Perspective on Stage. Theatrical Sceneries and Aristocratic Leisure in Early Modern Courts

Perspective on Stage. Theatrical Sceneries and Aristocratic Leisure in Early Modern Courts

Jaime Cuenca

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Frans Geffels after Lodovico Ottavio Burnacini: the opera 'Il Pomo d'Oro' being performed before the court of Leopold I in Vienna in 1668.

Theater did not only become a site of specific perspective knowledge and practices during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but was deeply shaped by them in its evolution into a secular and professionalized form of leisure event. This was particularly the case at European courts, where early modern theatrical genres such as French ballet, English masque, or Italian intermezzo and opera developed on perspectival stages. In this context, perspective became a privileged instrument for exhibiting and formulating political power in the dawn of absolutism. Firstly, of course, because it was an essential element of very sophisticated aristocratic performances that showed the wealth of the princes offering them. But, more specifically, because it worked as an ordering principle for a seating distribution that embodied the hierarchy at court.

The view on the perspectival scenery was perfect only from the seat of the prince; as the distance of any seat from that single point grew, the illusion was poorer, and the status of the spectator lower. In this Working Group project, a short history of this identification between the point of view and the seat of the prince was traced, mapping the most relevant circumstances of its spreading throughout Europe. Nevertheless, the political function of perspectival settings was not restricted within the court of the prince that commissioned them, as proved by the numerous pictures of stage designs that circulated among European courts in the form of illustrated libretti and festival books. Through an analysis of some of these visual sources, produced in the Holy Roman Empire in the second half of the seventeenth century, this project tried to address the performative context of this application of perspective, as well as its political use in the communication between different courts.