A Rediscovery of Antiquity. Traces of Ancient Mechanics in the Staging of the Opening Perfomance of the Farnese Theatre in Parma (1628)


  • Benedetta Colasanti University of Florence




When studying Baroque theatre, which was characterized by surprising scene changes and mechanical movements, we cannot ignore ancient mechanics. In the sixteenth century, we can observe that the Renaissance city and its symbolic monuments were represented in perspective in the court theatres. Perspective rigor, scenic metamorphosis and mechanical wonder coexisted on stage; the latter were a point of arrival (and also a new starting point) of a tradition that, starting from antiquity, seems to have continued into the seventeenth century. When we study the machines of the inaugural performance of the Farnese Theatre in Parma – Mercurio e Marte (1628) – and the sources related to it, we easily come across the knowledge of the ancient heritage. The anonymous treatise Il corago (1628-1637) offers entire chapters from Julius Pollux’s Onomasticon translated into the vernacular, and in his Pratica (1638) Nicola Sabbatini, like Heron, recommends oiling the machines in order to achieve a more fluid movement. Literary and iconographic documents also refer to machines already described by Vitruvius, Pollux and Heron of Alexandria: the cranes for suspending gods or other figures, the ‘staircase of Charon’ for access to the corridors between the stage and the under-stage, various systems for scene changes. By overlapping the sources for the study of the inaugural performance of the Farnese Theatre, the seventeenth-century treatises and the ancient treatises, this article aims to identify the ancient machineries still valid in Mercurio e Marte and in the Baroque theatre; it also aims to evoke a tradition of transmission of knowledge among mechanics that, starting from antiquity, extends directly into modern times, partially denying the extemporaneous ‘rediscovery’ of antiquity.

Keywords: rediscovery of antiquity; stage machinery; Farnese Theatre; scenery; set design