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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Palladio and The Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza: a secret marvel

Andrea Palladio, The Teatro Olimpico Vicenza, 1580-85, picture by scuolaholden

In February 1580, Andrea Palladio started one of his most virtuous works for the structural complexity and stanning beauty: The Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza.

The project was ambitious as it was the first covered theatre in the world and the first with a Roman classic conception.

Unfortunately, Palladio will pass away few months later the beginning of the construction, on the 19th August 1580, leaving the work to the only perimetral walls.

In this last work, Andrea Palladio seems to leave his spiritual legacy that it is possible to find in his drawings and in the wood model left to the Accademia Olimpica, the patron of the work.

The Accademia Olimpica was established in Vicenza in 1555 as an homage to the Panhellenic games of Olympia. Since its beginning, the Academy was renowned for its democracy and open mind and among the 21 founders we can find the name of Andrea Palladio, although he was not from noble lineage.

The academics were interested primarily in scientific subjects as mathematics, physic, astronomy, anatomy, to which they joined a strong interest to the ancient Roman and Greek theatre.

In the ’60 the academics put in place two modern tragedies L’Amor Costante by Alessandro Piccolomini and the Sofonisba by Giangiorgio Trissino, both with the wood scenography designed by Palladio and placed in the only public cover space in Vicenza, the Palazzo della Ragione.

Vicenza didn’t have a cover theatre and for this reason the academics started to think how to solve this problem. Their motto is HOC OPUS HIC LABOR EST (this is the work; this is the great job, from the Aeneid by Virgil that means no challenge is done without great commitment).

To understand better the vision of the academics we need to analyse the development of theatre history from the classical period till the Renaissance.

In the classical age, the theatre had its own space in open air with the separation of spectators and actors.

In the Roman period, the façade of the scene is decorated and raised of several floors till became frons scenae or proscenium (as we can see in the survivor theatre of Sabratha in Lybia).

The Roman Theatre of Sabratha, Lybia
The Roman Theatre of Sabratha, Lybia

The use of the scenery is becoming more complex due to the use of stage machinery.

The curtain is introduced and during the representation it is putting down in a specific cavity and the velarium was stretched over the whole of the cavea to protect spectators from the sun.

Everything change in the mediaeval period in which the comedies by Plautus and Terence were considered too much licentious for the religious matter and the classic theatre decayed in its works and architectural forms.

In the middle age a new theatre form was created the religious theatre where they were playing religious scenes or sacred representations, outside in the streets with great attendance of the public who was stopped in necessary stage areas (as we can see in the Passion by Hans Memling or the scenery of a theatre stage, Passion played in Valenciennes in 1547).

Hans Memling, the Passion, 1470, Galleria Sabauda, Turin
Passion played in Valenciennes in 1547

In the Renaissance and with the studies of the classic everything changed again.

Brunelleschi, reconstruction of the stage machine for the Annunciation in San Felice in Piazza, exhibition 1975

In Florence, Filippo Brunelleschi built extraordinary stage machineries for different religious celebration.

With Brunelleschi the audience stayed in one place, watching the play and only the actors are moving (as in The Annunciation of the church San Felice in Piazza) in one and unique perspective axe.

The representations of the classical theatre were usually performed outside in the main courts or in the parks of noble houses in which the nobility where the main beneficiary in ephemeral structures built in a perspective axe as the one designed by Raphael and Peruzzi.

This idea was improved by one of the Peruzzi’s pupils, Sebastiano Serlio, who regulated the three perspective scenes in accord with the three Roman scenes of theatre: the tragic scene in the city that tells the stories of important and noble people, the comic scene that takes place in a popular borough, and the third scene the satirical one that takes place in a wood.

These three scenes typical of the Roman theatre, were rediscovered by the Renaissance architects from the De Architetura by Vitruvius, the only ancient Roman architecture book that survived in the medieval period and arrived in the Renaissance.

In the VI book Vitruvius wrote: “The form of a theatre is to be adjusted so, that from the centre of the dimension allotted to the base of the perimeter a circle is to be described, in which are inscribed four equilateral triangles, at equal distances from each other, whose points are to touch the circumference of the circle…Of these triangles, the side of that which is nearest the scene will determine the face thereof in that part where it cuts the circumference of the circle. Then through the centre a line is drawn parallel to it, which will separate the pulpitum of the proscenium from the orchestra”.

One of the problems of the work of Vitruvius it is that many of the mediaeval copies of his work were copied without his drawings. This was the task of many renaissance architect to try to reproduce Vitruvius’ drawings but many of them were really poorly accurate.

Plan of a roman teatre the development of the playhouse, Berkerley,1970, p.7
Plan of a Roman theatre according to Vitruvius, 1556 in Berkerley,1970, p.7

Palladio was one of the few architects, that with his researches and studies of the Roman monuments, was closer to the Vitruvius’ drawings but he took him more than forty years to pass from a project to the real one as the Teatro Olimpico.

But it is only in the Olimpico that Palladio made his attempt to confront to the true problems of the theatre: the relation of actors and spectators as architectural matter and found an organic and unitary solution to them even if the result will be an anachronistic experiment.

The academics of the Academia Olimpica found a cover space inside the old prisons of Vicenza and the area was surrounded by the walls of the old St Peter Castle.

The space was narrow and restricted not ideal for the building of a classical theatre but Palladio found a solution. Instead of the traditional geometrical scheme based on a circumference as in the book by Vitruvius, Palladio used an elliptical form.

This elliptical form was dictated by spatial restrictions but it is really incisive in an architectonic and stage design level as it moved closer the spectators to the stage creating a great empathy between who is watching and who is performing.

Andrea Palladio, the Teatro Olimpico, detail, picture by scuolaholden

The cavea, the seating sections for the spectators, seems to an expert eye a bit flattened but it is because the architect used the pre-existing walls, grant from the city of Vicenza to the academics, and in this way, he reduced the expenses of the project.

This area was amplified by the colonnade in Corinthian style that surrounded it, that reminded to the temple of Jupiter Tonans or the bath of Diocletian in Rome.

Engraving Depicting Temple of Jupiter Tonans in Rome by Matthew Dubourg, 1786-1808
The bath of Dioclectian, Rome

The columns are alternated by curved and square niches where are placed several sculptures, as in the balustrade above, all made in bricks, stucco and marble powder to simulate the stone.

Andrea Palladio, The Teatro Olimpico , details of the founders of the Academia Olimpica.

All the sculptures in the colonnade look like ancient Roman soldiers but in their faces is possible to recognise the features of the Academia’s founders, who as sponsors paid 10 ducats to have their sculptures as ancient Romans.

The character who is dominating the centre of the cavea is Leonardo Valmarana, the president of the Academia between the1583 and 1585 in the final phase of the theatre work, his serious and imperious gaze reminded us his strong charisma as he wanted to be portraited as the most important king of the period Charles V.

In front of the sculpture, we can see the triumphal arch of the royal gate where is focused the attention of the audience in the stage or the proscenium where we can see this incredible structure which reminded to the septizonium (which the humanists always took to be connected with the theatre).

Andrea Palladio and Vincenzo Scamozzi, Proscenium of the Teatro Olimpico, picture by alemarengo

This is divided in three sectors: from the bottom till the attic the different elements are in a perfect harmony of solids and voids in the bottom; illuminated vibration between tabernacle frames, niches and tiles in top side.

In the low relief of the attic Hercules is the main subject portraited in his famous labors ( Hercules and Antaeus, Hercules and Deianira, Hercules and the Nemean lion, Hercules and Centaurs, Hercules and Cacus) protecting from the top the academics who wanted to celebrate the famous hero founder of the Olympic Games.

The architectonic proscenium looks like another wall in this closed space but the result is the creation of a new form: a strictly architectural composition of formal values which can embrace illusionistic elements from stage design.

Palladio-Scamozzi plan for the Teatro Olimpico 1580-85

Palladio died when the works were in their first stage and they were concluded in 1585 by his son Silla and his pupil Vincenzo Scamozzi.

Scamozzi designed the scenography for the tragedy that inaugurated the theatre, the Oedipus Rex by Sophocles.

The scenography had to recall to mind the city of Thebes with its seven streets and its traditional buildings but it reminded more the Renaissance Vicenza.

It was made as a provisional stage for the ceremony of inauguration but it lasted till nowadays.

Scamozzi designed a masterpiece of perspective illusion giving the idea of long streets and luxurious houses.

In realty the materials were really simple and cheap crafted with wood, stucco, frescoes and oil soaked rags.

Scamozzi played with the science perspective because the streets, buildings and sculptures decreased in perspective but for the spectators they seem of the same dimensions and everything is strengthened by the candlelights in the scene.

Vincenzo Scamozzi, scenography for the Oedipous Rex, detail, picture by

Vincenzo Scamozzi, scenography for the Oedipous Rex, detail, picture by

One thing is incredible about the Teatro Olimpico: it is one of the most beautiful place in the world but at the same time represented a failure in a theatrical point of view.

The theatre of Palladio is the fulfilment of the dream of a generation of renaissance architects and intellectuals, who wanted to recreate the classic theatre but this project came too late. In the XVII century the Melodrama was asking changes of scene more involvement of the spectators, stage machines coming down from the ceiling and others that were coming out from the stage; all of this was not possible in the three fix roman doors.

For this reason, the Teatro Olimpico was used just one time in 1585 and for more than two centuries was not used as a theatre.

The study of Palladio of the Roman antiquity was the architectonic equivalent of the studies of the humanist in the classic literature.

Palladio was looking for an architectonic vocabulary but also an exegesis of the historical evolution of its ancient forms.

For all his life Palladio built contemporaries buildings, he was not a kind of archaeologist, he used the language of the Roman architecture to build structures of his time with the necessity of his time; the Palladian villas were completely different from the Roman villas.

Only one time he wanted to work as an archaeologist and in the Teatro Olimpico, he built the Roman theatre of Vitruvius. We can say that this project is his spiritual legacy as for the first time he wanted to build something as he was the personification of Vitruvius.

Andrea Palladio, The Teatro Olimpico lighted by the candlelights, detail.

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