Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza is nothing short of spectacular:
Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza is a masterpiece! Imagine a Roman style amphitheatre that’s been transplanted indoors, a Roman theatre stage with a Porta regia (triumphal arch) and trompe l’oeil street views that give the illusion of looking down the streets of a city from classical antiquity (it was originally intended to represent Thebes in “Oedipus Rex”).
Although the Teatro Olimpico was built during the Renaissance period, the structure takes us way back in time. As one travel presenter puts it, “Illusion becomes pure theater in Teatro Olimpico”.
Palladio’s last design
Teatro Olimpico was Andrea Palladio’s last work. He returned to his native Vicenza in 1579 and in 1580 he was commissioned by the Accademia Olimpica to build a permanent theatre. The Accademia Olimpica was a cultural group to which he belonged. Palladio was very much inspired by Roman classical theatres which is obvious in his design for Teatro Olimpico. The site for the theatre was an old castle and you enter through the castle walls. Although work commenced very quickly, Palladio died unexpectedly six months after construction had started in 1580. He was 72.
In stepped Scamozzi
Vincenzo Scamozzi, another accomplished Vicenza architect, was engaged to complete Teatro Olimpico. He had inherited several of Palladio’s unfinished projects and so was no stranger to his designs. Teatro Olimpico is often described as one of Vicenza’s artistic wonders. It was Scamozzi’s genius and execution that created the theatre that it is today – a UNESCO World Heritage listed site.
Teatro Olimpico achieved many “firsts” in the architectural context. The building is generally considered the first permanent covered theatre of modern times. Scamozzi’s stage set was the first time that perspective views was employed in Renaissance theatre.
Palladio didn’t live long enough to see Teatro Olimpico completed, but he would surely have been very pleased with this extraordinary work of art.
Sophocles’ Greek tragedy “Oedipus Rex” was the inaugural performance in Teatro Olimpico on March 3, 1585. Along the corridor to the theatre are panels with interesting information and pictures about the opening play. Why was Oedipus Rex chosen, who the actors were and what happened that evening are all documented. Thousands came to watch the play. The audience had to wait till 1 am before the play started and it went on till 5 am. It is not surprising that some were unhappy with the play. According to written reviews, some said that it was too long and others complained that theatre didn’t have appropriate facilities for that number of people. I wonder if they were complaining about the shortage of toilet facilities, still a common complaint today!
Nothing short of spectacular!
We’ve seen pictures of Teatro Olimpico, but nothing quite prepares you for the spectacle of seeing it in person. The auditorium comprises a rectangular proscenium stage and semi-elliptical seating area made up of 13 rows of steep steps.
We climbed to the top of the steps to have a close look at the columned portico decorated with rows of statues. The niches in the middle section house statues of academics, dressed in Roman attire. See if you can pick out Palladio. The top section holds a series of statues meant to depict the feats of Hercules.
After taking endless snaps, we sat on the steps and took in the atmosphere of the theatre. Groups of visitors came and went, including a group of architectural students. At one point, one of the theatre staff got on the stage and with his hands outstretched, he walked down the imaginary Roman street to demonstrate how the illusion of perspective worked there. In the distance, his outstretched hands touched the buildings on both sides of the street and as he approached the front of the stage, the gap between his hands and the buildings increased.
For the Oedipus Rex performance Scamozzi created seven perspective street scenes. They represent his interpretation of the streets of Thebes radiating in a sunburst pattern from the proscenium.
The Teatro Olimpico still operates as a cultural centre today as well as a venue for dramatic musical performances. To ensure preservation of the building, audience numbers are limited to 400 for each performance. It was also used as a film location for movies like Don Giovanni and Casanova.
IF YOU GO
Where it is:
Teatro Olimpico, Piazza Matteotti 11, Vicenza (Italy)
Phone: +39 0444 964380
How to get there:
From Vicenza train station it is a 1.3 km walk to Teatro Olimpico. At the roundabout in front of the station, head up Viale Roma. At the end of the road, turn right into Corso Andrea Palladio. Teatro Olimpico is at the end of the Corso.
Tuesday through Sunday, 10am – 6pm, last admission 5.30pm (July 1 – August 31)
Tuesday through Sunday, 9am – 5pm, last admission 4.30pm (September 1 – June 30)
Regular €11.00 – Reduced €8.00
Groups €12.00 (Museum Card)
Reductions for schools and groups
Places to Stay:
Vicenza is only a small town and if you’re planning on visiting, it’s best to book your accommodation well in advance. Studio in Casa Cogollo is just 100 metres from Teatro Olimpico. Hotel Palladio and Antico Hotel Vicenza are just a few steps from Piazza dei Signori, Vicenza’s main square. And if you want a total Palladio experience, Palazzo Valmarana Braga is one of the buildings designed by Palladio.