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During the Italian Renaissance there were major advances in art, architecture and theatre. Most of this was due to the discovery of perspective but some new discoveries in architecture also had a huge impact on how scenery as well as the theatres themselves were designed. Artists and architects alike decided to take their skills and apply them to the theatre both physically and through sketches and books. Scene designers and architects were able to create realistic depth on the stage through the use of perspective painted backdrops and scenic architecture.
Perspective was discovered by an architect and sculptor named Filippo Brunellesci. He conducted multiple experiments and studies between 1418 and 1425 to figure out how to make a three dimensional object look realistic in a two dimensional space and has four main characteristics. In linear perspective “”there is no distortion of straight lines, there is no distortion or foreshortening of anything parallel to the picture plane, everything parallel to the viewers eyes converge to a single vanishing point on the fixed position of the observer’s eye [vanishing point] and the size of objects diminishes in exact proportion to their distance from this observer.”” Basically, to create linear perspective there must be a predetermined vanishing point on a horizon line to which all lines parallel to the viewer’s eyes must precede. In its simplest form there is only one vanishing point but for a more complicated composition there can be up to four. When perspective was vaguely explored pre-Renaissance the philosopher Plato argued that it “”distorted the ‘true proportions’ of things, and replaced reality with subjective appearance.”” This is ironic because using linear perspective is the best way to capture life as it is observed which was discovered and put into full effect during the Renaissance. The illusion of depth through perspective revolutionized the way scenery was designed and it is theorized that the creation of the proscenium arch was meant to create a frame for ‘the picture of the stage’ so that theatre could be observed as a moving picture.
How it works
Another major discovery that heavily influenced set design in the theatre was the rediscovery of Vitruvius’s writings on architecture by Poggio Bracciolini in 1414. Vitruvius’s works, titled ‘De Architectura’ which are also sometimes called ‘Ten Books on Architecture’ contains multiple books focused on several different aspects of Roman architecture. Book V focuses on describing Roman theatre and led to the Renaissance revival of ancient theatre. He was very concerned with the architecture of the building as a whole saying, “”the essential geometry of the theatre was based on the circle and the triangle. Four equilateral triangles evenly placed in a circle give twelve angles.”” Vitruvius refers to this a cosmological model which also gives the circle of the zodiac and it’s twelve signs to emphasize that theatre is an ‘imitation of the cosmos.’ He also vaguely wrote about the Greek and Roman use of the periaktoi, which is a three sided device with a scene painted on each allowing for rapid scene changes. The device would spin to reveal one of the three required scenes; tragedy, comedy or satyr. In Renaissance theatre this acted mostly as decoration for the side wings or occasionally as the backdrop. While the Greeks and Romans only used three, during the Renaissance there would be up to nine or more scene changes lining the wings. The first staging using Vitruvius’s methods occured in 1508 with Ariosto’s Cassaria. Before this, the illusion of depth was created with just a receding backdrop relying solely on perspective painting. With the use of Vitruvius’s books, sets consisted of a constructed scenery so action could take place in the scene rather than just in front of it.
The architecture of the theatre building was also very important to Vitruvius which is why he focused so heavily on geometry and symmetry. The architect Palladio drew some inspiration from Vitruvius’s writings while also keeping the current stage type and effects in mind to build the Teatro Olimpico. For the first time it was seen as the architect’s job to establish the relationship between the actors and the audience so Palladio paid specific attention to the seating area, which he had arranged in a semi circle around the stage. Palladio wrote down all his plans but unfortunately died six months into the construction of the Teatro Olimpico and construction was taken over by Vincenzo Scamozzi who then attempted to recreate a Roman theatre. He succeeded by creating a wall facade with multiple doorways cut into it that featured street scenes that employed techniques in floor tilts and creating angles between the street walls and building heights in order to create “”foreshortened streets in perspective.””
During the Renaissance Nicola Sabbatini focused on stage effects and perfected the use of periaktoi. Sabbatini tried several different methods of changing scenery before deciding that Vitruvius’s periaktoi was the most effective. He would set up a series of periaktoi in the wings and they would be rotated by winches underneath the stage floor. They needed to be turned very carefully in order to not create gaps that would reveal the backstage area behind the. The raked stage also provided some complications. The periaktoi would have had to be raised above the highest point of the rake in order to turn so in his plans Sabbatini wrote about using a hinged shutter or possibly a piece of cloth painted to match the rest of the scene to hide the gap created by the raked stage.
Italian architect Sebastiano Serlio was especially influenced by Vitruvius and the use of perspective. Serlio published seven books on architecture titled Architettura compared to Vitruvius’s ten. His second book was all about perspective and he was the first Renaissance architect to write about set design. Serlio drew influence from Vitruvius and several other artists, including Alberti and Baldassare Peruzzi. Serlio focused on his illustrations providing brief commentary rather than writing an essay and adding the occasional occupying illustration. All of his scene illustrations heavily relied on the vanishing point and all parallel lines were drawn to converge in perspective. He also used the raked stage in combination with his use of perspective to make everything upstage look smaller and further away. In addition, Serlio used three sets of wings, painted in perspective, to further the illusion of perspective and also to hide the machines used for special effects.
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