The Re-Invention of Nature in Early Modern Theatre Engineering

The Re-Invention of Nature in Early Modern Theatre Engineering


Leonardo’s sketch for the staging of Danae (Milan, 1496), single sheet (The
Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Since the mid 14th century, the north Italian city-states were increasingly subject to the compulsion to civic self-representation. This culture of representation found a suitable medium in the festival, which consolidated a variety of social interests and energies. Because of its mass impact the festival advanced to the status of a large and lucrative sphere of activity for both, local artisans and court artists. Among the products of these forces were imaginatively constructed theatrical machines that served, in the following centuries, as models for the spectacular stage machineries of European court culture. 

My paper will focus on the status of theatre engineering, and the related modes of knowledge production and transfer in early modern Europe. I will trace how "artist-engineers" encountered in theatre engineering a "niche of experimentation" that was not necessarily predefined by the same rules as other mechanical arts. It will be shown how theatre engineers mostly shared their practical (and theoretical) knowledge beyond the realm of publications and transferred and codified this knowledge within specific schools of "theatre engineering." Special emphasis will additionally be put on the interpretation of notions such as "imitation," "invention" and "imagination" in the writings and drawings of theatre engineers. The paper will investigate the changing function of theatre machines: from representatives of religious issues to representatives of natural phenomena. I will show how theatre engineering was thereby linked to the emerging experimental sciences not only by a shared mechanical knowledge, but also by the formation of new "image programs" of nature. The paper will focus on three case studies: (1) Leonardo da Vinci as a theatre engineer, (2) Giulio Parigi’s "school of theatre engineering" in early 17th century Florence, and (3) theatre engineering by local artisans at the German-speaking court of Gotha in the late 17th century.

  • Viktoria Tkaczyk, Himmels-Falten. Zur Theatralität des Fliegens in der Frühen Neuzeit. München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2011.
  • "Renaissance oder Resonanz. Kunst und Wissenschaft des Fliegens bei Leonardo da Vinci", in: Forum Modernes Theater, 25/2, 2010: 143-158.