THEATRE LIGHTING THROUGHOUT HISTORY
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
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