In the Estorick Collection, a museum devoted to modern Italian art in Islington, London, there is a gem for opera lovers. Leaving the Theatre by Carlo Carrà (1910), a leading figure of the Futurist movement, depicts huddled figures pouring out of La Scala into the cold, windy Milanese night.
Carrà described the work as "one of the pictures in which I best expressed the conception I then had of painting". Thick brushstrokes, warped cabs and glittering street lights evoke a city teeming with life. Milan at the start of the 20th Century was going places, and, for Carrà, La Scala embodied that spirit.
Pubblico all'uscita del Teatro alla Scala 1949Teatro Alla Scala
The beating heart of Milan
La facciata del Teatro alla Scala (1852) by Angelo Inganni, the Milanese painter best known for his street scenes, depicts the outside of La Scala as seen from Via Manzoni -- a vital thoroughfare, then as now.
A well-dressed gentleman drives a horse-drawn carriage, gossips converse animatedly and a solitary dog yaps. To the left, the buildings that would be torn down six years later to create the Piazza della Scala are seen.
The Teatro alla Scala façade in 1852 (1852/1852) by Angelo Inganni (1807-1880)Teatro Alla Scala
The audience centre stage
18th-century La Scala was the pre-eminent drawing room of Milan, a place for literati, government officials and the nobility to network, be seen and have fun.
Marcantonio dal Re’s Interno del Teatro Ducale (1742) depicts a scene from the city’s main opera venue in the years before La Scala was built.
An audience shown taking part in a ball illustrates the primary social function of theatres at the time. When, following the destruction of the Ducale, La Scala opened in 1778, this pre-performance tradition was transferred to the new venue.
Interno Teatro Ducale Marcantonio dal ReTeatro Alla Scala
La Scala in evolution
La Scala’s physical structure has evolved considerably over the years. Indeed, in a 19th-century coloured engraving housed in the Museum the theatre is almost unrecognisable.
A slimmer chandelier than the more recent dendroidal model is shown, and the auditorium, rather than upholstered in today’s iconic burgundy velvet, is a sea of celestial blue.
Internal view of the I. R. Teatro alla Scala restored in 1830, scene with trees and actors on stage, audience in the hall and on stage (first half of XIX century)Teatro Alla Scala
The work of child prodigy Vincenzo Gemito (1852-1929) was so loved by Victor Emmanuel II that the King purchased Il Giocatore - the sculptor’s best known work -- and presented it permanently in Naples’s Museo di Capodimonte.
Gemito created marble sculptures of figures including Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. His bronze bust of Verdi, which forms part of the Museum’s collection, captures the majesty, dignity and blazing passions of the composer.
Bust of Giuseppe Verdi (1874/1874) by Vincenzo Gemito (1852-1929)Teatro Alla Scala
As the search for Verdi’s successor intensified during the early 20th-century, the so-called giovane scuola, the radical young composers unafraid to break with tradition, came to the fore in Milan. Puccini emerged as the favourite, and music director Arturo Toscanini became a champion.
Two portraits by Arturo Rietti that are housed in the Museum capture both figures’ revolutionary verve.
Toscanini, painted in 1933, appears noble and fervent, his piercing eyes framed by two electrified white tufts of hair set against a fiery background.
Portrait of the conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) (First half of XX century) by Arturo Rietti (1863-1943)Teatro Alla Scala
Puccini (1906) appears a softer creative soul, his thoughtful gaze emerging from a bluish, painterly swirl, his colourful tie providing a dash of flair.
Portrait of the composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) (1906/1906) by Arturo Rietti (1863-1943)Teatro Alla Scala
Curated by James Imam and the Teatro alla Scala.