Renaissance and Baroque Theatre in Ferrara

Written by  Adriano Cavicchi
A historic and cultural heritage to be restored to the city.
The glories of Ferrarese culture as expressed by Renaissance and Baroque theatre are so important that it is surprising that they are so little known. By way of example, we would point out that the first public showing of a Latin comedy translated into Italian - Menaechmi, by Plautus - was staged in the piazzetta Municipale of Ferrara on the 25th of January 1486, by order of Duke Ercole I d'Este.

In 1527 Duke Alfonso I encharged the poet Ludovico Ariosto with the supervision of the construction and the direction of what was to be the first repertory theatre in Europe: the Teatro di Sala Grande di Corte. This permanent wooden building had terracings for the public and a stage on which there stood a painted wooden citadel, a three-dimensional structure whose first two storeys were usable. This structure was housed in the halls of the old Court (now the town hall) and was destroyed by fire on the 31st of December 1531.

The most typically Ferrarese theatrical genre was the pastoral fable, invented by Agostino Beccari (1554), whose work was followed by Tasso with L'Aminta and Battista Guarini with Pastor Fido. This entirely Ferrarese inventive fervour also had important repercussions on the planning and construction of stage sets and theatres in general and in fact the Sacrati-Strozzi collection possesses two period model stage sets of immense historic value.
The first Ferrarese theatre of which the original plans still remain is that of Alfonso II, which was located in the Court yard (now the piazzetta Municipale). It was equipped with three tiers of lateral wings, as well as a back-cloth.

Unfortunately, this grandiose theatrical structure, reworked and restructured several times by Aleotti and Francesco Guitti, was destroyed by fire in 1660.

But Ferrara could not remain without a theatre. And so a group of aristocratic enthusiasts rented the former Court chapel (now the Estense theatre, in the piazzetta Municipale) and had it transformed into a theatre, dubbed the Teatro di Cortile (the Courtyard Theatre). But the site was too small for the city's needs and, within two years, a Ferrarese family of theatre lovers, the counts of Bonacossi, purchased some houses in the area near the apse of the church of Santo Stefano where they had an opera house built. It was inaugurated in 1662.

The finest operas by Legrenzi, Cesti, Bassani and - in the 18th century - Vivaldi and Albinoni enjoyed triumph after triumph in this theatre until the opening of the Teatro Comunale in 1798. The Teatro Bonacossi was restructured in the mid-19th century by the architect Tosi and, following further tampering immediately after the Second World War, it today risks being transformed into a garage. An inglorious end for a place so pregnant with history (Vivaldi himself played there on several occasions) and unworthy of the city's cultural tradition.

The theatre most representative of the city's tradition was without doubt the one that the Accademici Intrepidi had built in the early 17th century - in what is now piazza Verdi - using the basic structure of an old granary.

In 1604, the marquis Enzo Bentivoglio, a leading light of the Accademia, commissioned the local architect Aleotti to execute the project, the signed plan of which has come down to us complete with all the measurements. This was a theatre building of extraordinary beauty and unusual modernity, built a good twelve years before the first modern opera house, the Farnese in Parma, which is the only historic theatre designed by a Ferrarese architect to survive intact.

With such a glorious history behind it, the Ferrarese theatrical tradition deserves to be studied with greater care while those fragmentary remains that still survive should be safeguarded.

Latest from Adriano Cavicchi