April 3, 2012

Serlio's Stage Designs

        Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554) was an Italian architect who worked in France and Italy.  He's most famous, however, not for what he built but for a series of books he wrote about principles of architecture.  Serlio's emphasis on practical application for architects and builders was ground-breaking -- as was his lavish use of high-quality illustration, which is what interests me.  Alas, like many early woodblock-illustrated books, credit is given to neither the artists who actually drew the designs nor the craftsmen who cut the blocks.  These wood block prints therefore get credited to Serlio himself, although it's entirely unclear how much he had to do with them.  Some also attribute them
to Serlio's teacher Baldessare Peruzzi.
        The two pieces I'm featuring here today come from Serlio's second Book of Architecture, his 1545 volume On Perspective.  They are designs for stage sets.  Apparently they became very influential in Renaissance theater, although for all I know Serlio included them only as an excuse to demonstrate some nice perspective.  That's what I like about them, and of course stage sets are a perfect application of forced perspective.  Serlio's designs are intended to show great depth and distance in the relatively shallow field of a stage.  From a design point of view, it amuses me that comedy and tragedy should be set in different-looking areas.  Without being an expert on any of these fields, I'm concluding that very classical, formal architecture is deemed appropriate for tragedy, while comedy is best played in a more colloquial setting, with plenty of places for ins and outs and ups and downs.  From a block print point of view, I love the mathematical precision of these pieces - such a wonderful contrast from the rougher, bolder look that woodcut also does so well.

        One last note: one of Serlio's volumes from 1551, apparently a sort of appendix to the more general treatises on architecture, is entitled The Extraordinary Book of Doors.  For some reason that title really strikes my imagination!  I think it would make a fabulous name for a fantasy story.  I can picture the book being stood upright, with each page consisting of the detailed image of a different door (woodcut images, of course).  You turn to the page of the door you want, insert the key, and then when you open the door, instead of the next page… through the doorway you go into a different room, a different place or time, a different world…  I can picture chases in and out through the pages of the book, adventure, mystery, intrigue…  This one's going into the idea notebook!

[Pictures: Stage set for Comedy, wood block print from On Perspective by Sebastiano Serlio, 1545;
Stage set for Tragedy, wood block print from On Perspective by Serlio, 1545;
sketch for a Book of Doors, pencil on paper by AEGN, 2012.]
(Serlio's images come from The Steedman Exhibit of the St. Louis Public Library, where you can see more about Serlio and his books.  Thank you, St. Louis Public Library!)


Green Martha said...

I love your "book of doors" idea ! I guess it tickles the child in me, to imagine *all thoe different places* one could go to...

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

The more I think about it, the more enticing ideas I get... in fact I've been spending all my time thinking about this instead of the current work in progress... =)