Wednesday, 15 April 2009

skenographia ...mixed realities

From a very early date, as Aristotle attests (Poetics 1449a), scenic painting—skenographia—was a constituent element of Greek theatrical performance. In the temporary stages recorded as having been built in Rome from about the 3rd century BC well into the Imperial period, and in Roman permanent stages, skenographia employed highly sophisticated perspectival techniques which were designed subtly to modulate between reality and illusion in a variety of ways. For a largely illiterate Roman populace, theatrical performances provided a shared, mythological language which could be adapted to send and receive ideologically- and politically- coded messages in public under the guise of seemingly innocuous “festive entertainment.” Performers, popular audiences and the political elite became increasingly sophisticated at reading and manipulating this symbolic, lingua franca, and freely deployed its codes in other public fora, such as triumphs, funerals, and in circus games (see Beacham, 1999). Although this language increasingly permeated public discourse in these and other ways, we contend that, as the primary, popular, institutional locus of symbolic representation as such, the theatre remained the most important medium through which this shared, symbolic language was negotiated and refined in Roman culture of this period. Consequently, if we are to understand the complex aesthetic-ideological codes operative during Rome’s decisive transition from Republic to Empire, we must study how this language was aesthetically and performatively constructed in the theatre. The wall paintings can enable us to do so.

Through illusionistic confabulations of real and imagined spaces, skenographia played with the borders between reality and illusion, thus establishing the aesthetic—and thereby ideological—“frame” for this public language. Indeed, skenographia was directly and explicitly implicated in these aesthetico-political discourses by contemporaneous Roman commentators such as Vitruvius and Pliny the Elder. Theatrical skenographia is therefore a prime site for scholarly attention. But of the many temporary stages that, according to Vitruvius (5.5.7), were constructed each year at Rome, none survives; and the permanent stage facades (scaenarum frontes) that do remain contain no trace of their temporary skenographic elements.

from King's Visualisation Lab

This painting by Peake [currently in the Van Dyck show at the Tate] seems to use a theatrical schematic for a backdrop; it is like a series of flats, there is a discontinuity in the visual space, some inconsistency and overpainting in the 'seam' between background and middle ground. The painting is contemporaneous with Inigo Jones' masques, which use similarly staged perspectival space to frame tableaux. The painting itself is a charged network of symbolic representations of power, emblazoned and quite literally dazzling, the paint applied like enamelling in the costume and rainbow saddlery. Interestingly, Peake published the Mannerist architect Sebastiano Serlio's books on architecture in 1611- the first publication in English. The books follow the antique and illustrate theatrical spaces. Peake's preface dedicates the translation to Henry Prince of Wales - the subject of the painting above - the shortly to be dead hope of the Jacobean monarchy.



No vaine ambition of mine own Desire, much lesse presumption of my none Desert, incited me to present this Volume to your Princely view, but rather, the gracious Countenance, which [even from your Childehood] you have ever daigned to all good endeavours, invited Mee also [after so many others] to offer at the high-Altar of your Highnesse favour, this new-Naturalized Worke of a learned Stranger: Not with pretence of Profit to your Highnesse [who want not more exquisite Tutors in all excellent Sciences] but, under the Patronage of your powerfull Name, to benefit the Publicke; and convay unto my Countrymen [especially Architects and Artifcers of all sorts] there

Necessary, Certaine, and most ready Helps of Geometrie: The ignorance and want whereof, in times past [in most parts of this Kingdome] hath left us many lame Workes, which shame of many Workemen; which, for the future, the Knowledge and use of these Instructions shall happily prevent, if the event but answere [in any measure] to that Hope of mine, which alone both induced this Desire and produced this Designe: Wherein I must confesse my part but small, saving my great adventure in the Charge, and my great Good-will to doe Good. All which together with my best Services, I humbly prostrate at your Princely feete, as beseemes

Your Highnesse

most humble Servant

the noble art of venerie or hunting / 1576

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