Renaissance stage lighting


At the beginning of the Renaissance in Italy, three types of artificial light sources were commonly used in theatrical events. The first, and probably the earliest light source, was the torch. The second was ceramic or metal oil lamps, with a wick protruding above the lip of the vessel, burning animal or vegetable oil. The third was tallow candles, which had been mass produced by molding since the 15th century.References to the use of stage lighting in the theatre appear from the beginning of 
the 16th century.

Italian architect and stage designer Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554), in the second
part of his Tutto l’Opera d’Architettura, which deals with perspective scenery in the 
theatre describes the stage as being “adorned with innumerable lights, large, 
medium, and small”. He then gives technical details regarding the lighting layout: 
”a great part of the lights in the center, hanging over the scene”.

Serlio describes and illustrates three basic permanent scenic sets for tragedy, 
comedy and satiric plays. He goes on to specify three categories of stage lighting:

* General chandelier light for both audience and actors.

* Scenery illumination.

* Dramatic lighting, changing in accordance with the action.

Serlio describes the use of vessels called ‘bozze’ in order to produce colored light. 
Bozze were glass vessels which, when filled with colored water or wine, served as
filters for colored light. Serlio specifies light wine for light red and strong red wine for
darkened light.

About ten years later Jewish playwright and producer Leone Di Somi Portaleone 
(1527-1592) discusses the subject of stage lighting in his writings. Di Somi, whose 
activities and writings are typical of the Italian Renaissance, wrote plays in Hebrew 
and in English and was responsible for directing and producing theatrical events staged 
in the court of the Duke Gonzaga of Mantova.

In 1556 Di Somi wrote a booklet devoted to the staging of a theatrical performance: 
Dialoghi in Materia di Rappresentazioni Sceniche. The fourth of these dialogues deals
with stage lighting. The role of the lighting, Di Somi writes, is to bring light, diversion
and joy to the stage. Yet he makes a clear distinction between lighting for a comic 
and a tragic piece. When the light is dimmed in a tragic piece, this “… creates a 
feeling of terror among the spectators and the characters are glorified.”

The Italian architect and theatrical engineer Nicola Sabbatini (1557-1654) described 
developments in the use of lighting in Venetian theatres of the 17th century, and the
prevalent lighting instruments of his time. He indicated that chandeliers were used 
for general lighting both on stage and in the auditorium, and that oil lamps were
employed to light what he called ‘the scenes’.

17th century Italian stage lighting, as it developed in Venetian opera houses, was 
described extensively in 1628 by Joseph Furttenbach, a German architect and scenic
designer who studied architecture and theatre design in Italy. Furttenbach describes 
the use of footlights, winglights and lighting from above the stage, in addition to the 
auditorium lighting that remained lit throughout the performance and contributed to 
illumination of the downstage area. He gives accounts of four types of lighting 
instruments used in the theatre. The ‘glass oil lamp’ which was hung above the stage, 
the ‘Mica reflector light’ which was effective for winglights, the ‘leaning light’, used in 
footlights, and the ‘standing light box’ which could be placed inside scenic units.

Italian Renaissance theatre lighting:
From Recreational Architecture (Architectura Recreationis, 1640) by Joseph Furttenbach, a German architect who has studied in Italy. Note the footlights located at the front of the stage, the lights located at the rear of thestage in order to light the background, and the lights installed behind the “clouds” (borders) above the stage.

Side view and Plan

Reflector Lamps:
These lamps consist of a candlestick and mica reflectors supported by a lozenge shaped net of gold tinsel. Furttenbach recommends a good quality wax candle, in preference to cheaper filthy oil lamps.
From ‘ The Noble Mirror of Art ‘ (Mannhaffer Kunstspiegel, 1663) by Furttenbach

Reflector lamps for the Stage

Reconstruction of Furttenbach’s reflector lamps

17th century oil lamp:
This typical 17th century lamp had a simple wick floating in cheap animal fat, such as lard,which gave little light and plenty of smoke and stench. Using better quality oil could attain better results.

17th century oil lamp

17th century dimmer:
Nicola Sabbatini’s “Instructions for the Manufacture of Scenery and Stage Machines” (Practica De Fabricar Scene E Machine Ne’teatri, 1638) describes the practice of scenery and lighting at the close of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century in Italy. The book includes a description of lighting methods and equipment. Chapter 12, “How To Darken The Whole Stage In A Moment”, describes and illustrates a dimming mechanism. When the cylinders were lowered on the lamps, which were placed off-stage, out of the view of the audience, a sudden darkness magically enveloped the stage.

Nicola Sabbatini’s Instruction Manuel

Reconstruction of Sabbatini’s dimmer

Reconstruction of Bozze: 
A 16th Century Apparatus For Focussing Light And Producing Colored Light. Described by Sebastiano Serlio in The Second Book of Architecture (Il Primo (Secondo) Libro d’Architectura, 1545). The Bozze was a glass vessel, originally intended for liquid storage, filled with wine or colored water and served as a focussing lens due to its convex shape.


Serlio’s Comedy With Lighting:

Serlio proposes three stage settings, for Comedy, Tragedy and for Satyr Play:
”… stages are built in three styles – Comic for performing comedies,
Tragic for tragedies and Setiric for satiers…
The left sketch is Serlio’s setting for “Comic type. ..this should be private houses…”
The right sketch endeavours to visualise the effect of the lighting described by Serlio.

Serilio’s setting for a comedy

Serlio’s Tragedy With Lighting:
The left sketch is Serlio’s setting for
“Tragic stage….building for it should be those of characters of high rank,
 because disastrous love affairs, unforeseen events and violent and
gruesome deaths always occur in the house of noblemen.”
The right sketch endeavours to visualise the effect of the lighting described by Serlio.

Serilio’s setting for a tragedy


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