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Machine Plays

Abstract and Keywords

This article focuses on the practice of machine theater that originated from courtly spectacles in Italy during the Renaissance and developed throughout Western and Central Europe during the seventeenth century. Defined by rapid scene changes and special effects, machine plays reflect the Baroque fascination with both mechanical devices and the law of optics—or scenery perspective—to produce wonder while displaying royal power and prestige. The aim of this article is threefold: to provide an overview of the origins and development of machine theater, to examine the transmission and dissemination of stagecraft knowledge, and to look at the changing nature of machine plays performed by public theater companies, which took advantage of stage machinery innovations to broaden their repertoire, attract a larger audience, and remain competitive.

Keywords: Baroque, theater, machines, stage design, perspective, scenography, technology, knowledge

(p. 386) The forty-nine engraved plates on “Machines de Théâtre” included in the tenth volume of plates1 of the Encyclopédie by Diderot and d’Alembert testify to the importance of machine plays in Western and Central Europe during the Baroque period.2 Revealing what is behind the scenes, this series of plates offers complete views of state-of-the-art machines in a full-page image, along with a label below each of the plates and a few side vignettes in the upper part of some of the images detailing snapshots of common theatrical scenes (as an example, see Pl. XV,, from the ARTFL Encyclopédie Project). This visual inventory of the fly loft over and above the stage—filled with pulley systems, ropes, cables, winches, wooden beams, drums, counterweights, and so on—also contains text explaining their general features and functions. As such, these images, which follow in the footsteps of Filippo Brunelleschi (b. 1377–d. 1446), Leonardo da Vinci (b. 1452–d. 1519), Joseph Furttenbach the Elder (b. 1591–d. 1667), and Jean Berain (b. 1640–d. 1711), among others, offer a demystification of the illusion box in an effort both to showcase the mechanics of theatrical devices and divulge the secrets of the fabrication of wonder.3

In that respect, the plates contrast with the engravings that have largely contributed to the history of Baroque theater in well-known snapshots of La pellegrina (Uffizi Theatre in Florence, 1589), Le nozze degli dei (Pitti Palace in Florence, 1637), La finta pazza (Teatro Novissimo in Venice, 1641), Andromède (Grande Salle du Petit-Bourbon in Paris, 1650), and Il pomo d’oro (Opernhaus auf der Cortina in Vienna, 1668), to name a few of the most remarkable examples. While they constitute a visual testimony of the staging experience at the time, they primarily offer an idealized image of the spectacle. Their main goal was to promote political propaganda among courtly audiences throughout Europe by soliciting international acknowledgment as part of their diplomatic functions.4

Paradoxically, the series of plates on “Machines de Théâtre” from the Encyclopédie seem fixed in time; they are motionless even though the machines were moving objects and always acclaimed in various accounts and booklets for their rapid movements on stage. Numerous stagehands were necessary to activate these machines—sometimes up (p. 387) to 250–300 stagehands for a court performance—making it awkward to observe any signs of human presence on these specific plates (contrary to many other Encyclopédie’s plates). These plates also give an impression of lightness even though theater machines are usually weighty pieces of engineering made from wood and designed according to hydraulic, naval, and military engineering. After all, machine designer Giovanni Battista Aleotti (b. 1546–d. 1636) was one of the most influential hydraulic engineers of his time, and Giacomo Torelli (b. 1608–d. 1678) worked at the military shipyards in Venice before embarking on a successful career in stage design.5 As such, the machines would produce a grinding noise once activated for appearances, disappearances, and other special effects. For this reason, music usually accompanied the execution of machines, creating a multimedia performance on a moveable stage in marked contrast to the fixed stage displayed in the Encyclopédie’s plates.6

Fortunately, several theater buildings, with their authentic scene sets and stage machinery from the Baroque era, survived in Western and Central Europe and are used today for their original purposes. One of the most documented is the Drottningholm Court Theatre, located on an island near Stockholm, Sweden, and built in 1766 at the request of Queen Lovisa Ulrika, the wife of King Adolf Fredrick and the sister of Frederick the Great. Among the remnants of the structure were the moveable stage, the machinery, and the scenery, of which thirty sets remained completely preserved.7 Another striking example is the Castle Theater in Český Krumlov in Southern Bohemia of the Czech Republic, erected in the second half of the seventeenth century and remodeled with a Baroque stage in its current shape from the 1760s; it is known to be the most perfectly and completely preserved Baroque theater in the world.8 Ten years later, the Opéra Royal in Versailles, France, located in the north wing of the château, was inaugurated for the marriage of the Dauphin—the future Louis XVI—to Marie-Antoinette, Archduchess of Austria on May 16, 1770. Used as the congressional chamber for the Senate at the end of the nineteenth century, the Opéra Royal was restored a few years after World War II, inaugurated during the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in the spring of 1957, and returned to its original state from 2007–2009. Every year, the public can enjoy the rich programming of a series of spectacles entitled Splendeurs Baroques. A last prime example is the Ekhof Theater in Gotha, Central Germany, first built in 1681 and redesigned in 1775. The special effects that the well-preserved stage machinery produce still amazed audiences every summer during the Ekhof-Festival und Barockfest.9

In summary, these theater buildings, ones that still house visitors, feature the so-called Italian stage, which became the essence of theater machinery in the Baroque era. They also demonstrate that artistic and cultural activities at this time were le fait du Prince; stage and theater technologies were used to serve the grandeur of the ruler through the power of representation. This chapter argues that machine plays reflect the Baroque fascination with both mechanical devices and the law of optics—scenery perspective—to produce wonder while displaying royal prestige (the wealth of the courts) before becoming a popular genre performed in public theaters in the second half of the seventeenth century. The aim of this chapter is threefold: to provide an overview of the origins and development of machine theater, to examine the transmission and dissemination of (p. 388) stagecraft knowledge, and to look at the changing nature of machine plays performed by public theater companies: these theaters took advantage of stage machinery innovations to broaden their repertoire, attract a larger audience, and remain competitive.

Origins and Development of Machine Theater: A Brief Overview

Machine theater refers to transnational multimedia performances that primarily feature scene changes and special effects—such as flights, metamorphoses, magic and supernatural appearances/disappearances from above and below the stage, and lighting and sound effects—all achieved through technology. In his Traité des tournois, joustes, carrousels, et autres spectacles publics (1669), Claude-François Ménestrier provides a detailed definition of theatrical machines that reflects the understanding and practice of the time:

The name of “machines” is given to all that has motion only by the contrivance of men. The scenes, & the mobile theaters, the chariots, the clouds, the vessels, by whatever way they are moved, are truly machines, because they are dead & immobile by nature, whether movable or mobile by springs, by weights, by wind, by water, by fire, or by animals, it is from the industry of men that they receive these motions, & thus pass for machines.10

In Ménestrier’s formulation, machines are categorized both as scene sets, which were moveable, and other mechanical devices needed to produce special effects.11 Thus, machine theater is a broad designation for an array of dramatic works and genres divided by acts that rely on the use of elaborate machinery to execute the action of the play. Mainly based on mythological tales, these dramatic works include pastoral drama, tragicomedy, comedy, comedy ballet, comedia nueva plays, mythological plays, as well as opera (also referred to in Italian as dramma per musica or festa teatrale and in French as tragédie lyrique).12 Even though these performances often involved poetry, dance, music, and lavish costumes, the machines were considered the most striking elements as they captivated audiences through their technological advances and the secret of how they operated (ingenium).13 Able to produce wonder (le merveilleux, la mirabilia, das Rätselhafte, lo maravilloso) via impressive, visual effects, machines efficiently dazzled the eyes of the spectators while displaying monarchal or princely power and prestige. The more the audience was amazed, the more the ruler could affirm his authority since wonder and power promote each other.14

In fact, the dramatic form of machine theater developed in the context of courtly entertainments in collaboration with erudite academies—such as L’Accademia della (p. 389) Crusca in Florence, L’Accademia Olimpica in Vicenza, and the Académie de Musique et de Poésie in France—during the sixteenth century and spread across Europe throughout the seventeenth century. The specific interest in theatrical machines emerged alongside the revival of a rich culture of mechanistic design and practice in the Renaissance, a period that also saw unprecedented and prominent scientific advancements and inventions relating to the rediscovery of ancient texts that prompted translations and commentaries. Regarding the field of stage design, two critical elements in conjunction with technical and scientific knowledge emerged: on the one hand, the vogue of and fascination with automatons and other engineering designs (real or imaginary) found representation in the literature of theatrum machinarum—or machine books—that started to flourish at the end of the sixteenth century upon the translation first in Latin, then in Italian, of Heron of Alexandria’s Automata.15 On the other, the rediscovery of Vitrivius’s De architectura inspired the development of optics and more precisely the formulation of the laws of linear perspective through the circulation of architectural treatises.16 Artists first applied the theory of perspective to quattrocento painting to create the visible appearance of the world according to the idea of illusionism (“a finestra aperta sul mondo”), as Alberti theorized in De pictura (1435) and then entered theater stage thanks to influential architectural books, such as Serlio’s Il secondo libro di prospettiva (Paris: Jean Barbé, 1545) and Vignola’s Le due regole della prospettiva pratica (Rome: F. Zanetti, 1583).17 The art of perspective revolutionized stage design by bringing coherence to the organization of the scenic space in its relationship to the auditorium: the vanishing point on the stage now matched the central viewpoint of the audience—the best seat, l’œil du Prince, being the one facing the one-point perspective on the stage, therefore instituting a hierarchy in the seating. From that moment on, the viewer’s perspective dictated the scenic space around a single point of view.18 In brief, experimentation with mechanical devices and the use of the perspective scenery significantly changed stage practices to create surprising special effects the same way digital technology is now transforming theater on and off stage.

There is a shared understanding in scholarly research that dramatic interludes (intermezzi, intermèdes), inserted between five-act spoken plays, contributed a vital role to the development of stage machinery. Moreover, critics agree that the performance of the six intermezzi of Girolamo Bargagli’s La pellegrina, staged by Bernardo Buontalenti (b. 1531?–d. 1608) at the Uffizi Theater for the Medici wedding of May 1589, set a standard for stage design and machinery against which other operatic productions were measured.19 Based on classical mythology, each intermezzo of La pellegrina accompanied successive scene changes at the full view of the audience (by rotating prisms), major light and dramatic effects, impressive ascending and descending flights according to eyewitness accounts, as well as music composed by the Florentine Camarata.20 Thanks to detailed engravings that were circulated across Europe and now preserved in several national libraries and private collections around the world, scholars have a clear sense of the set and machinery needed to perform La pellegrina.21 For the comedy itself, the set depicted a cityscape, and for the intermezzi it staged: first, the heavens composed of seven cloud machines for a scene titled “The Harmony of the Spheres”; second, a garden (p. 390) with the rise and the disappearance of Mount Parnassus from the under-stage area (locus amoenus); third, a forest and a grotto that opened to show a dragon for the battle of Apollo and Python (locus horribilis); fourth, the underworld (the cloud machinery used to represent hell needed no less than eighty-two men) with the apparition of a witch on a moving chariot; fifth, a seascape with a huge galley floating in the sea for a scene depicting the rescue of Arion; and sixth, a final glory with the seven cloud machines representing the assembly of the gods. Undeniably, this lavish performance defined a typology of stage design for the years to come.

In that regard, it is important to underline the impact of the wide dissemination of these intermezzi. As Arthur Blumenthal states, “Because the designs for the settings of 1589 were etched and widely dispersed throughout Italy and Europe, they played a major role in the development of Italian Baroque scenography as well as in the evolution of the English masque.”22 Thus, the Baroque stage that the intermezzi of La pellegrina generated, can be understood as a microcosm, a representation of the universe through the harmony of the four elements (fire, air, earth, and water) illustrating the idea of the theatrum mundi, Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage,” or Il grand teatro del mundo (Calderón de la Barca).23

Even though performance accounts and diary entries repeatedly emphasize the surprising novelty of theatrical devices, technologies of performance were not new. In fact, they date back to Greco-Roman theater. Regarding change scenery, periaktoi, constructed as a revolving triangular prism painted with different decors on each face (a forest landscape for satirical dramas, a cityscape for comedies, and a temple or a palace for tragedies), were used on both sides of the stage (scena versatilis). Baldassare Lanci used the same system, for instance, to stage two comedies with intermezziI Fabii by Lotto del Mazza and La vedova by Giovanni Battista—that were part of the Florentine festivals in 1568 and 1569, respectively.24 Nicola Sabbattini (b. 1574–d. 1654) explains this system in detail in the first book of the Pratica di fabricar scene e machine ne’teatri (Ravenna, Italy: de’ Paoli & Giovanelli, 1638 [1637]) as well as Joseph Furttenbach in his civil architecture treatise Architectura recreationis (Augsburg, Germany: Schultes, 1640), which includes an etching of a sciena della commedia (pl. 22) equipped with periaktoi, also called telari.

Regarding the machines, three main scenic devices appeared in ancient theater as well: the ekkyklêma—a platform that rolled out of the main door of the skènè carrying corpses or showing the inside of a palace—the mèchanè—a crane to lower or pull up an actor, representing a god or another supernatural creature going to and from the stage, and the theologeion, designated as an upper structure above the skènè to allow for the apparition of gods. Sacre rappresentazioni and other mysteries also featured specialized machinery, the so-called feintes, or secrets, to represent the paradise, the hell mouth, as well as various miraculous apparitions (the ascension of the Christ, angel flights, etc.).25 Similarly, Elizabethan theater commonly featured flying machines and other special effects. For instance, the Globe Theater contained trapdoors to bring supernatural beings on and off stage, such as ghosts and witches in Shakespeare’s Richard II, Hamlet, and Macbeth.26 In brief, stage machinery was not at all a new enterprise in the Baroque (p. 391) era but involved the continuity of improved and more sophisticated (mainly in scale) technical practices over the centuries. Furthermore, as occurred in ancient theater, theatrical devices revealed the invisible: the gods, other supernatural creatures, and the inside of unknown or hidden spaces.27 In that regard, machine plays expressed the visual experience of the boundless, fascinating, and yet somewhat fearful Baroque world by relying on increasingly complicated machinery.

Even so, the climax of machine theater coincided with the development of what is broadly called the “Italian stage” (teatro all’Italiana), which gradually eclipsed the practice of staging multiple spaces at once (the mansions of the so-called décor simultané). Fully implemented in 1618–1619 (but first used for a theatrical performance in 1628) by Giovanni Battista Aleotti at the newly erected Teatro Farnese in Parma and setting the bar for the European purposed and built theaters to come, the Italian stage includes a proscenium arch, which separates the stage from the auditorium, and a scena ductilis: sliding/moveable flat side wings that allow for rapid scene changes during the performances and that the invention of backstage areas made possible.28 Parallel to the front of the stage, the flat-wing set was constructed to present theatrical scenery in a central one-point perspective in order to create a unified stage apparatus according to the concept of verisimilitude. For the inauguration of the Teatro Novissimo in Venice in 1641, the famous stage designer Giacomo Torelli developed complex machinery, allowing the flat wings to be quickly changed in the full view of the spectators.29 This system relied on a pole and chariot system connected by ropes to a central drum, located below the stage and cranked by a single stagehand who had to change the eight pairs of wings simultaneously. Before the implementation of this method, stagehands executed scene changes at each side of the rows of flat wings. When prompted by a given signal, they had to slide a new wing and pull back the previous one in the runners; if the stage was equipped with five pairs of wings, ten men were needed (one at each wing). In that regard, Torelli’s chariot-and-pole system brought both efficiency and speed to the scene changes with far less labor and was quickly adopted on major European stages and retained until the end of the nineteenth century.30 It is not surprising that Torelli was called “Il grand stregone” (the great wizard) at the peak of his career.31 Per Bjurström rightly states:

Torelli’s invention was of more than technical importance. He had made possible just that instant of change, of uncertainty and transition, that was to become one of the most attractive attributes of the Baroque stage—a moment’s suspense while the clarity of the set dissolves, and then the sudden appearance of a new conception. The audience could share the actual moment of change, and experienced the transformation as an imaginative stimulus just because it could not be grasped clearly by the intellect.32

The Italian stage with its perspective scenery allowed for endless possibilities of large-scale special effects, enhancing the machines within the theatrical space, which was limited on both sides by the sets of flat wings. The performance was concentrated into a box meant to reproduce an optical illusion. Machines mainly moved according to (p. 392) a vertical axis: descending and ascending flights, transporting gods and goddesses to clouds, and making the connection between heaven, earth, and the underworld.33 Mount Olympus replaced the heavenly paradise of the mystery plays and the decors of Hades took the place of the mouth of hell. As Viktoria Tkaczyk comments: “The machines gradually lost their religious meaning in this process of artistic and technical development.”34 By the end of the seventeenth century, the Italian stage, defined by its mobility and versatility thanks to the capabilities of elaborate machinery, had flourished in courtly theaters across Europe, reflecting a concerted effort to create a new model of performance meant to advertise state political power.35 In that sense, the box of illusion was a perfect speculum principum (mirror of princes), displaying the marvels achieved by technological skills of the artists-engineers serving the ruler.

Transmission, Dissemination, and Transfer of Technological Knowledge

Nowadays, thinking of the stage as a total spectacle involving science, technology, and art is the work of a scenographer or set designer who claims greater autonomy in the conception of a performance. This role is best embodied by Robert Lepage, one of today’s foremost stage directors, well known for staging multimedia shows produced by his company Ex-Machina. However, if the word “scenography” has existed since Greek Antiquity to define the drawing of the stage and evolved in the Renaissance to refer to the use of perspective on stage, the specific word “scenographer” does not appear in early-modern documents. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, stagehands were polyvalent and multi-skilled men; thus, it was not unusual for most of them to be engineers, hydraulic technicians, pyrotechnicians, painters, and architects simultaneously. In many ways, a machinist at this time was a jack-of-all-trades working with a team of technicians, such as set painters, carpenters, rope-makers, etc.

Archival materials reveal the extent to which these stagehands were fulfilling a variety of occupations. Regarding Italian machinists, scholars have coined various expressions such as architetti della commedia, machinista, inventore, ingegneri del teatro—Brunelleschi was defined as an ingeniere, literally meaning “the one who finds.”36 The Florentine Tommaso Francini (b. 1571–d. 1651), who moved in 1598 to France where he founded a dynasty of hydraulicians, was appointed the “Intendant général des eaux et fontaines de France” in 1623 under the French King Louis XIII; besides creating automatic hydraulic machines for garden palaces, he was one of the main organizers of court ballets and other theatrical performances based on the mechanical devices.37 Recently rediscovered, Georges Buffequin (b. ca. 1585–d. 1641) was a master painter: he was appointed “peintre ordinaire du Roy” around 1616; some notarized documents related to the Hôtel (p. 393) de Bourgogne—the main Parisian public theater at that time—also refer to him as “finteur artificiel à Paris,” “faiseur d’artifices,” “peinctre, feincteur et artificier ordinaire du Roy,” or simply “maître Georges.”38 His collaborator Laurent Mahelot, who built the decors and machines at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, was called a feinteur, which literally means a maker of feints, or devices. Finally, Inigo Jones (b. 1573–d. 1652) held the office of Surveyor-General of the King’s Works, and Alessandro Galli-Bibiena (b. 1686–d. 1748) was appointed the Ingenere e Sovrintendente alle Fabbriche e agli Spettacoli. These assorted titles and names of occupation reflect the fact that the work of stage design was not a well-defined profession but rather a position that relied on many different areas of technical expertise, which could render the transmission of a broad technological knowledge challenging.

It is known that the greatest Italian engineers, hydraulic technicians, and architects were responsible for disseminating the most innovative stage technologies and skills across the Alps, which explains the dominance of the Italian stage and similar machine-produced stage effects in Western and Central European theaters in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. On the one hand, several Italian machinists, after apprenticing with one or several experienced masters, traveled to Northern and Central Europe at the formal request of prominent political figures.39 Requesting the most promising artists-engineers often depended on political machinations through the mediation of foreign ambassadors and delegates, as was the case in the late 1630s of the exchanges between Jules Mazarin—the principal adviser and collaborator of the French Chief Minister Cardinal-Duke de Richelieu—and his diplomatic agent and secretary, Elpidio Benedetti. They were to bring the most talented Roman artists to France, among them Gian Lorenzo Bernini (b. 1598–d. 1680). Unfortunately, Bernini declined the invitation; but after several diplomatic negotiations, his pupil Giovanni Maria Mariani came to work on the stage of the Grande Salle de la Comédie, located in the newly constructed Palais-Cardinal; this was the first building in Paris to be erected initially with a permanent stage able to accommodate the use of innovative mechanical devices.40

Mariani stayed in France for a short period of time, but most Italian architect-engineers who emigrated pursued their career abroad. This was the case with Cosimo Lotti (b. 1571–d. 1643), nicknamed “el hechicero” (the wizard), who worked with Bernardo Buontalenti in Florence before travelling to Spain in 1626 at the request of the Count Duke of Olivares at the court of Philip IV. Regarding the complexity and scale of the illusionist stage scenery and mechanical devices that Lotti created, Margaret Rich Greer states, “A new era started in court theatre in Spain.”41 Similarly, Ludovico Ottavio Burnacini (b. 1636–d. 1707) arrived at the imperial court in Vienna at age fifteen and worked as a highly praised architect and stage designer until his death in 1707.42

Foreign apprentices also came to Italy to work with the best engineers and architects. One of the most striking examples is Joseph Furttenbach the Elder (b. 1591–d. 1667) who spent approximately one year in Giulio Parigi (b. 1571–d. 1635)’s private academy on Via Maggio in Florence around 1617, at the same time as the French artist Jacques Callot (b. 1592–d. 1635).43 Upon his return to Germany, Furttenbach compiled a sketchbook with detailed drawings and explanations of theater machines, known as the Codex (p. 394) iconographicus 401 with the goal of sharing this practical knowledge with his contemporary fellows.44 Another example is Inigo Jones (b. 1573–d. 1652), considered the first architect in England, who staged numerous masques at the court of King James I in collaboration with Ben Jonson. Jones performed several grand tours in Italy where he discovered the work of Andrea Palladio (b. 1508–d. 1580), through the study of I quattro libri dell’ architettura (Venice: Domenico de’ Franceschi, 1570). At some point, he trained with Giulio Parigi in his private academy, which, according to Viktoria Tkaczyk, was like a “school of theater design.”45 Regarding the influence of Giulio Parigi, Tkaczyk rightly states: “It is fair to regard Parigi’s knowledge of theater engineering as a nodal point in a first regional, then supra-personal network of theater engineering.”46 Thus, both Furttenbach and Jones can be considered mediators as they played a key role in transferring the technological knowledge they acquired in Italy to their own country.47 In brief, the transfer of practical theater engineering knowledge spread from Italy across Europe mainly through the migration of architects and engineers, who created their own network allowing for the circulation of shared knowledge and practices, and to a lesser degree, through the circulation of printed books and treatises.

In that regard, a strong culture of secrecy as both a “protection of invention and control of reception” surrounded stagecraft knowledge and practices.48 In his treatise Architectura recreationis, Joseph Furttenbach contends that, in general, engineers were unwilling to share their knowledge, “particularly those in Italia, … are reluctant to communicate the proper modus and keep many things confidential…. Indeed, it is often buried in the earth together with the people.”49 The fact that mechanical knowledge was tacit partly explains the reason printed manuals and treatises on stage machinery are sparse. As Jan Lazardzig and Hole Rößler argue:

The striking lack of contemporary print sources on Early Modern theatre technology indicates a conspicuous lack of desire to make this technology public. While visual depictions of spectacular stage effects were widely distributed in the 17th and 18th centuries, in numerous and occasionally quite opulent festival publications, the circulation of stagecraft knowledge in print form remained something of an exception.50

Keeping this knowledge secret was a way not only to protect great mechanical inventions and preserve the surprise effect for the audience—to experience the miracle and to produce the wonder—but also to reinforce the authority of the prince who, by commissioning these spectacles, was also controlling the circulation of technological knowledge in a climate of political rivalry.

Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that technological skills and knowledge were mostly based on oral transmission, often from father to son. In fact, the prominence of family dynasties who monopolized the practice of stage design in and outside Italy is striking. In addition to the previously mentioned Parigi and Francini families, there were Georges Buffequin and his son Denis Buffequin (b. 1616–d. 1666) who, as an “ingénieur décorateur ordinaire du Roy,” worked with Giacomo Torelli on the stage of (p. 395) the Petit-Bourbon in Paris. He was also the décorateur-machiniste of Théâtre du Marais, which specialized in machine plays starting in the mid-1640s. Following his father, Denis shared his stagecraft knowledge acquired alongside experienced Italian stage designers and artists for the benefit of a public theater. Another example of dynasty is the Vigarinis: the architect Gaspare Vigarini (b. 1588–d. 1663) was called to France from Modena in the late 1650s to build the Grande Salle des Machines at the Palais des Tuileries for the marriage of Louis XIV.51 His sons Carlo (b. 1637–d. 1713) and Ludovico worked with him in Paris, but only Carlo stayed in France after 1662 to work on staging Molière’s comedy ballets and Jean-Baptiste Lully’s tragédies en musique, among other courtly entertainments. Finally, in 1651, Giovanni Burnacini (b. 1610–d. 1655) came to the imperial court in Vienna from Venice, where he worked at the Teatro SS. Giovanni e Paolo as the main competitor of Torelli. As the Viennese court architect, Burnacini designed the Cesarea Corte theater. His son, Ludovico Ottavio Burnacini (b. 1636–d. 1707), who was his apprentice, inherited the office of chief engineer and architect at his death and worked for Emperor Leopold I for whom he staged, among other plays, the lavish performance of Il pomo d’oro (1667). Through these various examples, it is striking to observe that stagecraft knowledge not only contained trade secrets but was kept between families. As very few of the previously mentioned stage designers wrote treatises or left notes and sketches, their work is mostly known through iconography and much has been lost, which makes it difficult to reconstitute the technological and cultural knowledge developed by these machine designers. This is especially the case for the stage technologies used to perform machine plays in public theaters.

From Court to City: Machine Plays at the Public Theaters

If machine theater is rightly associated with court entertainments and operas, it is important to clarify that as the audience developed a keen interest in spectacular effects, machine plays became increasingly successful in public theaters as well. In fact, major European cities saw an increase in the number of playhouses in the second half of the seventeenth century, especially in Italy, France, and England. Undoubtedly, the well-publicized performance of Andromeda, an opera by Benedetto Ferrari (librettist) and Francesco Manelli (composer) to inaugurate the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637, served as a model of a new kind of “commercially oriented theater.”52 The Teatro San Cassiano was the first public opera house conceived as a for-profit enterprise. From then on, operatic spectacles were no more the privilege of the aristocracy and foreign dignitaries in private courtly theaters but open to the public, who could afford to pay an admission ticket to see a performance.

As the audience had developed a taste for the spectacular on stage, some theater managers and authors were ready to meet the public demand. It is precisely during this (p. 396) period that machine theater began to develop as a popular genre. This was the case of the Théâtre du Marais, a Parisian public playhouse where the first plays by Pierre Corneille—among them the controversial performance of Le Cid (1637) that led to the famous “Querelle du Cid” arbitrated by the Académie Française—were staged. After a destructive fire in 1644, the newly renovated theater stage was equipped with the most innovative stage machinery according to the Italian order—on a more limited scale, though, as the means were not the same compared with the court milieu.53 The company made good use of the new staging opportunities by programming and setting machine plays to the point of specializing and being quickly nicknamed the “Théâtre des Machines.”54

Notably, in response to the lavish courtly performance of Orfeo (1647) by Francesco Buti (librettist) and Luigi Rossi (composer), staged by Giacomo Torelli at the Palais-Royal, the theater company revived a tragedy in 1647–1648 from the previous decade: La descente d’Orphée aux enfers (Paris: Toussaint Quinet, 1640) by François de Chapoton. This play was first performed at the Hôtel de Bourgogne in 1639 with a few special effects; but for its remake on the stage of the Théâtre du Marais, the drama was transformed into a true machine play. For the occasion, the editor Toussaint Quinet reprinted the text of the play in 1648 without any changes but with a catchy new title page: La grande journée des machines ou Le mariage d’Orphée et d’Eurydice.55 In addition, a dessein—a small brochure, which provides an account of the spectacle by summarizing the plot and extensively describing the decors and the machines—was published to advertise the play prior to the performance, as emphasized by the use of the future tense in the title: Dessein du poème et des superbes machines du mariage d’Orphée et d’Eurydice, qui se représentera sur le Théâtre du Marais, par les comédiens entretenus par leurs Majestés (Paris: René Baudry, 1647).56 A comparison of the dramatic text of the play and the dessein reveals the extent to which the company, now with access to an enhanced stage and improved machinery, exploited the potential of Chapoton’s play’s spectacular effects to create a tragédie à machines.

The beginning of the dessein promises numerous special effects:

And the fatal marriage of Orpheus and Eurydice, represented by the comedians of the Marais, will show in their theatre on the stage, simultaneously, Gods of Heaven descending on the earth, divinities flying in the air; the sun passing through his Zodiac, the Furies wandering in their caverns; Dryads in the woods and maenads metamorphosed into trees; rampant snakes; animals walking; the earth opening, the heavens and the pleasant diversity of the forests, of the plains, deserts, rocks, mountains and rivers arguing with nature to deceive pleasantly the sight of the spectators, and delight them with the charms of an inimitable artifice.57

This dessein was republished in 1648 and again in 1662 to coincide with the performance of the italian opera Ercole amante by Francesco Buti (librettist) and Francesco Cavalli (composer) for the inauguration of Vigarini’s Grande Salle des Machines at the Palais des Tuileries.58 Not only do these reprints of the dessein attest to the popularity of this machine play at the Théâtre du Marais but they also shed light on the changes made (p. 397) to the staging by the company in collaboration with its well-established machinist Denis Buffequin. If the reprint of 1648 is an exact copy of the dessein’s first edition (1647), the issue of 1662 is slightly different: the description of the stage apparatus of the first act reveals minor revisions. The addition of a new paragraph discusses a significant increase in the number of special effects at the beginning of the performance: two scene changes at the full view of the audience instead of one and the appearances of the chariots of Aurora and the Sun. The narrator notes:

Admire the excellence of the engineer who has so well represented on this theatre, and whose fertile spirit of invention, found ways to give two different stars the Dawn and the Sun different kind of light, which all in turn have had the same effect of illuminating these beautiful decorations.59

Thanks to this reprint of the dessein of La grande journée des machines ou Le mariage d’Orphée et d’Eurydice, scholars have clear evidence of changes made to the stage design over time. As such, this type of small program or booklet constitutes “the typographic memory” of the performance, as it reveals the component of the performance that does not always appear explicitly in the dramatic text of the play itself.60 Moreover, the machines of Aurora and the Sun added for the staging of 1662 were already used for a performance in 1649–1650 of a remake of Les sosies (1638), a comedy by Jean Rotrou, at the Théâtre du Marais, renamed La naissance d’Hercule, ou l’Amphitryon.61 A comparison with the Dessein du poème de la grande pièce des machines de la naissance d’Hercule (Paris: René Baudry, 1649) establishes obvious similarities in the staging of both La naissance d’Hercule and Le mariage d’Orphée et d’Eurydice by Denis Buffequin. This last point raises the question of the re-use of machines and decors from one play to another. As theater technology was costly, it was important to amortize the equipment stored in a magasin des décors. This also explains the fact that actors along with the stage designer would stage a play according to the decors and machines that were available to them.

More importantly, performances of machine plays were also based on a principle of escalation of special effects not only to please the audience but also to compete with other playhouses. A case in point is the performance of Pierre Corneille’s machine play, Andromède, first staged in 1650 in the Grande Salle du Petit-Bourbon with Torelli’s decors and machines of Orfeo. This play was also staged several times by the company of the Théâtre du Marais in 1655, 1660, and 1664–1665 with the machines of Denis Buffequin.62 When the Comédie-Française, newly founded by a royal decree, performed Corneille’s Andromède in 1682 to compete with Persée, a tragédie en musique by Philippe Quinault (librettist) and Jean-Baptiste Lully (composer) performed at the Académie royale de musique and based on the exact same mythological story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Books 4 and 5), a real horse appeared on stage for the climax of the tragedy—the rescue of Andromeda by Perseus riding Pegasus. According to the review published in the Mercure galant, “As we always add on to what has already been done, the Pegasus horse was a real one, which had never been done or seen in France. (p. 398) He played admirably his role and made in the air all the movements he could make on earth.”63 Even though this case is extreme, it speaks to the spirit and intensity of rivalry among theaters to attract a broad audience.64 It also speaks to the fact that the plots of machine plays were consistently based on a few mythological subjects that had a considerable potential for stage design possibilities: the rescue of Andromeda and Perseus, the descent of Orpheus into hell, the fall of Phaeton, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the love of Jupiter and Semele, Jason’s conquest of the Golden Fleece, etc. Thanks to the stage machinery, these stories were condensed into performable images that would astonish the audience and be part of the visual culture of the time.65

Both Chapoton’s La descente d’Orphée aux enfers and Corneille’s Andromède were performed abroad: in Brussels at the Gracht Theater and the Montagne Sainte-Elisabeth, and in London at the Cockpit (a theater located in Drury Lane), among other places.66 More specifically, during the Restoration period (1660–1688), Londoners found a new interest in machine plays called Restorations spectaculars, which were initially performed at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields.67 Managed by William Davenant, the Lincoln’s Inn Fields was the first theater in England to contain a scena ductilis, which could stage plays with elaborate mechanical devices. In brief, this is the context in which Chapoton and Corneille’s machine plays were performed in French across the English Channel.

To allow the audience to follow the plot and also to advertise the performance, a brochure was usually published in English, such as The Description of the Great Machines of the Descent of Orpheus into Hell (London: Robert Crofts, 1661), a copy of which can be found at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.68 Following Davenant’s death, the Duke’s company moved in 1671 to the newly built Dorset Garden Theater where the most innovative stage machinery was installed. The writer and memorialist John Evelyn commented in his diary on June 26, 1671, “I went home, steping (sic) in at the Theater, to see the new Machines for the intended scenes, which were indeed very costly, & magnificent.”69 The Davenant’s revival of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in 1673 was described as “being a new Fancy after the old, and most surprising way of MACBETH, Perform’d with new and costly MACHINES.”70 Based on French machine plays and operas, Restorations spectaculars developed as a genre to attract spectators in search of surprising theatrical effects based on the visual. As such, they were appealing to an increasingly popular audience, while neoclassical theater, which became the canonical drama, were primarily intended for privileged members of the society.71

In fact, machine plays performed in public playhouses pleased a broader general audience. They were developing alongside the model of the Aristotelian tragedy, in which spectacle is marginalized. Therefore, machine theater, which assigns importance to visual effects—the French playwright Pierre Corneille ends the Argument of Andromède (1650) by stating that “this play is only for the eyes”—was quickly assimilated with a form of commercial theater that competed with the neoclassical sort that learned scholars and elites regarded at the time as the aesthetically “legitimate” theater, a form of drama based exclusively on the quality of the text.72 Interestingly, when the erudite literary man François-Hédelin D’Aubignac discusses machines and scene sets (p. 399) in the fourth book of La Pratique du théâtre (Paris: Antoine de Sommaville, 1957), he starts by admitting that:

Certainly the decorations of the scene are the most perceptible charms of that ingenious magic, which brings us back to the world of the heroes of past centuries and which shows us a new heaven, a new earth, and an infinite number of wonders that we believe to be present, even at the same time that we are certain that we are being deceived.73

And D’Aubignac adds that recent courtly performances based on the use of theatrical machines (i.e., La finta pazza, Orfeo, etc.) constitute “a sample of the new miracles that the peace has in store for us” (“un échantillon des nouveaux miracles que la Paix nous prépare”).74 Nevertheless, when he refers to machine plays performed on the stage of public playhouses, he formulates the strongest critics, justifying that actors simply cannot do anything right when it comes to machine technology and are too greedy to spend money on proper mechanical devices, with the aim of discouraging playwrights to write machine plays.75 Similarly, he seems to excuse the courtly audience who appreciate machine plays—“although the court rather appreciates them” (“bien que la Cour ne les ait pas désagréables”)—and judge the popular public who favor this type of entertainment—“and that the people come in crowds every time there is a chance to see something like this” (“et que le peuple fasse foule à toutes les occasions de voir quelque chose de semblable”). As shown in D’Aubignac’s remarks, from the moment where mechanical devices were no more exclusively used to serve the glory and prestige of royal power, they were discredited and severely criticized as compared with the dramatic text. Actually, in today’s world, digital technologies such as 3D projection, computer animation, and virtual reality have transformed the art of theater by creating new experiences for audiences in which they are actively engaged and entertained. But as for Baroque machine plays, which were subordinated to the visual, in the digital age, “is the play still the thing?”76

To conclude, the general enthusiasm for modern technology that comes from the Renaissance and blossoms in the Baroque age reveals a fascination for the amazement and wonder of efforts to understand and even reproduce aspects of nature and the cosmos. The intellectual application of mechanistic concepts clearly at work in the writings of Descartes (in Traité de l’homme, 1648) and of Fontenelle (in Les Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes, 1686) finds in the theater—as in fountains, clocks, and miniature automata—an aesthetic version of the period’s new enthusiasm for the power of mechanism.

Further Reading

Baur-Heinhold, Margarete. The Baroque Theater. A Cultural History of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Translated by Mary Whittal. New York and Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1967.Find this resource:

    Blumenthal, Arthur R. Giulio Parigi’s Designs: Florence and the Early Baroque Spectacle. New York: Garland, 1986. (p. 408) Find this resource:

      Buccheri, Alessandra. The Spectacle of Clouds, 1438–1650: Italian Art and Theatre. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014.Find this resource:

        Lazardzig, Jan. Theatermaschine und Festungsbau: Paradoxien der Wissensproduktion im 17. Jahrhundert. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007.Find this resource:

          Lefèvre, Wolfgang ed. Picturing Machines, 1400–1700. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.Find this resource:

            Milesi, Francesco ed. Giacomo Torelli. L’Invenzione Scenica nell’Europa Barocca. Fano, Italy: Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Fano, 2000.Find this resource:

              Ogden, Dunbar H. ed. The Italian Baroque Stage. Documents by Giulio Troili, Andrea Pozzo, Ferdinando Galli-Bibiena, Baldassare Orsini. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978.Find this resource:

                Roßbach, Nikola. Poiesis der Maschine: Barocke Konfigurationen von Technik, Literatur und Theater. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2013.Find this resource:

                  Rossi, Paolo. Les Philosophes et les Machines. 1400–1700. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1996.Find this resource:

                    Visentin, Hélène. “La tragédie à machines ou l’art d’un théâtre bien ajusté.” In Mythe et histoire dans le théâtre classique. Hommage à Christian Delmas. Edited by Fanny Népote-Desmarres and Jean-Philippe Grosperrin, 417–429. Toulouse, France: Société de Littératures Classiques, 2002.Find this resource:


                      (1.) I thank Marie Roche for her editorial assistance and her translation of the quotes from French into English.

                      (2.) “Machines de théâtre, contenant quarante-neuf planches à cause de quatorze doubles & de quatre triples. Dessinées & expliquées par M. Radel, pensionnaire du roi, & architecte-expert, sous la direction de M. Giraud, architecte des menus plaisirs, & machiniste de l’opéra de Paris,” in Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, ed. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, vol. 10 (Paris: Briasson, David l’Aîné, Le Breton and Durand, 1772), reprinted in L’Encyclopédie de Diderot et d’Alembert. Théâtres, machines de théâtre (Paris: Bibliothèque de l’Image, 2002), 35–63. Robert Bénard engraved the drawings and the architect Radel designed them. The plates show the machines du théâtre de l’opéra de Paris, but the same machines have been used in other theaters across Europe since the mid-seventeenth century. This series of plates can be seen on the website of the ARTFL Encyclopédie Project by browsing the tenth plate volume: (in Table of Contents of Volume 10, scroll to the end of the page to find “Machines de Théâtre”).

                      (3.) We refer to machine sketches by these engineers-artists. In most cases, drawings of machine designs in the early modern period were never published during the artist or author’s life, as they mainly circulated among members of corporations and professional circles. For instance, Filippo Brunelleschi’s machine designs are known through the drawings of Bonaccorso Ghiberti (b. 1451–d. 1516) and gathered in a collection called Zibaldone (around 1420–1421). Jean Berain’s projects for machines are collected in Recueil de décorations de théâtre recueillies par M. Levesque, Garde général des magasins des Menus Plaisirs de la Chambre du Roy (Paris: Archives Nationales, [1752]).

                      (4.) Ellen R. Welch, A Theater of Diplomacy: International Relations and the Performing Arts in Early Modern France (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

                      (5.) In the dictionary of the Accademia della Crusca, the first definition of the word “macchina” is linked to “macchinazione,” defined as “Per macchina, ordigno e strumento da guerra.” The term derives from the word mèchanè in ancient Greek, which means a military siege engine.

                      (6.) See Bénédicte Louvat, Théâtre et musique: Dramaturgie de l’insertion musicale dans le théâtre français, 1550–1680 (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2002), 365–400; for an analysis of the plates included in the Encyclopédie, see Roland Barthes, “Image, raison, déraison,” in L’univers de l’Encyclopédie. Images d’une civilisation. Les 135 plus belles planches de l’Encyclopédie de Diderot et d’Alembert (Paris: Les Libraires Associés, 1964), 11–16. On these specific “Machines de Théâtre” plates, see Guy Spielmann, “Machines à rêves? L’imaginaire du théâtre classique d’après les planches de L’Encyclopédie,” Lumen 25 (2006): 103–120.

                      (7.) Ove Hidemark, Per Edström, Birgitta Schyberg, et al., Drottningholm Court Theatre. Its Advent, Fate and Preservation (Stockholm: Byggförlaget, 1993); see in particular the chapter by Per Edström, “The Stage Machinery at Drottningholm Theatre,” 74–114.

                      (8.) Frank Mohler, “Survival of the Mechanized Flat Wing Scene Change: Court Theatres of Gripsholm, Český Krumlov and Drottningholm,” Theatre Design and Technology 35 (1999): 46–56.

                      (9.) See the European Theatre Architecture (EUTA) database: This database provides detailed information on European theater buildings and stage designs. The entries are accompanied by photographic documentation. The stage machinery of the theaters mentioned above can be viewed in this database. For images and models of theater machines, see also the website “Development of Scenic Spectacle” created by the scholar Frank Mohler:

                      (10.) “On donne le nom de Machines à tout ce qui n’a de mouvement que par l’artifice des hommes. Les Scenes, & les Theatres mobiles, les Chars, les Nues [nuées], les Vaisseaux, par quelque voye qu’ils soient mûs, sont véritablement machines, parce qu’estant de leur nature des estres morts, & immobiles, soit qu’ils soient mûs par des ressorts, par des poids, par le vent, par l’eau, par le feu, ou par des animaux, c’est de l’industrie des hommes qu’ils reçoivent ces mouvemens, & passent ainsi pour Machines.” Claude-François Ménestrier, Traité des tournois, joustes, carrousels, et autres spectacles publics (Lyons: Jacques Muguet, 1669), 142. Interestingly, Antoine Furetière’s definition of the word “machine” in his Dictionnaire universel (1690) describes it in almost exactly the same terms as Ménestrier.

                      (11.) Wings were hung in sliding frames, which would move along grooves for a scene change coinciding with a change of action and/or place in the play.

                      (12.) Machines were also used in court ballets, masques, sacre rappresentazioni, autos sacramentales, fireworks, ceremonial entries, and other courtly entertainments throughout early modern Europe. See Guy Spielmann’s chapter in this volume on “Court Spectacle and Entertainment.”

                      (13.) See Laura Naudeix, Dramaturgie de la tragédie en musique, 1673–1764 (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2004), 121: “Opera is essentially a show of machinery rather than a dramatic or musical genre” (“L’opéra est presque davantage un spectacle de machineries qu’un genre dramatique ou musical”). As the French actor and theater director Louis Jouvet (b. 1887–d. 1951) puts it: “The dramatic place, machinery, sets, and representation connect. Arranged inside the edifice and forming part of it, the machinery appears as the organs and lungs of the theater whose respiratory function is expressed by the exercise of representation” (“Le lieu dramatique, machinerie, décors et représentation tiennent ensemble. Aménagée à l’intérieur de l’édifice et faisant corps avec lui, la machinerie apparaît comme les organes et les poumons du théâtre dont la fonction respiratoire s’exprime par l’exercice de la représentation”). In “Découverte de Sabbattini,” in La pratique pour fabriquer scènes et machines de théâtre par Nicola Sabbattini, trad. Maria Canavaggia, Renée Canavaggia, and Louis Jouvet (Neuchâtel, France: Ides & Calendes, 1994 [1942]), xviii.

                      (14.) Roy Strong, Art and Power: Renaissance Festivals 1450–1650 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984 [1973]), 39–41.

                      (15.) On machine books, see Wolfgang Lefèvre, ed., Picturing Machines, 1400–1700 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004); Luisa Dolza and Hélène Vérin, “Figurer la mécanique: l’énigme des théâtres de machines de la Renaissance,” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 51, no. 2 (2004): 7–37; Jan Lazardzig, “The Machine as Spectacle,” in Instruments in Art and Science. On the Architectonics of Cultural Boundaries in the 17th Century, ed. Helmar Schramm, Ludger Schwarte, and Jan Lazardzig (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), 152–175. Contrary to the scholarly tradition, Lazardzig establishes a relationship between machine books and theatrical machines due to the “spectacular character” of the machines.

                      (16.) Günter Schöne, “Les traités de perspective, sources historiques du théâtre,” Theatre Research 3 (1961): 176–190.

                      (17.) Published in a bilingual edition with a French translation by Jean Martin, this treatise is mainly known for the famous engravings of the three types of scenes (satirical, comic, and tragic). A drawing of a Florentine cityscape stage setting by Baldassare Lanci for Giovanni Battista Cini’s comedy La Vedova (1569), performed with six intermezzi for the official visit of Archiduke Karl of Austria exemplifies Serlio’s comic scene. See Alois M. Nagler, Theatre Festivals of the Medici, 1539–1637, trans. George Hickenlooper (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1964), plate 26. Regarding the relationships between painting and theater in the early modern period, see Emmanuelle Hénin, “Ut pictura theatrum.” Théâtre et peinture de la Renaissance italienne au classicisme français (Geneva: Droz, 2003).

                      (18.) Anne Surgers, Scénographies du théâtre occidental (Paris: Armand Colin, 2017), 89–123; Françoise Siguret, L’Œil surpris. Perception et représentation dans la première moitié du XVIIe siècle (Paris: Klincksieck, 1993).

                      (19.) The famous Medici festival in 1589 celebrated the marriage of the Grand Duke Ferdinando I and Christine of Lorraine (one of the granddaughters of Catherine de’Medici). Numerous scholarly articles and books have concerned these intermezzi. Among others, see Alois M. Nagler, Theatre Festivals of the Medici, 58–92; Elena Povoledo, “Origini a aspetti della scenographia in Italia dalla fine del Quattrocento agli intermezzi fiorentini del 1589,” in Li due Orfei: Da Poliziano a Monteverdi, ed. Nino Pirotta and Elena Povoledo (Turin: ERI, 1969), 371–505; Sara Mamone, Il teatro nella Firenze medicea (Milano: Ugo Mursia, 1991 [1981]); Anna Maria Testaverde, L’officina delle nuvole: Il Teatro Mediceo nel 1589 e gli “intermedi” del Buontalenti nel “Memoriale” di Girolamo Seriacopi (Milano: Associazione Amici della Scala, 1991); Philippe Morel, “Gli intermezzi di La pelligrina (1589): Fonti filosofiche e precedenti iconografici nell’arte medicea,” Biblioteca Teatrale 19/20 (1990): 75–98; and James Saslow, The Medici Wedding of 1589: Florentine Festival as Theatrum Mundi (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996).

                      (20.) In his official account of the performance, Rossi noted: “We have seen many machines coming out from the earth, then ascending to the sky, returning back to Earth and crossing on both sides the scene, always full of persons inside.” Quoted in Sara Mamone, “The Uffizi Theatre. The Florentine Scene from Bernardo Buontalenti to Giulio and Alphonso Parigi,” in Technologies of Theatre. Joseph Furttenbach and the Transfer of Mechanical Knowledge in Early Modern Theatre Cultures, ed. Jan Lazardzig and Hole Rößler (Frankfurt, Germany: Klostermann, 2016), 398.

                      (21.) Agostino Carraci made the series of engravings based on a drawing by Andrea Boscoli after an original sketch by Bernardo Buontalenti.

                      (22.) Arthur R. Blumenthal, Theater Art of the Medici (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Museum & Galleries, 1980), 9–11.

                      (23.) In that regard, it is significant to note that eyewitness accounts of La pellegrina’s interludes repeatedly underline the artifice as a perfect imitation of nature, raising the question of the paragon between art and nature. For example, one foreign eyewitness wrote: “Also remarkable was the skill with which it was arranged that the clouds which were up in the vaults moved like real clouds. It also looked as though the real moon and many stars hung in the clouds, which rotated and moved…. Again, the scene turns [for the fifth interlude], to become an entirely realistic sea.” Italics mine. Quoted in M. A. Katritzky, “Aby Warburg and the Florentine Intermedi of 1589: Extending the Boundaries of Art History,” in Art History as Cultural History: Warburg’s Projects, ed. R. Woodfield (Amsterdam: G+B Arts, 2001), 209–258; here 240.

                      (24.) Nagler, Theatre Festivals of the Medici, 44–46.

                      (25.) See the famous illumination by Hubert Cailleau showing the different mansions staged for the renowned Valenciennes mystery play performed in 1547 (BNF, Ms. Français, 12536).

                      (26.) See Lily B. Campbell, Scenes and Machines on the English Stage During the Renaissance: A Classical Revival (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013 [1923]); Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage, 1574–1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

                      (27.) Regarding the use of machinery in Greek theater, Roland Barthes writes: “This machinery has an overarching meaning: ‘To show the interior,’ that of the underworld, the palaces or the Olympus; It forces a secret, thickens the analogy, removes a distance between the spectacle and the spectator” (“Cette machinerie a un sens général: ‘faire voir l’intérieur,’ celui des enfers, des palais ou de l’Olympe; elle force un secret, épaissit l’analogie, supprime une distance entre le spectacle et le spectateur”). “Le théâtre grec,” in Histoire des spectacles, dir. Guy Dumur (Paris: Gallimard, coll. La Pléiade, 1965), 533.

                      (28.) Giulio Troili’s Paradossi per pratticare la prospettiva senza saperla (Bologna, Italy: H.H. del Peri, 1672) is the first book on perspective that talks about the flat-wing system. See Dunbar H. Ogden, The Italian Baroque Stage. Documents by Giulio Troili, Andrea Pozzo, Ferdinando Galli-Bibiena, Baldassare Orsini (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978). Margaret Berthold states that “Flat, sliding wings were the great novelty of the Baroque theater.” See The History of World Theater. From the Beginnings to the Baroque (New York: Continuum, 1991); (Weltgeschichte des Theaters, 1972), 420. It is important to mention that the flat-wing system did not replace the periaktoi, but rather co-existed for a while with the scena versatilis.

                      (29.) This complex machinery system first appeared in the Venitian performance of La finta pazza, a festa teatrale by Giulio Strozzi (librettist) and Francesco Sacrati (composer) on 14 January 1641. At the request of the Cardinal Mazarin, who had the ambition to enhance the prestige of France abroad and transform Paris into a leading cultural center rivaling Italy, Torelli came to Paris in 1645. He was first asked to redesign the stage of the Grande Salle du Petit-Bourbon (a palace adjacent to the Louvre) to accommodate his most significant machinery innovations for performances of Italian operas on the French stage. See Per Bjurström, Giacomo Torelli and Baroque Stage Design (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1962) and Francesco Milesi, ed., Giacomo Torelli. L’invenzione scenica nell’Europa barocca, (Fano, Italy: Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Fano, 2000).

                      (30.) It is worth noting, though, that the central perspective scenery was no longer in favor during the eighteenth century. At the beginning of the century, Ferdinando Galli-Bibiena (b. 1657–d. 1743) introduced the so-called angular perspective through a diagonal axis—“la scena per angolo,” coined as “the consummate expression of high Baroque scenography” by Carroll Durand in “The Apogee of Perspective in the Theatre: Ferdinando Bibiena’s Scena per angolo,” Theatre Research International 13.1 (Spring 1988): 21–29. See also Pannill Camp, The First Frame. Theatre Space in Enlightenment France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 1–25.

                      (31.) This expression underlines the close relationships between science and magic in the early modern period. Interestingly, Luigi Riccoboni states: “Machines are the effects of the magic and the wonder” (“Les machines sont les effets de la magie et du merveilleux”). Réflexions historiques et critiques sur les différents théâtres de l’Europe (Paris: Jacques Guerrin, 1738), 45.

                      (32.) Per Bjurström, Giacomo Torelli, 110; quoted in Hoxby Blair, “Technologies of Performance. From Mystery Plays to the Italian Order,” in A Cultural History of Theatre in the Early Modern Age, ed. Robert Henke, vol. 3 (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), 172.

                      (33.) See Agne Beijer, “Visions célestes et infernales dans le théâtre du moyen âge et de la Renaissance,” in Les Fêtes de la Renaissance, ed. Jean Jacquot, vol. I (Paris: C.N.R.S., 1956), 405–417; Sara Mamone, “Les nuées de l’Olympe à la scène: les dieux au service de l’église et du prince dans le spectacle florentin de la Renaissance,” in Images of the Pagan Gods, ed. Rembrandt Duits and François Quiviger (London and Turin: The Warburg Institute/Nino Aragno, 2009), 329–366; Alessandra Buccheri, The Spectacle of Clouds, 1438–1650: Italian Art and Theatre (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014). The cloud machine (la nuvola, la gloire) became the key element of the Baroque stage. Interesting parallels can be drawn between the use of cloud machines on the Baroque stage and paintings.

                      (34.) Viktoria Tkaczyk, “‘Which Cannot Be Sufficiently Described by My Pen.’ The Codification of Knowledge in Theater Engineering, 1480–1680,” in The Structures of Practical Knowledge, ed. Matteo Valleriani (Switzerland: Springer International Publishing Switzerland, 2017), 91.

                      (35.) Per Bjurström talks about a “dynamic set” (in Giacomo Torelli, 108) and Jean Jacquot uses a similar expression: “une scène dynamique” in “Les Types de lieu théâtral et leurs transformations de la fin du Moyen Age au milieu du XVIIe siècle,” in Le Lieu théâtral à la Renaissance, ed. Jean Jacquot (Paris: C.N.R.S., 1964), 479.

                      (36.) Anne Surgers, Scénographies du théâtre occidental, 16.

                      (37.) See Hervé Brunon, “Tommaso Francini (1571–1651),” in Créateurs de jardins et de paysages en France de la Renaissance au XXIe siècle, dir. Michel Racine, vol. I (Arles and Versailles: Actes sud/École nationale supérieure du paysage, 2001), 38–42.

                      (38.) See Hélène Visentin, “Décorateur à la cour et à la ville: Un artisan de la scène nommé Georges Buffequin (1585?–1641),” XVIIe Siècle 195 (1997): 325–339 and Marc Bayard, “Les faiseurs d’artifice: Georges Buffequin et les artistes de l’éphémère à l’époque de Richelieu,” XVIIe Siècle 230 (2006): 151–164. The word “maître” precisely refers to the mastery of a craft—here painting—acquired in a professional workshop.

                      (39.) Elena Tamburini, “Guitti, Buonamici, Mariani, les Vigarini. Scénographes Italiens en voyage à travers l’Europe,” in Les Lieux du spectacle dans l’Europe du XVIIe siècle, ed. Charles Mazouer (Tübingen, Germany: Narr, 2006), 189–206.

                      (40.) Anne Le Pas de Sécheval, “Le Cardinal de Richelieu, le théâtre et les décorateurs italiens: Nouveaux documents sur Mirame et le ballet de La Prospérité des Armes de France (1641),” XVIIe Siècle 186 (1995): 135–145; Marc Bayard, “Le roi au cœur du théâtre: Richelieu met en scène l’Autorité,” in L’Image du roi de François Ier à Louis XIV, ed. Thomas W. Gaehgtens and Nicole Hochner (Paris: Centre allemand d’histoire de l’art and Editions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2006), 191–208.

                      (41.) Margaret Rich Greer, The Play of Power. The Mythological Court Drames of Calderón de la Barca (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 13.

                      (42.) Flora Biach-Schiffmann, Giovanni und Ludovico Burnacini, Theater and Feste am Wiener Hofe (Vienna and Berlin: Krystall-Verlag, 1931); Robert Arthur Griffin, High Baroque Culture and Theatre in Vienna (New York: Humanities Press, 1972).

                      (43.) Jan Lazardzig and Hole Rössler, “Joseph Furttenbach and the Transfer of Mechanical Knowledge. New Perspectives on Early Modern Theatre Cultures,” in Technologies of Theatre, 289–309.

                      (44.) This original manuscript is located at the Bavarian State Library and can be consulted online at,00001.html?prozent=1,00001.html?prozent=1. An English translation of the Codex iconographicus 401 by Hole Rössler is forthcoming.

                      (45.) Viktoria Tkaczyk, “‘Which Cannot Be Sufficiently Described by My Pen,’” 97.

                      (46.) Tkaczyk, “‘Which Cannot Be Sufficiently Described by My Pen,’” 97.

                      (47.) It is worth mentioning that transfer knowledge implies the idea of translation. As Hole Rössler puts it: “Knowledge is ‘translated’ in the transfer from one socially-, politically- and economically-determined knowledge culture to another, in the movement through diverse storage media, through the change in language and not least through selection and reduction as means of adapting what is abstractly possible to the concrete and acute needs, expectations and demands of the ‘target’ culture.” (“‘For lack of a site, and also to save expense.’ Knowledge of Stagecraft: Joseph Furttenbach and the Limits of Cultural Translation,” in Technologies of Theatre, 375–376). On the question of knowledge translation, see also Harold J. Cook and Sven Dupré, “Introduction,” in Translating Knowledge in the Early Low Modern Countries, ed. Harold J. Cook and Sven Dupré (Zürich and Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2013), 9–10; Cultural Translation in Early Modern Europe, ed. Peter Burke, and R. Po-chia Hsia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

                      (48.) Jan Lazardzig and Hole Rössler, “Joseph Furttenbach and the Transfer of Mechanical Knowledge,” 277.

                      (49.) Lazardzig and Rössler, 277–278. As another example: an eyewitness of La pellegrina (1589), Barthold von Gadenstedt, ends his diary account by stating, “We would have appreciated the opportunity [to see] how this could have been produced, but it was strictly forbidden to grant anyone permission to see this.” (Quoted in M. A. Katritzky, “Aby Warburg and the Florentine Intermedi of 1589: Extending the Boundaries of Art History,” 209–258.)

                      (50.) Lazardzig and Rössler, 279. Besides a myriad of drawings and engineers’ notebook manuscripts, the main manuals/treatises that deal with pre-modern stagecraft are: an anonymous manuscript, written between the late 1620s and 1630s, titled Il Corago, o vero alcune osservazioni per mettere bene in scena le composizioni drammatiche, ed. Paolo Fabbri and Angelo Pompilio (Florence: Olschki, 1983); Nicola Sabbattini’s Pratica di fabricar scene e machine ne’ teatri (1637–1638), which was the first printed manual on theater technology; Giacomo Torelli’s Apparati scenici per lo teatro Novissimo di Venitia, (s.l.n.d. [1644]); Joseph Furttenbach’s Codex iconographicus 401 (ed. Hole Rößler, forthcoming), along with passages from his architectural treatises—mainly Architectura recreationis (1640) and the Mannhaffter Kunstspiegel (1663); and Fabrizio Carini Motta’s Trattato sopra la structura de’ theatri e scene (1676) and Costruzione de teatri e machine teatrali (1688). On the later, see Orville K. Larson, The Theatrical Writings of Fabrizio Carini Motta: Translations of Trattato sopra la structtura de’ theatri e sceni, 1676 and Costruzione de teatri e machine teatrali, 1688 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987).

                      (51.) Gaspare Vigarini is known for having burnt all the decorations and machines created by Giacomo Torelli for both stages at the Palais Royal and the Petit-Bourbon as a way to secure his authority and sovereignty over the Parisian stage. In any case, he did not stay long in France after the complete failure of the Grande Salle des Machines due to bad acoustics because of the size of the theater building. See Jerôme de La Gorce, “Torelli et les Vigarani, initiateurs de la scénographie italienne en France,” in Seicento. La peinture italienne du XVIIe siècle et la France (Paris: Rencontres de l’École du Louvre, La Documentation Française, 1990), 13–25; Alice Jarrard, “Gaspare Vigarini: Le macchine, la prospettiva e l’architettura,” in Modena 1598. L’invenzione di una capitale, ed. Massimo Bulgarelli, Claudia Conforti, and Giovanna Curcio (Milano: Electra, 1999), 193–217.

                      (52.) Evan Baker, From the Score to the Stage. An Illustrated History of Continental Opera Production and Staging (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 13. See also Hélène Leclerc, Venise baroque et l’opéra (Paris: Armand Colin, 1987) and Ellen Rosand, Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice. The Creation of a Genre (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

                      (53.) John Golder argues that Théâtre du Marais, in 1644, was equipped with a stage conforming to the Italian scenography and modelled on the stage of the Palais-Royal. “‘À l’instart et conformément … au jeu de paume du Marestz’: Ce que l’Hôtel de Bourgogne devait au Théâtre du Marais en 1647,” in Les Lieux du spectacle dans l’Europe du XVIIe siècle, ed. Charles Mazouer (Tübingen, Germany: Biblio 17, 2006), 87–102.

                      (54.) As highlighted in the title of a play by Claude Boyer performed at the Théâtre du Marais in 1648–1649: Ulysse dans l’Ile de Circé, ou Euriloche foudroyé, tragicomédie, Représentée sur le Théâtre des Machines du Marais, (Paris: Toussaint Quinet, 1650).

                      (55.) See the “Postface” of the critical edition of François de Chapoton, La Descente d’Orphée aux enfers, tragédie 1640, ed. Hélène Visentin (Rennes, France: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2004), 141–170.

                      (56.) Publishing a dessein of the performance of machine plays started to be a standard practice when Italian feste teatrali were imported by Mazarin in France in the 1640s. See Hélène Visentin, “Le ‘dessein’ de la pièce à machines: Un cas particulier d’inscription du texte spectaculaire,” Texte 33/34 (2003): 139–165.

                      (57.) “Et le funeste Mariage d’Orphee et d’Euridice, estant representé par les Comediens du Marests, fera voir sur leur Theatre presque en un même instant, des Dieux du Ciel descendre sur la Terre. Des Divinitez voler dans le vague des Airs. Le Soleil rouler sur son Zodiaque. Les furies errer dans leurs cavernes. Des Driades dans les bois. Des Bacchantes métamorphosées en Arbres. Des Serpens remper. Des Animaux marcher. La Terre s’ouvrir. L’Enfer parroistre. Et l’agreable diversité des Forests. Des plaines, des Deserts, des Rochers, des Montagnes & des Fleuves disputer avec la Nature pour tromper agreablement la veuë des Spectateurs, & les ravir par les charmes d’un artifice inimitable.” See Hélène Visentin ed., La descente d’Orphée aux enfers, 135.

                      (58.) It is known that this performance was hugely disappointing, mainly because of the bad acoustics and visibility to the stage due to the enormous size of the theater.

                      (59.) “Admirez l’excellence de l’Ingénieur qui les a si bien representez sur ce Theatre, & dont l’esprit fertile en invention, a trouvé moyen de donner à deux differends Astres l’Aurore & le Soleil differente sorte de lumiere, qui toutes chacune à son tour ont eu le mesme effet d’éclairer ses belles Decorations.” Hélène Visentin ed., La descente d’Orphée aux enfers, 136. It is worth mentioning that this passage highlights the use of lights with candles to brighten the machines, which was part of their appeal.

                      (60.) “La mémoire typographique.” Roger Chartier, “Georges Dandin, ou le social en représentation,” Annales. Histoire, sciences sociales 49, no 2 (1994): 289.

                      (61.) Les sosies by Rotrou was first performed in 1637 on the stage of the Hôtel de Bourgogne, before being staged at the Théâtre du Marais in 1649–1650 under a new title La naissance d’Hercule, ou l’Amphitryon (Paris: Antoine de Sommaville, 1650). See Jean de Rotrou, Les Sosies, in Théâtre complet 8, ed. Hélène Visentin (Paris: S.T.F.M., 2005).

                      (62.) S. W. Deierkauf-Holsboer, Le Théâtre du Marais, vol. 2 (Paris: Nizet, 1958), 68–72 and 221–224.

                      (63.) “Comme on renchérit toujours sur ce qui a été fait, on a représenté le cheval Pégase par un véritable cheval, ce qui n’avait jamais été vu en France. Il joue admirablement son rôle, et fait en l’air tous les mouvements qu’il pourrait faire sur terre.” Le Mercure Galant, 23 Juillet 1682. Quoted from Christian Delmas’s critical edition of Corneille’s Andromède (Paris: Marcel Didier, 1974), 191.

                      (64.) See Hélène Visentin, “Le théâtre à machines: Succès majeur pour un genre mineur,” Littératures Classiques 51 (2004): 205–222.

                      (65.) For instance, Benoît Bolduc identified about thirty French and Italian plays and operas based on the mythological story of Andromeda and Perseus performed between 1587 and 1712. See Benoît Bolduc, Andromède au rocher. Fortune théâtrale d’une image en France et en Italie (1587–1712) (Florence: Leo Olschki, 2002).

                      (66.) See Henri Liebrecht, Histoire du théâtre Français à Bruxelles au XVIIe et au XVIIIe siècles (Paris: Librairie Ancienne Édouard Champion, 1923), 59–69; Colin Visser, “The Descent of Orpheus at the Cockpit, Drury Lane,” Theater Survey 24, no. 1–2 (1983): 5–53; John Orrell, “Scenes and Machines at the Cockpit, Drury Lane,” Theater Survey 26, no. 2 (1985): 103–119.

                      (67.) The scholar Judith Milhous described these plays as “multimedia spectaculars” and “Dorset Garden spectaculars.” See Judith Milhous, “The Multimedia Spectacular on Restauration Stage,” in British Theatre and the Other Arts, 1660–1800, ed. Shirley Strum Kenny (Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1984), 41–66.

                      (68.) Colin Visser, “The Descent of Orpheus at the Cockpit, Drury Lane,” 35. See also the appendix of John Orrell, “Scenes and Machines at the Cockpit, Drury Lane,” 113–118 for a transcript of The designe or the Great peece of Machines of the Loves of Diana and Endimion (another French machine play by Gabriel Gilbert) from a copy located at the Bodleian Library as well.

                      (69.) Robert D. Hume, The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), 280.

                      (70.) Quoted in Sandra Clark, “Shakespeare and Other Adaptations,” in A Companion to the Restauration Drama, ed. Susan J. Owen (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 279.

                      (71.) It is worth mentioning that the scholarly work of Christian Delmas rehabilitated the genre of machine plays as a legitimate theater. See Mythologie et Mythe dans le théâtre français (1650–1676) (Geneva: Droz, 1985) and “L’unité du genre tragique au XVIIe siècle,” Littératures Classiques, no. 16 (1992): 103–123.

                      (72.) “My principal aim here has been to satisfy the eyes by the brilliance and variety of spectacle, and not to touch the mind through the power of thought.” (“mon principal but ici a été de satisfaire la vue par l’éclat et la diversité du spectacle, et non pas de toucher l’esprit par la force du raisonnement.”). Pierre Corneille, Andromède, tragédie, ed. Christian Delmas (Paris: S.T.F.M., 1974), 13.

                      (73.) “Il est certain que les ornements de la Scène sont les plus sensibles charmes de cette ingénieuse Magie, qui rapelle au monde les Héros des siècles passés, et qui nous met en vue un nouveau Ciel, une nouvelle Terre, et une infinité de merveilles que nous croyons avoir présentes, dans le même temps que nous sommes bien assurés qu’on nous trompe.” Abbé D’Aubignac, La Pratique du théâtre, ed. Hélène Baby (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2001), 485.

                      (74.) D’Aubignac, La Pratique du théâtre. In a recent article, Jean-Vincent Blanchard establishes an interesting relationship between the idea of France’s historical becoming (“le devenir historique de la France”) and courtly performances of machine theater. See “Les Promenades de Richelieu de Jean Desmarets et la modernité du théâtre à machines,” XVIIe Siècle 280 (2018): 461–474.

                      (75.) D’Aubignac, La Pratique du théâtre, 485. To render justice to D’Aubignac, often machines failed to work properly on the stage of public playhouses according to eyewitness accounts.

                      (76.) Craig Lambert, “The Future of Theater. In a Digital Era, Is the Play Still the Thing?” Harvard Magazine, January–February 2012,