Architecture: from Piermarini to Botta

As Milanese society has evolved, so has the theatre’s physical structure. In the words of Swiss architect Mario Botta, “La Scala is like a chameleon continuously transforming itself, but through a memory that conserves its unity”.

Internal view of the Teatro alla Scala, on the stage the curtain of A. Monticelli, audience in the hall and in the boxes, around 1830 (first half of XIX century)Teatro Alla Scala

Neoclassical splendour

Following the destruction of the Regio Ducal Teatro in 1776, Imperial Architect Giuseppe Piermarini was tasked with designing a new theatre on the site of the Santa Maria della Scala church. Its construction was to be funded by the former patrons of the Regio Ducale.“The auditorium, with its six rows of boxes, is magnificent. It is possibly the biggest theatre in Italy, in the world,” wrote chronicler Pietro Verri following La Scala’s inauguration. “It is impossible to imagine anything more grand, solemn and new,” reported Stendhal.

Teatro alla Scala esternoTeatro Alla Scala

The iconic facade

More than eye-catching grandeur, the theatre’s facade is notable for its elegance and classical proportion.

Facade of La Scala TheatreTeatro Alla Scala

Half columns lead the eye to a crowning tympanum, on which a bas-relief stucco design depicts Helios in his golden chariot pursued by advancing night. Innovative features include a portico designed to allow guests to arrive directly at the entrance by horse-drawn carriage.

Foyer at La Scala TheatreTeatro Alla Scala

The foyer

In the foyer, elegantly dressed audience members mingle before taking their seats in the auditorium. The space is broken up by six marble columns, mirrors mounted on doors and walls creating the illusion of a much larger space. In the ridotti, corresponding halls on the levels above, gambling and dinner parties would once continue long into the night.

Die WalküreTeatro Alla Scala

The auditorium

On the auditorium’s ivory-coloured walls, golden illustrations of medallions, flowers and animals are displayed. A crimson curtain is framed by a neoclassical proscenium. Above, a clock featuring both Roman and Arabic numerals is supported by two winged females in bas-relief.

Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Gaetano Mercoli's engraving (1789) of the original project by Giuseppe Piermarini. (1778 (original project), 1789 (engravings)) by Giuseppe Piermarini, Giacomo Mercoli (1745-1825)Teatro Alla Scala

The design, based on the theatre of the Royal Palace of Caserta near Naples, the “Versailles of the Bourbon Kingdom of Two Sicilies”, and the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, became a blueprint for new theatres all over the world.

Box at La Scala TheatreTeatro Alla Scala

Liberating boxes

At La Scala, owners originally decorated boxes with upholstery, drapery, mirrors, furniture and chairs according to their tastes. In 1830, designer and architect Alessandro Sanquirico recoloured them in celestial blue, as the theatre’s managers clawed back control from the aristocrats. Bright green was adopted in 1844, followed by red silk damask.

The acoustics

Piermarini’s design ensured one of the finest acoustics of the day. But successive interventions led to its deterioration over time.

In a bid to turn back the clock, Botta led a major renovation between 2002 and 2004. The carpets were removed, the concrete floor below was ripped up and replaced with parquet, and the original marble and terracotta flooring in the corridors and boxes were restored.

Despite the overall improvement to the acoustics, one idiosyncrasy remains. When soloists stand on the fabled "Callas spot" onstage, in the auditorium their voices sound noticeably amplified.

Chandelier, view from bottomTeatro Alla Scala

Austrian spies

Sanquirico’s introduction of the iconic chandelier in 1823 was controversial, with some claiming the powerful illumination allowed wandering eyes to penetrate the intimacy of boxes. Before long, the chandelier came to represent Milan’s Austrian oppressors and their spies.

Chandelier - La Scala TheatreTeatro Alla Scala

Today’s chandelier, which is lit by 383 bulbs, is a copy of the original, donated by glass cutters from Murano after La Scala's roof collapsed following allied bombing in 1943. It is made from plastic and crystal, the lighter material ensuring the structure does not collapse.

Chandelier yearly cleaningTeatro Alla Scala

Once a year, the chandelier descends to be cleaned in a process that takes at least 20 days to complete.

Sketches by Mario BottaTeatro Alla Scala

Modern La Scala

During Botta’s €61m renovation and extension, performances were relocated to the newly-constructed Teatro Arcimboldi in Milan's Bicocca industrial district. Over at La Scala, the most prominent addition was a futuristic elliptical office block and cuboid fly tower, finished in marble and lit with LED lights. 

Exhibition La Magnifica Fabbrica 240 anni del Teatro alla Scala da Piermarini a Botta 4 dicembre 2018 – 30 settembre 2019Teatro Alla Scala

Many have suggested the design disrupts visual equilibrium, but Botta maintains the expansion of Piazza della Scala in 1858 necessitated the subsequent redesign. Furthermore, the new “urban fabric and abstract language” of Milan’s increasingly modern financial district, he argued, made it necessary for La Scala to be better integrated with its surroundings.

La Scala Theatre - externalTeatro Alla Scala

La Scala Theatre - externalTeatro Alla Scala

The next transformation

In a further extension announced in 2017, a second Botta-designed tower, which will extend 36 metres upwards and 18m below ground, will be constructed behind that of 2004.

Render by Mario BottaTeatro Alla Scala

The top floor will house a rehearsal space for the corps de ballet, while on the lower level there will be an orchestral rehearsal room that will also be used for recordings. The acoustics will be designed by Yasuhisa Toyota, who has worked on projects including the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin and the Philharmonie in Paris.

Exhibition La Magnifica Fabbrica 240 anni del Teatro alla Scala da Piermarini a Botta 4 dicembre 2018 – 30 settembre 2019Teatro Alla Scala

The stage will be extended to a world record depth of 70m, allowing for a larger number of sets to be stored at any one time. That, it is hoped, will ease space pressures that have arisen from an increase in productivity in recent years.

Credits: Story

curated by James Imam and the Teatro alla Scala

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