto states of affairs that his upper-class audiences most frequently wanted nothing to do with. I would like to say that Beolco’s theatre practice brought the outside inside, but what precisely does that mean? Was he capable of bringing the world of the Paduan peasant into the urban space of Venice and into the privileged space of the palazzo or villa, a space reserved for the upper classes? The answer is both yes and no. To answer these questions in more detail and to refine the sense of baroque scenography I am proposing here, I return now to Beolco’s career as a gardener in the compagni Ortolani.

Ruzzante’s scenogardening took place in Venice where he performed with the Compagnie della Calza. In that locale, the content of his plays, skits, and monologues tended toward the lewd and lascivious. For example, the scatological commentary running through Dialogo facetissimo (Witty dialogue, 1529) may attract a Bakhtinian theoretical framework of the body's lower stratum and the upending of order into disorder during Venetian Carnevale. I’d like to suggest, however, that this framework obscures the specificity ofthe scene Beolco set with his graphic depictions. When Beolco's character Menego proposed an end to his hunger by plugging-up his anus in order to keep the food from exiting his body, for example, a standard read of grotesque carnival themes misses the everyday, real-life scenario that Menego presented to his audiences. Carnival came and went, but Menego's hunger was permanent. Beolco did not simply wish to highlight the act of shitting in order to laugh at something traditionally kept from view; rather, he showcased the extreme discomfort of peasants and the extreme measures they considered for soothing the pains of permanent starvation. Beolco offered this depiction for the (dis)pleasure of Venetians who treated the mainland territories such as Padua (Beolco’s home) as a vacation destination. That Venetian audiences read Beolco's performances as something more unpleasant to swallow than the usual fare of grotesque farces appears in the fact that Beolco eventually left Venice under a cloud of controversy never to perform there again. I contextualize this controversy below, while here I want to emphasize that the lewd, lascivious, and scatological in Beolco's theatre practice requires an historically specific treatment that will force us to put aside the Bakhtinian mode of thinking that has been useful for so many scholars, especially when analyzing Beolco's plays that took place outside of Carnevale.

After he was ousted from Venice, Beolco’s scenogardening took place in Padua. There, his performances took on an entirely different character. In his native countryside, the radical nature of the scenogardening took root. That is, Beolco’s radicality entailed an actual rooting. He infiltrated certain private homes in order to reclaim the land on which they stood, and he did so in the name of Padua, a territory dominated by the Venetian Republic. More than just homes, the sites of Beolco’s interventions were conglomerations of multiple interior spaces, each kept separate from the other, and each one distinguished from the exterior wilderness by a large wall. The privacy of those homes developed from the detachment between an inner sanctum and the outer world, but Beolco’s radical scenography sought to re-suture the inside to the outside in order to reveal the hardships of the rural Paduans.

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