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Critical Models

The first model took the form of floating theatres called, believe it or not, teatri del mondo (theatres of the world). The second was a proposed island that would be constructed to float within the basin of Saint Mark and house diverse theatrical spectacles. An analysis of the aesthetic dimension of both these structures and their allegorical functions within the Venetian landscape helps pave the way to a philosophical and aesthetic understanding of the Spiritual Exercises and Ottonelli’s treatise.

Lina Padoan Urban offers an image of the floating teatri del mondo as well as the festivals on the water in Venice for which they were constructed:

For these festivals on the water [... ] the Compagni [della calza] presented floating machines or theatres, the so-called teatro del mondo, on which they had dances, serenades, dinner theatre (usually dialogues). Generally, the apparatuses were vast stages or lofts raised off the ground (soleri), that were adjacent to and attached to the windows of abutting homes (palazzi) that faced the Grand Canal or else that stood on Giudecca, and were linked in turn to the opposite bank of the canal with bridges built on [top of] boats or ships giving the capacity to cross the Grand Canal or the Giudecca Canal, and on these [actors performed], quite frequently, skits (momarie). (Urban 488)8

These floating theatres tended to have round floor plans (mirroring the circularity of the world) as well as porches surrounding the playing spaces and balustrades on the porches to help keep people from falling into the water. Built by well-known architects of the day, these structures may have appeared to Venetians as man-made microcosms of the entire world.

These impressive theatres were frequently used to entertain important visiting heads of state and attracted the most famous performers of the day, such as Ruzzante, but they were unlike other Venetian theatre spaces in the sixteenth century in that they were not always deconstructed immediately following their use. Andrea Palladio built a teatro del mondo in 1565 for a production of Antigone, possibly translated by Luigi Alammani, that remained constructed for some time until it eventually succumbed to fire, like so many other wooden structures in Venice before it. The semi-permanence of these teatri del mondo made them the forerunners of the Tron and Michiel theatres built around 1581. It is notable but perhaps not surprising that in Venice, a floating city, the first theatre structures to survive beyond a one-time use were floating theatres.9

Writing on the aesthetic singularity of these floating theatres, Gino Damerini described that which set them apart from the grand architecture in Venice in the sixteenth century. “An absolutely outstanding characteristic of this dynamic architecture,” he wrote, “[was] the most absolute indifference to the outside of the theatres. The theatres [were] the salt.

They [did] not need, on their exteriors, either columns, or peristyles or timpani. For a long time the standard [was] definitely anti-monumental” (227).10 Damerini’s emphasis draws attention away from the eye-catching facades to the captivating power of the floating theatres’ interiors. The floating theatres promised ornate and dynamic inner worlds. What’s more, the spectacles that unfolded within the teatri del mondo were secret. Nobody knew details of the interiors before entering the building. Once inside, however, the microcosm unfolded. Paintings of mythological scenes and allegories from antiquity, created by such notable artists as Tintoretto and Veronese, covered every inch of the ceilings and walls (Urban, “Feste” 494). The world created through the story of Antigone or whatever play was featured became the only world for the spectators. Once wrapped inside, even the fantastic monuments and dramatic views of Venice faded away.

The second manifestation of the concept of the theatre of the world came from Alvise Cornaro, Ruzzante’s patron, one-time performer with the Compagnie della Calza, and all-around intellectual dilettante. Currently tucked away within the files of I Savi alle Acque (the Venetian Ministry of Water), Cornaro’s document, “L’ideale d’un teatro «all’uso de’ Romani»” (“The ideal theatre ‘in the style of the Romans’”), details an elaborate plan for revitalizing the entire city of Venice through the construction of a complex hydraulic system that “will easily be able to conduct pure and fresh water into fountains throughout city.”11 Cornaro’s system, however, did not limit itself to the movement of water. The goal of his project was to revitalize the city morally, intellectually, and spiritually. To accomplish this, his plan presented an idea for a theatre as the capstone of the project. The theatre would materialize as a floating island in the Basin of St Mark. In Cornaro’s words,

The theatre will be made with large stones and it will be open for all spectacles and festivities. Entrance will be permitted to all, whereas now that is not the case. If one wants to go see some celebration by the compagni de calza, or to hear a play, he or she is not permitted if that person is not of a certain class. This is notin keeping with what is just and honest, it is partisan. (Mangini 26)12

The project consisted of what Manfredo Tafuri has called a “ moralizing scenography,” the function of which was to render Venice’s brilliance in its full splendor to Venetian citizens and to visiting foreigners. Tafuri has suggested that, “[t]he theatre isolated in the water seemed an emblem for the city of Venice itself: theatre and city displayed their perfection, their uniqueness. [... ] The lagoon was thus transformed into an ideal ‘garden’” (Tafuri 157).

The traditions on which Cornaro’s project rested were primarily classical. The architect sought to tie Venetian political life back to the res publica dictated by Roman law, something he planned to accomplish through a diverse program of events inside his island theatre:

And in such a piazza one will be able to have bears fight with dogs, wild bulls with men, and similar spectacles: but other than that one will see [reconstructions of] wars like those this city has fought; it will be a beautiful thing to see and for visiting foreigners to see [... ] but also in this same piazza we will easily be able to bring in the water and to let it out again so as to present beautiful naval battles like they did in Rome. (cit. Mangini 26)13

The bear baiting and bullfighting (caccetorri) were signature Venetian events during the season of Carnevale, but the reconstruction of battles was explicitly linked to the Ancient Roman Coliseum. As was the case with its classical counterpart, Venice would be able to display re-created battles for the pleasure of visiting guests, thereby showcasing the power of Venice’s naval fleet.

In addition to its function as a theatre, Cornaro intended his structure to stand out as a symbol of Venice’s unique position in the world. What other city floated on water? What other place boasted such scenographic vistas? Cornaro knew how to butter-up the Council of Ten whose decision it would be to go ahead with the plan:

This will be a great spectacle and [present] the most beautiful perspective, the widest reaching and most diverse [spectacle] that anyone has ever seen or that anyone could ever see anywhere else in the whole world [... ] there are no other cities like this one, none as virginal [... a spectacle such as this] would nominate this city as the capital of the world for its beauty and strength that no other place could match. (27)14

In the end, however, the governors did not vote in favor of Cornaro’s plan. The theatre’s relatively modest price tag (50,000 ducats15) could not convince the various councils to sanction either the hydraulic or the theatrical component of Cornaro’s vision.

One reason for this refusal may have stemmed from the theatre’s symbolic and material redundancy. Was there any need to build a theatre embedded within an island in the middle of the basin when Venice itself was a theatre floating in the lagoon? The scenographic quality of the landscape and the number of theatrical events performed annually by the government, the various scuole (schools),16 the Church, and the Compagnie della calza made the city a giant theatre, and its mythic claim to existence built from years of political autonomy already carved out a spot for Venice in the imaginations of many nations as a symbolic epicenter of worldly activity.

Regardless of the fact that Cornaro’s plan was never actualized, the proposed theatre and its relationship to Venice as a larger floating theatre presents another instance of the teatro del mondo concept in action in Venice during the later sixteenth century. Tafuri made this link when he wrote that “the edifice [proposed by Cornaro] becomes a fantastic object, a theatrical apparition that could be appreciated commodamente or easily from the greater ‘theatre’ of the Serenissima, that is to say the Piazzetta [Piazza San Marco]” (Tafuri 148). Were it built, anybody standing between the two columns in Piazza San Marco would see the floating theatre and have the opportunity to reflect on the larger floating theatre beneath his or her feet—Venice itself.

Indeed, the openness of the theatre to anybody and everybody marks Cornaro’s plan as explicitly political. One of the most important aspects of his plan was that “there would be a place for everyone” in the theatre. In Tafuri’s words:

in [the theatre] ‘everyone would have his place and step, as though God had given it to him and nature required that everyone should enjoy it.’ The theatre, a symbolic place that echoes the larger text of the universe, becomes the gathering place of all social classes and a place of reflection and representation, above all, of the ‘natural and untouchable hierarchies’ that govern the cosmos and the civil order based on those hierarchies. (145)

“L’ideale del teatro” would have facilitated a renovation of communal and interpersonal infrastructures (Cornaro’s “hierarchies”) in addition to plumbing and other mechanical systems. Again, however, for a number of reasons (most likely his allegiance to Padua and lack of internal connections within the Republican government) Cornaro’s ambitious plan never came to fruition. Mere traces of its planning linger in the velum pages of the Venetian Archive of State.

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