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Bernini's Two Theatres and the Trauma of Classical Reception in Seventeenth-Century Rome

Edmund V. Thomas

Durham University

This paper explores the unsettling impact of classical reference and allusion on the commedia dell’arte of seventeenth-century Rome. Recent studies of Baroque theatre have drawn attention to the interconnections of contemporary politics and performance (Burke 2012) and with the court culture of dissimulation (Snyder 2009), and to its dependence on an aesthetics of effect producing emotional and bodily affects in the audience (Fischer-Lichte 2012). Less attention, however, has been paid to the role played by the pervasive classical tradition which lay behind these performances and their receptions. The focus of this paper is a commedia dell’arte written, staged and performed by the architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1637 which bewildered its distinguished audience of cardinals, prelates and knights by revealing in the course of the drama that theirs was not the only comedy being performed, but simply the mirror image of another play being simultaneously presented to a second, fictive audience of courtly theatre-goers like themselves on the other side of the stage. Despite the ostensible success of the drama and the insistent demand for its re-performance, Bernini refused to put it on again. The official explanation was that one of the cast was ill, but there were rumours that “other mysteries” lay behind his decision. Some have interpreted this as “orders from above” (Fraschetti 1900, 263). This paper reconsiders the mystery of why such an apparent success was not repeated in terms of the disquieting influence of the classical tradition. Bernini’s stage device of a double stage in which two theatres were brought face to face had disconcertingly recreated the elder Pliny’s report of the two theatres sponsored by Gaius Curio in 52 B.C., recently re-familiarized in Giambattista Marino’s sensational poem the L’Adone of 1624 (Coy 1983). Pliny’s image of the conquerors of the world left precariously exposed in their rickety seats, “hanging on a contraption and applauding their own danger”, yet “doomed to perish at some moment”, left the aristocracy of early modern Rome contemplating their own implication in a narrative of overweening imperial power. What seemed like a typical theatrical device of the seventeenth-century stage playing on dissimulation and the strategy of surprise (“la maraviglia”) was imbued with distressing realities and insecurities about the impermanence of power by its echoes of the self-destructive tendencies of ancient performance. The pervasiveness of the metaphor of the theatrum mundi in contemporary performances could leave no doubts about the implications of Pliny’s image of the subjugators of the globe trapped in a double theatre with all the conflicted subjectivity of conquerors of the world experiencing the trauma of subjugation themselves. The exaggerated displays of emotion provoked by the performance were not only at odds with the demands of court culture to keep emotions in check, but through the allusion to classical text occasioned introspective responses outside the domain of the theatre where emotional catharsis was acceptable. At a time when the increasingly elaborate theatrical performances of Baroque Rome could be regarded as symbolic recompense for a loss of political and military power, the resonances of the two theatres erected by Curio and their interpretation as a metaphor for the dangers of world conquest came far too close to the bone.

Session/Panel Title

Problems in Performance: Failure in Classical Reception Studies

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