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Friday, January 13, 2012

Thank God for Hollywood

Imagine the challenge of contemplating a blank canvas perhaps in the neighborhood of thirty feet tall and some forty feet in width. It that wouldn't be intimidating enough, consider being asked to paint on that canvas the interior of a great Baroque church or a grand palace complete with massive columns, intricate vaulted arches, statuary, and wall murals. Welcome to the world of eighteenth-century stage design where the architect and painter worked hand-in-hand to paint the enormous backdrops for the most popular form of entertainment of the day--grand opera. Even a Hollywood set designer could learn a thing or two from the Galli-Bibiena family of gifted designers skilled in all the theatrical arts of the time, when the soaring operatic presentations demanded everything from ornate palaces to pitched naval engagements. It was a time when grandiose theatrical effects blurred the lines between mechanical engineer, pyrotechnical technician, architect, painter, set designer, and interior decorator.

Set design by Ferdinando Galli-Bibiena ca. 1710. The actual backdrop
 was in color and has, of course, long since disappeared.
Ferdinando Galli-Bibiena's stage sets were often more inspiring than the wailing sopranos and bellowing baritones who found themselves competing with them for the audience's attention. Even in Venice, where performances of Grand opera were more important than the water in the Grand Canal, his towering backdrops broke new ground in painting, architecture, and set design. He invented what he called "oblique view" perspective. It was basically two-point perspective with a very low horizon, corresponding to the average eye-level of the seated theater audience.  (Previously one-point perspective, unrelated to the theater itself, had been the norm.) Combined with just enough peripheral set construction to confuse the eye, his architectural backdrops blended with them perfectly to form the illusion of spatial depth creating breathtaking vistas known as "inquadratura,"--what the French would call (albeit on a smaller scale), tompe l'oeil or "fool the eye" painting.

A set design in "ruins," Gaspare Galliari, ca. 1790
In Milan and Turin, the Galliari family specialized in similar larger-than-life paintings except that their specialty tended toward the pastoral landscape in which the use of aerial perspective attempted to delude the audience, transporting them to faraway lands of sweeping grace and beauty. Their architectural wonders tended toward ancient Roman ruins, Chinese temples, and exotic pavilions, or busy seaports offering shelter from vast, stormy seas. What they lacked in historical accuracy, they more than made up for in splendorous Arcadian grandeur. So, the next time you sit down before your French easel to contemplate a flowing stream and your all-American covered bridge, think briefly about the efforts your Italian painting ancestors went to in order to deceive and entertain the grand dukes and duchesses three hundred years ago. Then take out your mighty 16-by-20-inch canvas panel and thank God for Hollywood.
Today, we're left only to imagine theatrical scenes such as this by
Gaspare Gallari, in brilliant color, mounting 30 to 40 feet above the
 stage while measuring 50 or 60 feet into the wings.

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