Drawing: Theater Design: A Town Square. Designed by Francesco Galli Bibiena, ca. 1719. Museum purchase through gift of various donors and from Eleanor G. Hewitt Fund. 1938-88-50.

Scena Per Angolo, or Advance Through Indirection

My love of Italian architecture came about while I was a student in Urbino and then Florence. A displaced New Yorker, I succumbed to the daily euphoria induced by my walk from my apartment to the Scuola Lorenzo de Medici. Every wall, doorway and piazza vied for my attention with outdoor statuary, Della Robbia roundels, frescoes and inlays. 

In Italy, I painted inside churches, where statues and architectural features were illuminated by candles, and outside, where they were reflected in fountains or pools. The water’s movement blurred the reflections of putti and colonnade; the shadows and ripples fragmented and obscured (a word that shares the root, “scuro,” with chiaroscuro) both figure and structure, rendering them elusive to paint.

I am drawn to this Bibiena drawing because it possesses spatial complexity, multiple vantage points, architectural rigor coupled with romantic light, fluctuating forms, a chiaroscuro that activates the whole space and paper surface, and a reference to infinity in the sky overhead—all qualities I aspire to capture in my own artwork.

Bibiena’s drawing for a theatrical set design demonstrates a departure from the classical harmonious stasis of the Renaissance. Bibiena's baroque set is jarring, angular, dynamic, and in flux. Previously, Renaissance theater audiences had to content themselves with a fixed vantage point, beyond which illusions of spatial recession were perceptible. Spectators experienced a greater or lesser illusion depending on their station in life, as they were seated according to rank. In the baroque period, a member of the Bibiena family developed scena per angolo, a scenic art technique in which receding angles of space produce a two-point perspective wherein diverging vantage points render a dynamic and spatially compelling view from every seat.

The success of the Bibienas spanned three generations and produced eight artists whose individual drawing styles scholars find difficult to distinguish. The arcades of Bologna influenced the Bibienas’s predilection for complex spaces with multiple entry points, just as the Florentine passeggiatas did in my own work.

Today is Francesco Galli Bibiena's birthday!

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