Bernini’s Two Theatres and the Trauma of Classical Reception


  • Edmund Thomas Durham University



This article compares how the theatrical architectural spaces of Francesco Guitti at Parma and Gian Lorenzo Bernini at Rome used classical traditions of spectacle to satisfy contemporary sensationalist demands. Guitti’s stage machinery devised after ancient treatises recreated an ancient naumachia as a finale to the performance of the Mercury and Mars that celebrated the marriage of Odoardo, Duke of Parma, at the Farnese Theatre in Parma (see Benedetta Colasanti’s essay in this issue). Bernini’s spaces at the Rome Carnival in the 1630s played on other memories and misremembrances of popular classical spectacula to target elite audiences, generating a Bakhtinian mood of destabilising carnival laughter. He transformed naumachiae by flooding a stage to recreate a Tiber flood, and on the open-air setting of the ‘Festa d’Agone’, Domitian’s Stadium misremembered as a racetrack, he bestowed the authority of an ancient circus, with turning posts and obelisk. But his most destabilizing performance was to recast the disastrous mechanics of Gaius Curio’s legendary two revolving theatres in Republican Rome by means of a shocking pictorial perspective. This surpassed the technological schemes of other architect scenographers and exposed Rome’s gentry and curial classes to subversive spectacle.

Keywords: Gian Lorenzo Bernini; Francesco Guitti; stage painting; commedia dell’arte; architecture; carnival; Roman theatres