1696 - 1920

La Monnaie / De Munt (I)

La Monnaie / De Munt

Two centuries of rich artistic history and dramatic events

In 1696, thanks to the support of governor Maximilian Emanuel of Bavaria, Gio Paolo Bombarda, an Italian living in Brussels, had a theatre built on the site of the ruins of the old mint, by Italian architects Paolo and Pietro Bezzi.

The choice of site was influenced largely by economic criteria: in Brussels the uptown area was full of upper-class residences; downtown, around the Grand-Place, was the area of the middle-classes and the merchants, a public that the theatre aimed to attract.

The « Théâtre de la Monnoye » was completely hemmed in by houses. The interior was almost entirely made of wood: there were 93 boxes divided over four floors, some benches on the ground floor and a lot of standing room. The total capacity was around 1,200 spectators.

Its façade was embellished with pilasters and a bas-relief portraying The Mother of Dramatic Arts. The Italian composer, Pietro Antonio Fiocco, became the first musical director.

The theatre was rebuilt a hundred years later by the City Council to bring it into line with the style of the day. The new building, designed by the French architect Louis Damesme, was on a site behind the old theatre, which was demolished in 1820. This allowed for the square to be developed.

The interior layout took the form of a U, as was the tradition, divided into rows, the upper floors with boxes for the upper classes and the ground floor and gallery for the working classes. This arrangement allowed for 2,000 places of which 1,800 were seated. The décor was mostly in the pale colours beloved of the 18th century.

The royal boxes are in the foreground and the dome-like ceiling is decorated with spirits in gold on a white background “as are the arabesques and other ornamentation with which this theatre is decorated and which make it one of the most beautiful in Europe”. (Goetghebuer tourist guide, 1827)

The new theatre was inaugurated on 25th May, 1819 with the performance of a grand opera by Grétry entitled La Caravane du Caire. The running of the opera house was entrusted to private management.

The performance of Auber’s opera, La Muette de Portici, in August 1830, was the trigger for protests against the Dutch domination, since 1815, of the Belgian provinces. The French composer’s opera, largely forgotten today, presents a strong feeling of patriotic and national identity, influenced as it was by the ideas of the French Revolution.

The words of the hero of the above performance in the second act – “Amour sacré de la patrie” – roused the audience who left the theatre shouting “Vive la liberté” and joined the crowd already forming on the square in front of la Monnaie. The revolution for Belgian independence had begun.

Two musicians from la Monnaie, Louis Dechez Jenneval and François Van Campenhout wrote the text and the music of La Brabançonne which became the Belgian national anthem.

During the years that followed independence, la Monnaie became the meeting place in the social life of Brussels. Comic opera, grand opera, dance and spoken theatre were staged one after the other on a daily basis.

In 1854, the pediment of the peristyle was decorated with a bas-relief entitled The Harmony of the Human Passions by the sculptor Eugène Simonis.

On 21st January 1855, in spite of gas lighting having been installed during the 1820s, the theatre was ravaged by a devastating fire, which virtually destroyed everything. Fortunately, as it was a Sunday morning, the auditorium was empty and only three lives were lost.

A competition was organised in which the only restriction imposed was that the walls that were saved should be incorporated. Of the 31 proposals submitted not one met with the approval of the City Council, who then asked the City Architect, the Belgian Joseph Poelaert, to take charge of the reconstruction. He took and used many of the ideas of his rejected competitors.

Supported by a cast-iron frame, a great novelty at the time, the auditorium was rebuilt with four floors of balconies with a row of boxes at the back. A large cloakroom and a third basement were added. The outside lateral arcades were closed to house the service areas.

Little attention was paid to the technical equipment whereas a large sum of money was spent on the decoration. It was considered essential that “the architect should show good taste and deliver a building worthy of the capital city”. For the first time shades of red dominated the colour scheme.

The programming saw many changes in the years that followed, most importanly the gradual disappearance of spoken theatre. Even though famous actors and actresses, such as French actress Sarah Bernhardt, were still regularly welcomed on stage, opera gradually became the principle activity of the theatre.

When the Franco-German War broke out in 1870, la Monnaie became an important centre for the presentation of German works and a refuge for the Parisians who championed the Wagnerian music banned in France. Richard Wagner came in person to la Monnaie to conduct two concerts in 1860. His opera Lohengrin was first performed here in French in 1870.

As well as Wagnerian works, la Monnaie staged the whole French repertoire and many world premieres such as Masssenet’s Hérodiade and Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus.

During the early years of the 20th century, the symbolist painter, Emile Fabry, painted a series of large works, which were gradually displayed on the main staircase of the theatre.

1900 to 1914, under the management of Maurice Kufferath and Guillaume Guidé, was truly a golden age for the theatre, which culminated in the premiere of Parsifal in 1914 on the eve of the First World War.

It was during the tenure of Maurice Kufferath and Guillaume Guidé that the famous symbolist artist Fernand Khnopff worked on sets for la Monnaie.

During the First World War the management of la Monnaie went into exile. The normal repertoire was forbidden and the personnel of the theatre were sacked.

The German occupying force only allowed Wagner’s operas and concerts of German composers.

La Monnaie / De Munt
Credits: Story

Peter de Caluwe, General Director of La Monnaie / De Munt

Virginie Peters, Project Coordinator

Isabelle Pouget, Editorial line

Zoé Renaud, Archives of La Monnaie / De Munt

Credits: All media
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