Italian culture and history: Vicenza’s Teatro Olimpico
- WTI Magazine #112 Feb 16, 2019
The Teatro Olimpico is one of Vicenza’s artistic wonders and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This theatre is the absolute climax of the creativity of one of the greatest Italian architects, Andrea Palladio, who was openly inspired by the Roman theatres described by Vitruvius. Commissioned in 1580 by the Olympic Academy, Palladio began planning it in the same year, but never saw it complete as he unexpectedly died.
Inaugurated on March 3, 1585, with the memorable production of Sophocles's Oedipus the King, it is the oldest enclosed theatre in the world. Access is provided through two halls, Odeo and Antiodeo, which were created by another great architect from Vicenza, Vincenzo Scamozzi. They were respectively decorated with frescoes by Francesco Maffei depicting divinities and allegorical figures (1637) and a monochrome frieze (1595)).
The interior simulates the outdoor setting of classical theatres, with a monumental rectangular proscenium. Seven wooden perspective scenes depicting the streets of Thebes depart from here in a sunburst pattern. They were made by Scamozzi for the inaugural performance and are still intact today.
The semi-elliptical cavea or seating area with its 13 large steps dominated by a columned exedra complete the structure. The grandiose proscenium is divided into 3 sections: The bottom one opens into the central triumphal arch (porta regia) and two smaller side openings (hospitalia), the middle section has niches with statues of academics and the top section has a series of metopes depicting the feats of Hercules.
The fame of this new theatre located within the Palazzo del Territorio complex soon spread throughout Italy, arousing admiration by those who saw their humanistic dream of reliving classical art come true. The theatre’s activities were interrupted during the Counter-Reformation and it was used for official occasions to receive guests. However, classical performances resumed - albeit occasionally - towards the middle of the 19th century. It is only after the war that the theatre returned to its earlier splendours with performances unlike any others in the world. Finally, certain moderate interventions and adaptations were made during the 1900s.
Today, performances at Vicenza’s theatre are limited to audiences of 400 people (so it is not damaged). Events begin in the spring season with certain classical music performances and some concerts during the Vicenza Jazz festival (Settimane Musicali al Teatro Olimpico and Il Suono dell’Olimpico festivals) while the theatre hosts the famous Season of Classical Performances held in the autumn.