(Joseph Cermatori’s article appeared in The New York Times, 6/11; via Pam Green; Illustration: Rotating the perspective to depict massive, magnificent interiors, the Bibiena family transformed stage design in the 17th and 18th centuries.Credit…Morgan Library & Museum.)
The Bibienas, the focus of an exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum, dominated Baroque theatrical design.
Many of us have not seen the inside of a theater in well over a year. But as performance spaces around the country are on the verge of reopening, the Morgan Library & Museum is offering a quietly astonishing reminder of what we’ve been missing.
Open through Sept. 12 at the Morgan, “Architecture, Theater and Fantasy” is a small but exquisite show of drawings by the Bibiena family, which transformed theatrical design in the 17th and 18th centuries. Organized around a promised gift to the museum of 25 Bibiena works by Jules Fisher, the Tony Award-winning Broadway lighting designer, the exhibit is the first in the United States of the family’s drawings in over 30 years.
From Lisbon to St. Petersburg, Russia, the Bibienas dominated every major court theater in Baroque Europe. Their innovations in perspective opened new dramatic possibilities, and their lavish projects cost vast sums, with single spectacles running budgets of up to $10 million in today’s dollars. Writing to Alexander Pope of an opera performed outdoors in Vienna to consecrate the Austrian crown prince’s birth in 1716, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu described a massive stage constructed over a canal. Gilded flotillas sailed beneath it — a spectacle, she wrote, “so large that it is hard to carry the eye to the end of it.”
That production’s designer, Ferdinando Galli Bibiena (1657-1743), had arrived in Vienna in 1711 as the official scenographer for the Hapsburg court of Charles VII. His father, the Tuscan painter Giovanni Maria Galli (1618-65), came from a village in Arezzo called Bibbiena, and adapted its name as his own. Young Ferdinando started out in Bologna as a master of quadratura, or illusionistic ceiling painting. But his theatrical talents took his career in other directions in the 1680s.
Until that time, European scenery primarily utilized single-point perspective. This optical technique, perfected in 15th-century Italian visual art, arranged scenic images around a central vanishing point, creating the semblance of an infinitely receding space. (A Bibiena drawing already in the Morgan’s collection makes the regress dizzyingly, almost terrifyingly, steep.)