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Introduction to Theatre Online Course

Dr. Eric W. Trumbull, Professor, Theatre/Speech

Last update: November 16, 2007

The Renaissance / Neoclassicism in Italy

Resource: Wilson and Goldfarb, Chapter 12

Objectives for this lesson:

Students will examine:

The Renaissance

Around 1300 (had beginnings in 1200’s) the Renaissance, founded primarily in Italy.

Renaissance = rebirth.

There were new ideas, based on classical teachings.

By the 16th century, the Renaissance had permeated most of European thought.


Influences on the Renaissance:

Weakening Church influence:

The Papacy was moved to Avignon, France, in 1305. In 1405, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey) fell to the Turks. Scholars fled West with valuable manuscripts, including some Greek dramas.

1465 – the Printing Press invented, the Bible and some manuscripts were printed.

By 1467-1470, the printing press and printed manuscripts get to Italy, and classical plays become staged at Universities and Courts or Academies (club-like learning organizations). Manuscripts also dealt with ancient architecture, Aristotle’s works, Horace, etc.

In Italy, the nobility patronized the arts; playwrights were then often under noble patronage.

The Major Renaissance contributions to the Theatre:

    1. Neoclassical ideal in playwriting and criticism
    2. Italianate staging and architecture
    3. Commedia dell’Arte

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Neoclassicism: "New Classicism:

Interest in the ancient "rediscovered" classics – based more on Roman (where Italy now stood) than on Greek

Central concepts of neoclassicism:

    1. Verisimilitude: "truth seeming" – what is truth?
    2. In drama – could represent only what could be reasonably expected in real life

    3. Decorum: characters were expected to display traits normally held by members of their class, or to suffer ridicule or punishment if not.
    4. Good was to be rewarded, and evil punished – there was an eternal truth.

    5. Purity of Genres:
    6. Comedy and tragedy were not to be mixed – NO element of one should be in the other.

      Tragedy was to have:  characters of high station, deal with affairs of state, have elevated language, have an unhappy ending.

      Comedy was to have:  lower and middle-class characters, deal with domestic affairs, use less elevated language, have a happy ending.

      Therefore: the prose tragedy or domestic tragedy was unacceptable.

    7. The Three Unities: -- for verisimilitude.
    8. Neoclassicism focused on:

      Unity of Time: --required a reasonable time – no more than 24 hours – or actual time

      (This was to cause some disagreement: did this mean that the play had to occur in actual time [just as Oedipus Rex takes place in only an hour and a half – the actual length of the play], or could it be extended to a full day [daylight, or a 24-hour day?].

      Unity of Place: --no more than one room, place [as Oedipus took place in front of the palace], or a town [or country, etc.]

      Unity of Action: --no sub-plots, counter-plots, secondary plots--

      not as important an influence as the other two unities

    9. Five act form: --probably derived form Horace and Seneca

    10. Two-fold purpose: --to teach and to please.

Moral precepts: a justification for theatre – partly in order to mollify those who still thought theatre was immoral [such as the Church], theatre took on an very important societal function—to teach as well. Not just an art form. Perhaps Plato would have approved.


By 1600, Renaissance thought had moved to other parts of Europe.

Remained dominant for over 200 years, especially among upper classes.

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Italianate Staging

Involved an amalgam of ideas (like neoclassicism) of classical Rome and present-day Italy…

1486 – Virtuvius’s De Architectura (16-13 B.C.) was printed and published. Ten volumes, one of them on theatre buildings and scenic displays.

1500 – Perspective was "rediscovered" – had been known to the ancients.

1545 – Sabastiano Serlio – Dell’Architettura – an interpretation of Vitruvius.

Set guidelines for theatres and design – tried to fit classical theatre (circular and outdoors) into indoor theatres, able to use perspective.

1585 – Teatro Olimpico – in Vicenza, Italy. The oldest surviving Renaissance theatre.

Had fixed perspective scenes in each of five doors. Was not adaptable enough. (see photo in text)

1618 – Teatro Farnese – in Parma. The first theatre built with a permanent proscenium arch – it protected the illusion of perspective. Additional arches were farther back to add depth.

Italianate staging in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries:

    1. single-point perspective, calculated from the back of the house
    2. scenery – consisted of a series of wings / flats (see image in text)
    3. scenery was behind the proscenium arch – a background for action
    4. "raked" stage – higher in back (UP-stage), tilting down to the front (DOWN-stage) – to increase the sense of depth – although sometimes the acting area was level
    5. overhead rigging and machinery – hidden by border flats
    6. proscenium arch, or several, made for a framed picture.

Elongated U-shaped auditorium. Boxes in tiers around walls (usually 2 or more); undivided gallery above top row (for servants / lower classes).

Central floor space (orchestra or pit) was not a popular place for the elite until the late 19th century, and some theatres had no seats till the late 18th century; spectators could stand and move about—for fashionable young men and would-be critics – middle-classes. Priced less than boxes but more than the gallery.

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Artificial lighting:

To perfect this system, Italian artists tried new ways to shift the scenery.

Used mostly in public opera houses, which had opened in Venice in 1637 (in other words, Italianate stage occurred primarily in the theatres doing plays that were not neoclassical).

Serlio wanted three-dimensional – hard to shift – so it was changed to two-dimensional

Pageant wagons used for carrying portable things

By 1550, periaktoi (triangular "flats") were used for changing wings.

Nicola Sabbattini (1574-1654) in 1638 published a Manual for constructing theatrical scenes and machines. Angle wings were replaced with flat wings and suggested ways of shifting scenery:

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Giacomo Torelli in 1645 came up with a new innovation in all of Europe except England:

The Chariot-and-Pole System

First take look at this graphic of the Chariot-and-Pole System. (and see drawings in text)

Italianate Special Effects:

Neoclassicism in drama still wanted little attention to the supernatural, so dramas were done with few special effects.

Operas (which had become popular in Italy), intermezzi (short courtly shows given between acts of dramas), and lavish dances had extravagant special effects:

Trap doors, glories, scenes shifted with no curtain. (see description in text)

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Commedia dell’Arte

Came into prominence in Italy after 1550. By the end of the 1500’s, there were troupes in other parts of Europe; by the 17th century, in all of Europe.

But it diminished after 1750 and was "dead" by 1800.

Played to all kinds of audiences in all kinds of places.

The basic story was described on a scenario – almost 800 still survive, but there is still no clear picture of the quality of the performances, although accounts say the performers were skilled.

Never achieved international prominence.

The scenario was improvised, with stock characters and lazzi, proven comic routines or comic bits).


Characters: (see drawing of "stock" characters in text)

  • Pantalone – the old man, a fool
  • Dottore – the doctor, a drunk or glutton
  • Capitano – braggart soldier
  • Inamorati – the young lovers – the only "normal" characters
  • "zanni" -- foolish servants; Harlequin (or Arlecchino) was the most popular
By 1750, Italian theatre was no longer in prominence, except for the opera.
France and England became the prominent forces for world theatre.


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You can take short study quizzes based on textbook materials by going to the Student Online Learning Center page for our textbook...

The Renaissance in England: Medieval to Elizabethan Theatre



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Page last updated : November 16, 2007