Vicenza’s Teatro Olimpico can be counted among the most famous creations of the architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580). Palladio designed the theatre, but died before it could be completed. It is therefore only fair to see the theatre as a work by his student Vincenzo Scamozzi (1548-1616) as well. Scamozzi not only realised what his teacher had designed, but also added some elements of his own. The Teatro Olimpico reaches back to the Greco-Roman theatres of Antiquity. At the same time it influenced later theatres in Italy, such as the Teatro Farnese in Parma.
Andrea Palladio was born in 1508 in Padova as the son of a miller. His real name was Andrea della Gondola. Initially he worked as a stonemason, but then a meeting with the humanist Gian Giorgio Trissino (1478-1550) changed his life forever. It was Trissino who aroused his interest in Greco-Roman architecture and who nicknamed him Palladio, after the Greek goddess Pallas Athena. As of 1540 Palladio began working as an architect and he would gain everlasting fame by building beautiful villas and palazzos, dozens of which can be found around Vicenza. When he was seventy years old, Palladio was commissioned to design and build a theatre for the Accademia Olimpica, a theatre academy founded in 1555 of which the architect was himself a member. The theatre was to be built inside an old and abandoned fortress. In 1579 Palladio finished the design and he lived just long enough to see the construction begin in 1580. On 19 August 1580 the architect passed away at the age of 71. Andrea Palladio was buried in the church of Santa Corona in Vicenza.
After Palladio’s death the construction of the Teatro Olimpico was continued by his youngest son. The architect had named all of his children after famous figures from Antiquity. His sons Leonida, Marcantonio, Orazio and Silla had been named after the Spartan king Leonidas, the Roman statesman and general Mark Antony, the Roman poet Horace and the Roman statesman and general Sulla respectively. His daughter Zenobia was named after the queen of Palmyra who considered herself Augusta (empress) of the Roman Empire. Silla Palladio proved to be not even half as competent as his father. It is quite telling that we know next to nothing about his life. Soon the project would be entrusted to Vincenzo Scamozzi. I have not been able to find out whether Silla was allowed to stay on, but there can be no doubt that it was Scamozzi who left his mark on the theatre. The Teatro Olimpico was completed in 1585. On 3 March of that year the first performance was held, the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex by Sophocles.
A tour of the theatre
I already mentioned that the theatre was built inside an existing complex. The complex is entered through a gate built by Scamozzi which is decorated with the letters TEATRO OLIMPICO. The letters are not just there for decoration. Without them, people standing outside the walls of the complex would not have a clue that there was a Renaissance theatre inside. The gate gives access to a nice garden with statues. In a corner we can still spot a tower from the old fortress. The garden in its turn gives access to the odeon or odeum, which was designed by Scamozzi. The small room is decorated with good wall frescoes of the Olympian gods, and on the wall is the banner of the Accademia Olimpica. The odeon is used for smaller recitals.
The next room is the anteodeon, also designed by Scamozzi. This is where the original oil lamps of the stage are kept. Of course these are no longer used in modern performances: that would be much too dangerous. Unlike the classical Greco-Roman theatres, the Teatro Olimpico is made of wood instead of stone or marble.
From a corridor between the anteodeon and the theatre we reach the theatre itself. Although it certainly looks like it was made of marble, it is in fact a wooden construction covered in plaster. Although perhaps a bit cheap, it does look convincing. The permanent background of the stage, the so-called scaenae frons, is an extraordinary technical feat. This part of the theatre must be wholly attributed to Scamozzi as well. Behind the wall with the large gate (Porta Regia) we see several streets in the Ancient Greek city of Thebes. This is the city where the tragedy of Oedipus Rex is set. Oedipus is the son of king Laios and queen Iocaste. His father orders him to be left behind in the mountains with pierced feet because an oracle had predicted that Oedipus would one day kill him. Oedipus, however, survives and later kills his father in a road rage incident without knowing the latter’s identity. After liberating Thebes from a monster called the sphinx, he becomes the city’s new king. He then unwittingly marries his mother, who bears him children. It is not until Thebes is struck by a plague that Oedipus learns that he has murdered his father and is married to his mother. Devastated by this unbearable truth, he gouges out his own eyes.
The Teatro Olimpico is still used for small performances. It is certainly one of the highlights of a trip to Vicenza.