26 June to 27 July 2008

The theatre is a site of illusion. For centuries, it has drawn on a range of tricks from lighting and sound to trap doors and cloud machines. In the creation of illusion, sets and scenery can have a crucial role to play. Through skilled rendering of architecture and perspective, the smallest stage can be converted into the most expansive of settings. 

The 17th and 18th centuries witnessed the rise of the theatre as a vehicle for grand spectacle in Europe. Princes and noble families directed vast funds into the staging of courtly productions, well aware of their propaganda value. This patronage helped to create a climate in which generations of theatrical artists could build on the innovations of their predecessors. Architects and stage designers developed techniques for evoking the infinite, the heavenly or the sublime within a limited space.

This exhibition explores this fertile territory. It is organised in four sections: Capturing the Moment includes records of grand performances and festivals; Fantastic Inventions explores capriccios, in which artists integrate elements of real architecture into larger fantasy scenes; Building the Scene brings out the close links between the capriccio and the theatre, displaying designs for stage scenery. And, finally, The Illusion of Space presents ceiling designs which adopt similar visual strategies, to permanent effect, in real buildings.

This exhibition has been curated by the students of the new MA programme Curating the Art Museum. An integral part of the year’s course, it is a response to an open brief to explore and present works from the rich and diverse collections of The Courtauld Gallery.

A selection of works that were on show:




Giuseppe Valeriani (d. 1761)

Set of designs for a stage set (seven pieces), 18th century. Pen and ink, watercolour, gold leaf on paper

This model would have been built to help the construction of the full-size stage set. The set was designed in six panels, which could be rolled on and off stage during the performance. Different combinations of these would create different scenes for the action.

Based in Venice, Giuseppe and his brother Domenico were highly regarded both as set designers and specialist painters of architectural illusion. It is thought they may have trained Piranesi in theatrical design.


Vitruvius Pollio (80-70 BC-15 BC)

De Architettura, con il suo Comento et Figure Vetruvio (The Ten Books on Architecture) Books 1-5, Perugia 1536
(first written in Rome, c. 27 BC)
Courtauld Library Special Collections
Anthony Blunt Bequest

In Vitruvius’s fifth book on architecture he outlines the Greek and Roman methods for designing and building a theatre. The illustration shows a plan, section and elevation of the Roman amphitheatre, the Colosseum.

Vitruvius’s writings on the theatre were revived during the Renaissance and had an enormous influence on theorists and architects. An adaptation of these classical ideas can be seen in built form in Andrea Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico, constructed in Vicenza in the late 16th century. Photographs of this theatre are displayed in this case.



Building the Scene:

Fragments of architectural set designs by artists of the theatre that combine the real and unreal to spectacular ends.


Giuseppe Galli Bibiena (1696-1757)

Architectural Capriccio
Pen and ink, watercolour on paper

The columns here rest on the ground at the same level, despite reaching up into the ceiling at varying heights. This suggests that the bases of the columns should be viewed at eye level, supporting the idea that this might be a design for a stage set.

The vast space created here and the splendour of the setting generate an atmosphere of divine otherworldliness. As part of a production, powerful ruling families could have used this to suggest a heavenly endorsement of their position and actions.

Serafino Brizzi (1684-1737)

Designs for stage scenery
Pen and ink, watercolour on paper

The door in the centre may have been a working entrance onto the stage. The side of the building on the right and the arch to the left would have been a solid part of the set covered in painted canvas. Everything you can see through the arch would have been painted onto a backdrop. The lines at the bottom of this drawing may describe how the solid parts should relate to each other when assembling this set.




Italian School, Bologna (18th century)

Design for a coulisse with trophies and a ceremonial carriage
Graphite, pen and ink, wash on paper

A coulisse was part of the set, used to conceal the entrances and exits of performers. The inscription ‘Troffi’ or ‘trophy’ refers to the shields, helmets and trumpets that served as reminders of victorious battles. The trophies and the carriage may have been carved or moulded while other parts would have been painted to look three-dimensional. The drapery and banners would have been of real fabric.


Fantastic Inventions:

Capriccios, fantasy scenes built from elements of the real world that extend the practice of set design in a wider context.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778)

Carceri d’ Invenzioni: Round Tower
, 1749-1760

The Carceri do not depict real prisons – rather they are imagined architectural creations. Piranesi created powerful and nightmarish scenes in which staircases lead nowhere and bridges meet walls. They have been interpreted as dreams, as disturbing allegories of human life or even as visions Piranesi experienced during the delirium of a fever.
The low viewpoint and tiny figures make the architecture appear vast and towering, evoking feelings of insignificance and awe.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778)

Architectural Capriccio – Bridges

Pen and ink, watercolour, red chalk, graphite on paper

The bold application of colour washes, rapid chalk lines and vivid, shadowy imagery suggest fantasy and the unreal in this imagined composition.
It is thought that the tiered, circular fortress emerging in the background was inspired by the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome. Other elements have been interpreted as having symbolic meanings: a procession of banners on the bridge indicates the triumph of war, and the smoke-filled sky highlights the destruction that war can bring.


Gaspare Galliari (1761- 1823)

Interior of a temple or palace with figures
Pen and ink, watercolour on paper

The V- shaped construction developed by the Bibiena’s can be seen here in a later, neo-classical setting. Neo-classicism included admiration for the perceived morality and discipline of the Ancient Romans. The soldiers and Herculean statues give this scene a militaristic air.

Gaspare was the last of the Galliari’s, another famous family of theatre designers from Bologna. They also produced many decorative paintings for palaces, such as frescoes and ceiling panels. 


The Illusion of Space:

Ceiling designs as a manifestation of architectural trickery in real spaces, drawing the spectator into the frame.


Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

Esther before Ahasuerus, 1620
Oil on panel

Rubens creates a theatrical setting within a domed hall that resembles a Roman pantheon. The interlocking stairs and platforms function as a stage where the Jewish Queen, Esther, pleads with King Ahasuerus to spare her people from annihilation.

Commissioned at the height of Rubens’s career, this oil sketch is one of forty designs for the ceiling decoration of the Jesuit Church of Antwerp that was destroyed by fire in 1718.


Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709)

Design for illusionistic ceiling decoration
Pen and ink, watercolour on paper, squared in red chalk

In this design of a cupola, Pozzo manipulates perspective to create the illusion of height. He was a skilled ceiling painter and devout Jesuit, and probably devised the design for the decoration of a church. His affiliation with the church was key to his conception of art as a means of stimulating religious zeal.

Pozzo’s immensely successful treatise Perspectiva Pictorum et Architectorum helped finance his ceiling frescoes for the famous church of Sant’Ignazio, Rome. A copy is displayed in this room.


Capturing the moment:

The etchings of Callot and Della Bella as records that capture the ephemeral moment of dramatic performance.


Stefano Della Bella (1610-1664)

Le Nozze degli Dei: Scena Quinta, d’Inferno (The Wedding of the Gods: Scene Five, The Inferno), 1637 Etching

This is one of seven engravings that record the four-hour theatrical production ‘Wedding of the Gods’. It was performed on a temporary stage in the courtyard of Florence’s Pitti Palace to celebrate the wedding of Grand Duke Ferdinando II de’Medici and the Duchess of Urbino. In this scene, Inferno, chaos abounds as centaurs battle, winged creatures linger ominously in the sky, and fireballs engulf the set.

  About the project

  The Exhibition

  Behind the scenes