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Giacomo Torelli, Sir Philip Skippon, and Stage Machinery for the Venetian Opera

Author(s): Orville K. Larson

Source: Theatre Journal, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Dec., 1980), pp. 448-457
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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Accessed: 06/11/2010 02:45

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Giacomo Torelli, Sir PhilipSkippon,and

Stage Machineryfor the Venetian Opera

In the evolution of the chariot system of stage machinery developed for shifting
the Baroque theatre's perspective settings, it is apparent that the system culminated
in Venetian opera houses during the middle of the seventeenth century. Giacomo
Torelli, the egocentric scene designer and stage machinist, is usually associated with
its creation. Just what Torelli contributed to the system, however, is not quite clear.
An official Venetian document states that "Torelli invented means of moving scen-
ery with a winch which he used in four theatres: in Parma, Paris, Fano, and
Venice."1 The eighteenth-century architectural historian Francesco Miliza noted
that Torelli "invented scenic machines in his native country which were so ap-
plauded for this novelty that fame brought him to the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo
in Venice, [where] he invented a wonderful machine for shifting all the settings in an
instant."2 Miliza was not entirely correct; Torelli worked at the Teatro Novissimo,
not the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo.
Although some historians have accepted Torelli as the inventor of the chariot sys-
tem, hard evidence to substantiate this belief is not extant. The printed description
of one of Torelli's productions, which credits him with the invention, are the words
of Guilio del Colle; his lavish praise of Torelli's mechanical genius is somewhat sus-
pect when one realizes that "Guilio del Colle" is thought to be a pseudonym for Tor-
elli himself.3 Torelli was never immodest about his claims of achievements.
Years ago Franz Rapp suggested that the true developer of the chariot system was
Gian Battista Aleotti, and that Aleotti developed it in Ferrara'sTeatro degl'Intrepidi
in 1606.4 Another theory states that Bernardo Buontalenti developed the system for
the Florentine intermezzi of 1585-1589,5 but this assumption is based upon remarks

Orville K. Larson directs graduate studies in theatre history at Kent State University.

Museo Civico Cod., cicogna 2291, fasc. II, fol. 30.

2 Francesco Miliza, Memorie degli architetti antichi e moderni (Parma, 1781), II, 213.
3 See the introduction to II
Bellerofonte drama musicali del. Sigr. Vicenzo Nolfi da F. Rappresentato nel
Teatro Novissimo in Venezia da Giacomo Torelli de Fano inventore delli apparati dedicato al Sermo. Fer-
dinando II Gran Duca di Toscanni, 1642.
4 Franz
Rapp, "EinTheaterbauplan des Giovanni Battista Aleotti," Schritten der Gesellschaft siir The-
atergeschichte 41 (ed. Max Herrmann, London, 1930), 114.
5 Charles Niemeyer, "The Renaissance and Baroque Theatre in France:The Playhouse and the Mise-en-
scene." Diss. Yale 1942.


in Fillipo Baldinucci's biography of Buontalenti, which are no more conclusive than

Rapp's conjectures.6
Aleotti was involved in the designing and building of the Farnese theatre in Parma,
and there is evidence that he installed some version of a chariot system there by
1618. In a letter dated 18 March 1618, reporting on the progress of Difesa delle bel-
lezza (the production planned to inaugurate the Farnese that year), Aleotti informed
Ranuccio I, Duke of Parma, that "Aurora's machine was adjusted and some of the
scenic wings, which must slide one in front of the other, were set up. And as they
were shifted," Aleotti explained, "it was a very beautiful effect."7 In addition, the
royal building records of the Duke's court for the month of July note that Maestro
Bernardino Rovina requested "twenty walnut wheels, each six inches in diameter,
for the rolling cars which bear the scenic wings."8 The statement adds that they were
ordered. Despite Aleotti's use of the word "slide," the reference to walnut wheels
does not conclusively establish that the wings at the Farnese slid back and forth in
grooves on the stage floor and were shifted by hand, as has been recently suggested.9
Torelli is often credited with the introduction of the winch or windlass, as the offi-
cial Venetian document indicates, but Federico Zuccaro's description of the produc-
tion of L'Idropica, which he saw in Parma in 1608 (the year Torelli was born), men-
tions this device. "At the sound of a trumpet, the great curtain was raised from the
stage to the roof of the hall by a huge counterweight. The intermezzi were marve-
lous, but no less pleasure did I get from seeing the huge engine, the windlass, the
stout cables, the ropes and cords by which the machines were manipulated or the
enormous number of men necessary for working them, each at his post ready at the
signal to raise or lower, to move or stay motionless. More than three hundred of
these stagehands were employed. All requiring" Zuccaro concluded, "experience,
skill and ability, together with dexterity, acuteness and judgement."10
Much of our information about the seventeenth century Venetian theatre has been
provided by European travelers who have recorded their impressions of the per-
formances they attended in Venice. Perhaps one of the best known of these is the En-
glishman John Evelyn, who kept a voluminous diary of his travels. While in Venice
during Ascension Week of 1645, Evelyn attended four operas at the Teatro Novis-
simo and the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo, including Ercole in Lidia, Torelli's last
Venetian production before departing for Paris. Evelyn wrote, "with my Lord Bruce
. . .we went to the Opera where comedies and other plays were represented [with]
recitative music by the most excellent vocal and instrumental musicians, in a variety
of scenes painted and controlled with no less art of perspective, and machines for
flying through the air . . . the history was Hercules in Lidia, and the scene changed

Filippo Baldinucci, Delle notizie de professori de desegno da cimabue in qua. (Firenze, 1688), IV, 104.

7 Glauco Lombardi, "IIteatro farnesiano di Parma," Archivio storico per le province Parmensi n.s. IX
(ed. Glauco Lombardi, Parma, 1908), 8.
8 Lombardi, p. 38.
9 Dunbar M.
Ogden, The Italian Baroque Theatre (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978),
p. 2.
10 Federico Zuccaro, "La dimora da Parma," II
passagio per italia (Bologna, 1608), p. 27.
450 / TJ,December1980

thirteen times."'1 Obviously Evelyn witnessed the mechanical ingenuity that had
earned Torelli the nickname II grande stregone (the great sorcerer), and gave rise to
the allegation that Torelli was in league with the devil.
Based upon extant information, it seems that Torelli acquired his reputation as a
mechanical wizard by introducing a counterweight to turn the drum of the chariot
system, which previously had been moved by stagehands turning capstans of vari-
ous sizes. Counterweights were well known to backstage mechanics at this time;
Zuccaro saw them in Parma in 1608, and Sabbattini gives instruction on how to use
them in his chapter on "How the Front Curtain is Raised" in 1637.12 But apparently
counterweights had not been used previously for anything else. Torelli seems to
have been the first to add the counterweight to make the drums, around which
coiled the ropes controlling the chariots, revolve faster than had been possible by
manpower alone, thus causing the wings to change in a "single quick movement," as
an anonymous eye-witness explains: "the artifice of this change . .. was miraculous,
for a single boy of fifteen set it in motion by releasing a counterweight held by a
ratchet. This weight caused a revolving drum below stage to turn which moved all
the scene wings backwards and forwards. There were sixteen of these wings, eight
on a side. By this means, all the wings were shifted in a single quick movement, thus
creating great amazement on the part of the spectators."13
Extant ground plans of seventeenth century theatres diagram chariot systems of
various sizes on the floors of their stagehouses, but show only the layout of the
various sets of chariots. None indicate the number of slots or chariots to a set, nor
do they reveal any kind of mechanical system for their operation. A single drawing
of a chariot system, often reproduced, is among the drawings of stage machinery
and setting, thought to be of the seventeenth century, in the Biblioteca Palatina in
Parma (Plate 1). Informative as this front elevation of the stage floor, substage floor,
and chariot system is, it does not indicate a counterweight system.
Another English visitor to Venice, by no means as well-known as John Evelyn,
also kept an account of his travels (as was the fashion of the time). Sir Philip Skip-
pon (born 1640) was the son of Philip Skippon (d. 1660), a popular parliamentarian
general in the English Civil War. Sir Philip traveled extensively when in his early
twenties. A record of his trip, "An Account of a Journey made thro' part of the Low-
Countries, Germany, Italy and France" was published in 1732.14 Skippon was in

11Memoirs of John Evelyn, ed. W. Bray (London, 1819), I, 191.

12 Nicola
Sabbattini, Pratica di fabricar scene e machine ne'teatri (Ravenna, 1637), ch. 37.
13 Il cannochiale
per La Finta Pazza dell Strozzi delineato da N.B.-G. di C. in Venetia MDCXXXXIper
Gio. Battista Surain, p. 8.
14 A Collection
of Voyages and Travels (ed. Awnshan Churchill, London, 1732), VI, 359-736. Skip-
pon's account of the Venetian opera including the two diagrams are pages 506-8. All references to Skip-
pon's remarks are from these three pages. I am indebted to graduate student Walter Grodzik for pointing
out Christine J. Day's "The Theatre of SS. Giovanni e Paolo and Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Pop-
pea," in Current Musicology 25 (1978), 22-38. Ms. Day summarizes Skippon's remarks about his Vene-
tian visit and does reproduce his drawings of stage machinery, but makes no attempt to appraise them in
terms of Venetian stage machinery.

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Venice for the carnival season that began the day after Christmas of 1664, and long
before Limojon de S. Didier recorded his impressions of the Venetian carnival and
opera season, Skippon supplied a vivid picture of carnival life in the Piazza di San
Marco. Commenting on the licentiousness of the time, he describes a public carnival
ball where he says "the ordinary people" could meet the most notorious Venetian
courtesans. He estimates he saw thousands of masqueraders in the Piazza, some of
whom he describes in detail. Of one particular group that caught his eye, he says,
"They had baskets of eggs, which they threw at some of those who looked out of the
windows. Some of the eggshells," he explained, "were filled with rose water to
throw at their friends. And some were filled with ink."
But it was the opera for which Skippon recorded most details. "The operas of
Venice," he declared, "arecomedies acted . . . with a great deal of magnificence and
curiosity. We saw three of them . .. two at the Theatro Grimani (so-called because
Grimani built it and contrived the scenes)." What Skippon called the Grimani
theatre was actually the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo, owned by the Grimani fam-
ily, who were prominent theatrical entrepreneurs. On the morning of the perform-
ance, he related, "we hired chairs for five in the cokpit . . . paying two livres, be-
sides the four livres apiece for our bolletini or printed tickets." At show time, "we
took our seats which were marked with one of our names, and observed the play-
house to be oval and high built, having seven stories of little boxes or balcos for the
noblemen, merchants, etc. These patrons," he explained, "pay a set rate for each
box; and the first time they take them, they pay a year's rate before-hand."
The first performance Skippon attended was of a three act opera, Rosilena. He re-
corded that the musicians were placed in front of the stage and "on each side of the
stage was a fair statue." Before the curtain was raised to begin the performance "a
trumpet sounded and a violin answered it very well." The scenes "were stately and
seemed natural. The settings, above which clouds seemed to move, exactly repre-
sented gardens, houses, etc." The scene changes, he thought, "were very neat and ar-
tificial." There were "antique dances, rarely performed, by persons dressed like Ar-
menians and pages." And the unidentified performer who sang the role of Rosilena,
Skippon said, "was Roman-born and reputed to be the very best voice in the world."
Commenting on the audience, Skippon related that "when anything pleased very
well, the company [audience] cried Bien-Bien. The Gentlewomen came in masquer-
ade, but when they were in their boxes they pulled off their wizards." He said of the
male companions, "the noblemen were indifferently silent and those in the boxes do
not spit so often into the pit as they do at some plays."
Skippon's second visit to the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo was to see the smash hit
of that season, Scipione Africano, with music by Francesco Cavelli and a libretto by
Count Nicol Minato, which, according to Skippon, "was counted the best opera."
Apparently all performances at the SS. Giovanni e Paolo commenced with the trum-
pet-violin overture because this production started in the same manner. When the
curtain went up, "there appeared a magnificent scene representing an amphitheatre
filled with spectators. And at the further end sat Scipio Africanus in his triumphant
chair, before whom the gladiators danced and fought well." After this, Skippon con-

tinued, "therewas a remarkable flying down of one (like Fortune), with a sail from a
tower." And later, "two more, falling from another tower."
As in the first production, Skippon again witnessed two dances by the choro (the
singer-dancers, who in some Venetian operas fulfilled the function of both the
chorus and the corp de ballet), "a dance of spirits, very antique," and "another
dance of martialists." Among the scenic effects, Skippon saw "ships burnt at sea, a
Sybil who vanished into the ground ... as well as other curious representations and
fair perspectives." The same performer (still unidentified) who sang Rosilena created
the part of Ericlea in Scipio and, according to Skippon, "she again acquitted herself
very well and received great applause."
Although he doesn't identify it, the one opera Skippon saw at the Teatro San Sal-
vatore, in which he says, "all was sung," probably was Cavalli's Muzio Scevola,
with a libretto by Minato. The actor's costumes, he observed "appearedrich, though
they wore false jewels and bad silver." The settings, he thought, "were very fair . . .
there was represented an earthquake, gardens, a palace, a castle . . . and a curious
perspective. These pictured scenes are very lively at a good distance by candlelight,
but near at hand the work is very great and coarse." Again the choro danced twice:
"the first performed by pages and the last by fencers, who fenced very neatly and ar-
tificially, making thrusts regularly . .. to the humour of the music." Skippon con-
cluded his comments by observing that "the humour of the play seemed much like
the former two, having an old woman that made some sport, etc. ..."
Skippon's account is not as complete as others for general details of Venetian
opera performances, although it does confirm what later visitors such as Limojon de
Didier and Edward Wright observed in Venice.15 What makes his account so impor-
tant are Skippon's specific details of stage machinery he personally observed back-
stage at the SS. Giovanni e Paolo theatre. The mechanical effects of the operas clearly
interested Sir Philip very much, and his comments that the scenery at the San Salva-
tore was "very great and coarse" when seen closeup attests to his interest in Venetian
stagecraft. At the conclusion of his remarks about the operas, Skippon turns his at-
tention to the stage machinery he saw in operation. He was most intrigued with the
machines to change the scenes and those for individual flights, and says, "at the
opera of S. Giov. e Paolo we observed the scenes changed in this manner." What fol-
lows is the first detailed explanation of the chariot system accompanied by explana-
tory diagrams, identified as the stage machinery used in a specific theatre at a spe-
cific time.
The drawing relating to the chariot system (Plate 2) contains two diagrams. The
first, labeled A, is a plan of the stage floor, which Skippon says "rises as prospects
do from the eye." The plan indicates eight sets of double slots, eight on each side
(labeled 0), and Skippon notes "The frames of the scenes move within the slits o o o
o &c., made in the floor of the stage A."

15 A. T.
Limojon de St. Didier, The City and Republic of Venice (London, 1699), Part III, 55-67; Ed-
ward Wright, Some observations made in Traveling through France, Italy, etc. (London, 1730), I, 84ff.
454 / TJ,December1980

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Plate 2

Before beginning his explanation of how the chariot system worked, Skippon calls
attention to a mistake in the diagram of the system. "Note: the stone S, and the
pulley F, seem falsely represented in this scheme; for the stone should appear down-
wards in the motion, below M." Despite the error in the diagram, it clearly illus-
trates Skippon's explanation:
There is under the stage a long axis A B, which has fastened to it cords d d d d d, with
iron hooks h h h h h, and a long rope E, which being pulled down by the weight of the
stone S, moves over the pulley F, and unwinds at C D. This stone, by the help of the cord
o is wound up over the stage, at the turnstile M, and that being let go, the rope E, un-
winding off the axis A B, turns the axis from C to D, and winds up the cords d d d d d,
and the aforementioned hooks being put into the noose of ropes i i i i iic., pull towards
the axis animae; or bottom of the frames wherein the painted scenes are, and bring them
forward in sight of the spectators; y y &c., is a cord that couples two of these animae, and
as the hook i is placed in the noose, so the bottom of the frames or animae move forward
and backward, ex. gr., when x y is drawn forward, then b c is pulled backwards, the cord
y moving on pulley z. There is a man always standing ready at M, who upon the given
signal, lets the stone fall, and changes a great number of scenes (wings), on a sudden,
there being many of these hooks and animae. Before another scene appears, the stone
must be wound up again.

There are marked similarities between the system Skippon describes in operation
at the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo in 1665 and Torelli's system the anonymous eye-
witness reported seeing at the Teatro Novissimo in 1641. Both, for example utilize
eight sets of wings on a side. Although there may have been variations and possibly
even improvements in the system, Skippon's description of the chariots do, in fact,
coincide specifically with so many of the details in the anonymous account that
Skippon's description includes all the characteristics of Torelli's system. Skippon's
diagram thus may be viewed as the first illustration of the earlier system. Obviously


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Plate 5

Torelli's mechanism had been assimilated in all Venetian opera houses soon after his
departure for Paris.
Turning his attention momentarily to the fly gallery of the SS. Giovanni e Paolo
stage, Skippon explains that "over the top of the stage are many floors." Of the bor-
ders aloft, he says, 'These scenes which fall downwards, as arches &c., are let down
by a long axis above, just in the same manner" (emphasis added), implying a stone
or counterweight similar to the one he describes for the animae or chariots. A draw-
ing in the Palatine collection (Plate 3) illustrates a similar system with a long axis.
Skippon also notes that the main curtain "is drawn up by a great many ropes lapped
about an axis, which is also turned by the weight of a great stone." His description
echoes Zuccaro's earlier one in Parma, and another drawing in the Biblioteca
Palatina (Plate 4) diagrams what appears to be an identical arrangement.16
Sir Philip was intrigued with the individual flights, and the mechanism he calls
'The Engine used to fly down with" (Plate 5) probably explains how Torelli's Bel-
lerofonte flew through the heavens searching for the terrible monster, the Chimera,
at the Teatro Novissimo in 1642, as well as the flights Skippon witnessed in 1665. In-
dividual flights of deities and mortals were an integral part of seventeenth century
In light of Skippon's remarks that "on each side of the stage was a fair statue" in the Teatro SS. Gio-
vanni e Paolo, one is tempted to suggest that the two figures holding torches on each side of a curtain in
the Palatine drawing (Plate 4) might indeed be the "fair statues" on each side of the front curtain of the
Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo. This, however, remains an assumption.

operas and Skippon tells us how they were contrived. It should first be explained,
however, that Skippon's term "furrows" refers to the pair of tracks, or grooved
beams, set above and parallel to the side wings, in which the machines of winches
that controlled the flights moved as they traversed the stage from one side to the
other. Skippon's "Engine to fly down" was constructed and operated in the follow-
ing manner: "A B C D are two furrows in a long frame [which] cross the top of the
scenes. E E E E are four wheels belonging to a chariot that hangs underneath, and
wherein the actor fits, who flies by the help of two small chains M M, which chains
unwind off the axis at G G; and as they unwind, a rope, tied to a beam at K, is
wound up on a wheel i, and the chariot runs from M to K. Another rope tied to the
back of the engine at M, unwinds off the axis at L, which being wound up again,
draws back the engine."
One drawing at the Palatina shows a flight machine much more sophisticated than
the one Skippon describes. It diagrams an intricate use of counterweights not only to
move the winches from side to side, but also to move actors up and down in flight.
This raises a question: is the lack of counterweights in Skippon's drawing an over-
sight, or weren't they used? In light of his descriptions of the comprehensive use of
counterweights for other mechanical operations, it is difficult to assume that they
were not used in 1665 for flight operations as well. Yet Skippon gives us no clue.
In conclusion, Sir Philip Skippon's drawings and comments on the Venetian opera
are important for several reasons. First, his drawings and explanations of the chariot
system give us the earliest known authentic drawing of the system as used in a spe-
cific and established theatre at a given point in time. Second, his comments reveal an
extensive use of counterweights in stage mechanics not only for the chariot systems,
but for other stage machinery as well. Although this generally has been assumed by
theatre historians, Skippon's remarks are hard evidence of the fact. Third, when his
information about the use of counterweights is appraised and compared with the
systems diagrammed in the Palatine drawings, the similarities further strengthen the
assumption that those still unidentified are drawings of machinery for Venetian
opera houses and not for the Teatro Farnese, as Alois Nagler has assumed.17In addi-
tion, Skippon's drawing probably represents the codification of the chariot system
Torelli originally introduced at the Teatro Novissimo in 1641. And finally,
Skippon's overall impressions of the Venetian opera during the carnival season of
1664-65, add another facet to our knowledge of the theatre of that most fascinating
period of theatrical and musical history, even down to such trivial knowledge that
the nobility at the Venetian opera "do not spit so often into the pit as they do at
some plays"; all of which continues to expand our understanding of the total theatre

Alois Nagler, Theatre Festivals of the Medici 1538-1637 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964).
See especially Plates 130, 131, 132 & 135. Cesare Molinari has identified at least six of the settings among
the drawings in the Biblioteca Palatina (including Nagler's plates 130 & 131), as settings for Guilio Cesare
Corradi's opera La Divisione del Mondo, produced at the Teatro Vendramino di San Salvatore in Venice
in 1675. See Molinari, "Designi a Parma per uno spettaclo Veneziaon," Critica d'Arte 70 (1965), 47-64.

Minat Terkait