Early Illusionistic Side Wings

Sunday, June 1, 2003 - 12:00am

Mohler, Frank, "Medici Wings: The Scenic Wing Change in Florence." Paper for the Scenography Working Group Conference of the Federation Internationale de Researche Theatrale (FIRT/IFTR) in Prague, June 2003.

These computer models were prepared to illustrate a paper, "Medici Wings," for the 2003 Scenography Working Group Conference of the Federation Internationale de Researche Theatrale (FIRT/IFTR) in Prague. The paper explored the question of the type of scenic wings used for the productions at the Medici court in Florence during late 16th and early 17th centuries. The scenic change became necessary when intermezzi were added between acts of the comedies performed as a part of festivals. Although the descriptions and eyewitness accounts concentrate on the spectacular effects, they also refer to the speed of the scenic change. Unfortunately these descriptions do not detail the type of scenic wings used for the productions.

The earliest complete scenic change was in 1568 for Il Fabii produced with intermezzi in the Salon de Cinquecento for the Baptism of Lenora, the daughter of Francesco and Joanna. Although the intermezzi utilized the same set as Il Fabii, the designer, Baldassare Lanci, changed the setting from one part of Florence to another for the 5th act of the play. The last production considered for the paper was La Flora, designed by Alfonso Parigi, for the wedding of Oloardo Farnese to Margherita de' Medici in 1628. This five act opera had a different setting for each act (2 for Act I). It was the last production in the Teatro Mediceo built in the Uffizi Palace.

All the productions for which there are descriptions refer to the set as turning or rotating. The only excetion is the 1589 production of La Pellegrina designed by Baldassare Buontalenti for the wedding of Ferdinando de' Medici to Christine of Lorraine. The description of this production suggests the wings were covered or uncovered, although turning or rotating is also mentioned. Only two productions have floor plans that might explain how the wings worked. The 1569 production of La Vedova was seen by Ignazio Danti who included a plan in his edition of Vignola's Le Due regoli della prospettiva Pratica. This plan showing five periaktoi is used as the logo for this website. The other plan may be found in the Buonarroti's manuscript of Giudizio di Paride at the Teatro Mediceo. The sets designed by Guilio Parigi have wings that are shown as parallelograms or quadrilaterals.

The variety of side wing units possibly in use at this time were compared to try to determine the most likely candidates for use at the Medici court. These units include:

  • Sabbattini's Angle Wings with Cloth Covers
  • Sabbattini's Sliding Angle (Serlian) Wings
  • Danti's (Lanci's) Five Periaktoi setting
  • Sabbattini's Equilateral Periaktoi
  • Sabbattini's Isosceles Periaktoi
  • Buonarroti's (Parigi's) Quadrilaterals
  • Furttenbach's Double Periaktoi
  • Flat Wings

The following computer models show each type of side wing. For comparison purposes each model used the same set design, the first and third scenes for La Liberazione di Tirreno e d'Arnea designed by Giulio Parigi. Shutters are used to close the rear of the stage except in the case of Danti's periaktoi. The models are shown in much more light than would be present in the theatre

Sabbattini's Angle (Serlian) Wings With Cloth Covers

This method is very simple. It consists of pulling a cloth cover over a three-dimensional angle wing (Serlian Wing). It would seem to be able to be accomplished quickly and would retain the three dimensional charater of the angle wing, but Sabbattini notes potential problems including tearing the cover.

High View - Cloth Cover

Audience View - Cloth Cover

Sabbattini's Sliding Angle (Serlian) Wings

These wings have the advantage of being three-dimensional and, possibly, appearing more realistic than those that present a single flat face to the audience. The main disadvantage is that they would be difficult to change. Wings for the second setting would be hidden behind the first setting and would be slid upstage to cover the next wing. The downstage wing would have to be covered by the cloth cover shown above.

High View - Sliding View

Audience View - Sliding Wing

Danti's (Lanci's) Five Periaktoi Setting

This is obviously an early attempt at a changeable setting probably inspired by classical precedents. It was used in 1569 (and possibly in 1668) for a single set change. This technique required a flat floor or a cloth skirt hanging from the bottom of the periaktoi to prevent the audience from seeing the pivots. It would also serve as only a three-dimensional background since there are no entrances shown. Finally as the set changed the audience would be able to see backstage.

High View - Danti's Periaktoi

Audience View - Danti's Periaktoi

Sabbattini's Equilateral Periaktoi

Sabbattini's Pratica indicates two types of three-sided periaktoi, equilateral and isosceles triangular units. The equilateral units present three different scenes each of which appears much like a flat wing. On a raked stage a cloth skirt would be required to hide the pivot. Sabbattini describes how the pivot poles of each periaktoi could be connected together and controlled by winches for a coordinated scene shift.

High View - Sabbattini Equilateral Periaktoi

Audience View - Sabbattini Equilateral Periaktoi

Sabbattini's Isosceles Periaktoi

Sabbattini's isosceles triangle based periaktoi used two sides to create an angle wing for the set of the play and the third side presented a changeable single flat panel for the intermezzi. On a raked stage a cloth skirt would be required to hide the pivot and the pivot poles could be connected for a coordinated shift.

High View - Sabbattini Isosceles Periaktoi

Audience View - Sabbattini Isosceles Periaktoi

Buonarroti's (Parigi's) Quadrilaterals

The plans in Buonarroti's manuscript have been interpreted two ways. They could represent quadrilateral units much like those shown in Jean Dubreuil's La Perspective pratique published in Paris in 1642-49. It would be essentially two angle wings mounted on a pivot. The three dimensional nature of units would appear more realistic than other types and the offstage wings could be changed as needed. As with other revolving units a skirt would be necessary on a raked stage.

High View - Buonarroti's Quadrilaterals

Audience View - Buonarroti's Quadrilaterals

Furttenbach's Double Periaktoi

The other interpretation of Buonarroti's plans is as a short hand way of indicating the double periaktoi shown by Furttenbach. These units must turn to meet at their corners and would be very difficult operate. Furttenbach does not indicate a method to coordinate the change. Again a raked stage would cause problems for the turning units.

High View - Furttenbach's Double Periaktoi

Audience View - Furttenbach's Double Periaktoi

Flat Wings (Groove System)

The flat wing using upper and lower grooves was probably in use in the early seventeenth century. A mechanized flat wing change using cuts the stage floor was in use by the mid-seventeenth century, possibly as early as 1618 in the Teatro Farnese. The flat wing would have been the easiest type of wing to shift, merely sliding one wing onstage and another offstage. No skirt would be required on a raked stage. The appearance of flat wing would be similar to the sides of the equilateral periaktoi, one side of the isosceles periaktoi, and one position of Furttenbach's double periaktoi. This efficient wing replaced all other types by the mid-seventeenth century and remained in use until the late ninetheenth century.

High View - Flat Wings

Audience View - Flat Wings

The evidence seems to indicate that the Medici court used one form or another of the turning or rotating side wing. The earliest changeable settings in 1568-9 used the classically inspired periaktoi (Danti's periaktoi) and rotating units were apparently still in use in 1608 (Buonarroti's quads). Descriptions indicate the designers at the Medici court continued to use turning units until after productions in the Teatro Mediceo ceased. It it difficult to believe that if Buontalenti had used the efficient flat wings in 1589, that his pupil Parigi would have returned to turning units. It should also be noted that both Josef Furttenbach and Inigo Jones came in contact with the productions at the Medici court, but Furttenbach did not mention the use of flat wings even as late as 1663 and Jones didn't utilize the flat wing until 1640.

the development of scenice spectacle


usittThis material is made possible, in part, by a grant from the New Initiatives Fund, United States Institute for Theatre Technology and by grants from the University Research Council, Cratis D. Williams Graduate School, Appalachian State University.


Dr. Frank Mohler
Department of Theatre & Dance
Appalachian State University
Boone, NC 28608

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