The hall of wonders

Teatro Bibiena

Once used as a lecture hall for the meetings of the Accademia, one of the most important cultural institutions of the city of Mantua, this bell shaped room in time became the ideal space for performances. Here music and architecture come together and give life to extraordinary experiences. 

Music and shapes
The combination of different materials, especially wood, and the continuous variation of the way in which the columns, boxes and gables rotate around the stage, contribute to the creation of a breathtaking vision, tempered by the softness of the colours used for the frescoes. 
Indoor of the Theatre
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the building hosting the Academia, which was at the time on the brink of bankruptcy, was donated to the Municipality of Mantua. The National Academy of Virgil remained somewhat inactive, and started functioning again in the thirties; the theatre however remained abandoned. Restoration began only in 1963, and was completed in 1972. The theatre was reopened with a concert by Mozart performed by the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchester. In the following years the Bibiena Theatre became a location where important concerts were held. Great chamber orchestras and famous soloists performed here. In 2007, to celebrate the end of prestigious season, Orpheus by Claudio Monteverdi was staged with the direction of Gianfranco De Bosio, to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of the first performance.
Everything is ready
The Bibiena Theatre is unique in its kind. Its dimensions are not impressive: almost seventeen meters wide, and more than twenty-five meters in length. Its function is ambiguous, as is its aesthetic quality: surely a place for performances, but with a fixed scene and lacking a proscenium. The style of the building is anti-classical, so much that the facade and the hall named after Empress Maria Theresa, completed in the same years, are very different from the interior. The style is more Late Baroque than Rococo, a style that is indeed able to bring together and create harmony between architectural elements from different periods.  
The show can begin
The Bibiena Theatre is unique in its kind. Its dimensions are not impressive: almost seventeen meters wide, and more than twenty-five meters in length. Its function is ambiguous, as is its aesthetic quality: surely a place for performances, but with a fixed scene and lacking a proscenium. The style of the building is anti-classical, so much that the facade and the hall named after Empress Maria Theresa, completed in the same years, are very different from the interior. The style is more Late Baroque than Rococo, a style that is indeed able to bring together and create harmony between architectural elements from different periods.  
The stages and the ceiling 
One of the most original ideas of Antonio Bibiena was to create a sudden opening in the stage area and to place two statues to the right and the left, slightly above the stage. These statues are of Baldassarre Castiglione and of Gabriele Bertazzolo. The surrounding area is filled with boxes, and two more statues, of Virgil and of Pomponazzo, are placed here. This arrangement seems to reflect the double nature of the venue: it is both theatre and academic hall, in theory allowing the audience to take place anywhere around the stage and the parterre, a stage that can be seen from anywhere in the hall. It is very difficult in this theatre to present plays with a complex scenography, even the least complex. Here the architecture itself serves as backdrop for the performances.

A distinctive feature of the hall is that, though it is small, it gives the impression of unfolding and of become wider, no matter where the viewer is standing. Also remarkable is the use of colour, the way white and brown are made to alternate. All the decoration is superimposed on the underlying wall, so that none of it is weight-bearing. The use of wood and plaster, for instance, for the capitals, does not make the structure heavier; in addition it plays an important role in that it minimizes the echo and creates a magnificent sound box.

A performance by the Mantua Chamber Orchestra, an institution whose life is closely linked to the new blossoming of the theatre.

The first violin of the Chamber Orchestra of Mantova, Carlo Fabiano.

The perfect bell
Admiring the ceiling from below, it is possible to see the characteristic bell shape that constitutes the essence of the theatre. It must be noted that this ceiling, a fascinating mix of geometrical and floral decoration, was built in wood in the second half of the nineteenth century. The ornamental fretwork is inspired by elements of the parish church in Villa Pasquali, a little town in the area of Mantua, close to Sabbioneta. This Church, dedicated to Saint Anthony Abate, was designed by Antonio Bibiena, who worked on the project in the same period he worked on the Theatre.

The painted balustrade that encloses the decoration on the ceiling.

Looking at the stage from this position it is possible to admire the great scenic arch, composed of two parallel arches, embellished by spirals, that seem to be supported by high Corinthian columns in between which are other boxes. The Corinthian columns continue also behind the stage, ennobling the space for the representation.

A beautiful image, from a very particular point of view: the boxe of the last order between the two great wooden spirals, which adorn the arch, also in wood.

The theatre is itself a performance.

A silent machine, ingenious, majestic to look at, light and fragile

Antonio Bibiena’s desire was to place four statues of four of the most influential citizens of Mantua, protective gods of the city, inside the hall. The statues are in a prominent position, two of them are at the back of the stage, the other two on each side of the proscenium arch. The statue of the most important personality, Virgil (Andes 70 a.C., Brindisi 19 a.C.), is at the back, inside an elegant niche, above it a gable. The poet wears a wreath around his head, he is standing next to a tree trunk and is holding up a book containing his work. ​ His juvenile and kind look, together with tree he is standing next to, form a bucolic atmosphere similar to the one that characterizes his work.
A man of the Renaissance 
Baldassare Castiglione (Casatico 1478, Toledo 1529), was born into a noble family, he was a scholar and diplomat and lived in the Gonzaga period. In particular, he was a very influential counselor to Isabella d’Este and her son the Duke Federico. He is also the author of the masterpiece “Il Libro del Cortigiano”, a work in which a group of illustrious banqueters, gathered in the palace of Urbino, converse about good-living and the arts. Baldassare Castiglione frequented Rome at the same time Raphael was working there, and persuaded Giulio Romano, pupil of Raphael, to move to Mantua after the death of the famous painter. His  statue, on the left of the proscenium arch, shows Castiglione pensively reading a book. His beard is similar to the one that appears in the famous portrait of him painted by Raphael.  
Pietro Pomponazzi (Mantova 1462, Bologna 1525), also known as Peretto from Mantua, was a philosopher of remarkable importance. Professor at the Padova University, he lived in Carpi, Ferrara, and Bologna. His most remarkable work is  “Il Trattato sull'immortalità dell'anima”,a treaty on the immortality of the soul, in which he claimed that immortality cannot be rationally demonstrated, something which exposed him to the serious risk of being accused of heresy. His statue is placed inside a niche surmounted by a gable, at the back of the stage. He is wearing a doctoral hat and is holding up a book with one hand while with the other he is pointing to the text on the page.  
Gabriele Bertazzolo
On the right side of the proscenium arch we can see the statue of Gabriele Bertazzolo (Mantova 1570, Mantova 1626). He was an engineer and cartographer, famous for the large map of the city of Mantua completed in 1596, a map that is still today a precious reference point for the understanding of the town planning carried out in the Gonzaga period. In particular, Bertazzolo was a hydraulic and military engineer. This statue completes the group of the four figures. He is smiling, in one hand he holds compass, in the other a sheet of paper, probably one of his projects.
Chamber of Maria Teresa
Although this wide rectangular room is usually referred to as the "Sala Piermarini", the chamber,  which is located on the top floor of the theater just above the entrance hall, is dedicated to Empress Maria Theresa, as is indicated by a large marble plaque, placed under two winged male figures and above a fireplace. The room was designed by Paolo Pozzo, who created a bright space adorned by representations, that on the one hand honour the great Empress and on the other exalt genius, intelligence, the arts.The bas-reliefs of the hall are the work of Ticino Stanislaus Somazzi, designed by painter Giuseppe Bottani (1717 Cremona, Mantua 1784), director of the Academy of Fine Arts.

The entrance to the room is on the long side. To the right and left the two shorter walls are each embellished by a Neoclassical pediment. Inside the tympanum are Apollo with his lyre, while in the other stands Minerva holding the shields with Medusa’s head. On the fourth wall, opposite the entrance, there is a fireplace with a plaque in honour of the Empress.

Three large paintings hang on the long wall, opposite the wall with windows and a fireplace. They are by Hubert Maurer, a fairly well-known academic painter, who worked at the Viennese court. On the right, Empress Maria Theresa of Spain (1717-1780), an enlightened genius, protects the subjects and strengthens the Academy that resides in the building. On her left, her son Joseph II, who became Emperor in 1765, and who continued to carry out his mother’s enlightened policy; further to the left, her husband Francis I, who became Emperor in 1745, who had already died at the time the portrait was painted.  

Joseph II, son of Maria Theresa and Francis I, is portrayed in an almost heroic pose. His features are painted with a certain realism and are very expressive. It is worth noticing the landscape behind him. Joseph II was also called Sacristan Emperor because of his efforts to exert also ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

The work that appears above the dedicatory plaque, placed over the fireplace, shows two winged male figures holding up a large crown. The one on the left bears the emblem of the city of Mantua, the one on the right is standing next to a book, a compass, a goniometer, a palm leaf. It is evident that here that what is being celebrated is the intellectual union between the genius of the birthplace of Virgil and the genius of the Academy, the institution that presides over the sciences and the arts. The modeled stucco is particularly charming and expressive. Worth noting is the presence in the room of stucco reliefs, smaller, dedicated to different sciences and the fine arts.

Apollo, divine protector of the arts, appears here surrounded by the objects by which he is identified: laurel wreaths, a book, urns. Of course he has with him his lyre, the instrument whose sound evokes the grace of all the artistic inventions.

A memorable image
A last glance before leaving the theater. Standing in the entrance, under the portal, it is possible to admire the bell shaped plan of the theatre, rightly considered on the most beautiful. From here we can appreciate the view of the stage and the parterre, that of course in the past had no fixed seating.    

Taking a step back it is possible to better appreciate the marvellous play of shapes. Everything comes to life thanks to the contrast between two colors, the white of the essential architectural elements, and the dark ocher of the most decorative parts. Above, more harmony and compositional effects are created by the intersection of the ceiling with big arches and with the structure surmounting the entrance.

Just like in the fifteenth century Camera degli Sposi by Andrea Mantegna, the sixteenth century Sala dei Giganti by Giulio Romano, the eighteenth century work by Antonio Galli Bibiena encloses in a small space a whole variety of artistic references. Like in the two previous cases, the author is here able to create a direct relationship between the space and the visitor, who comes into contact with the uniqueness of a place become universal.

Credits: Story

Ideato e promosso da / Founded and Promoted by:
Mattia Palazzi (Sindaco del Comune di Mantova)
con Lorenza Baroncelli (Assessore alla rigenerazione urbana e del territorio, marketing urbano, progetti e relazioni internazionali del Comune di Mantova)

Coordinamento Scientifico / Scientific Coordinator:
Sebastiano Sali

Curatore testi e immagini / Superintendent texts and images:
Giovanni Pasetti

Foto di / Photo by:
Gian Maria Pontiroli

Redazione/ Editors:
Erica Beccalossi
Sara Crimella
Carlotta Depalmas
Veronica Zirelli

Un ringraziamento speciale a / A special thanks to:
Emma Catherine Gainsforth
Chiara Pisani
Paola Somenzi
Custodi del Bibiena
Orchestra da Camera di Mantova - Ocm

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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