Theatre: the Architecture of Wonder

The new exhibition at Palazzo Reale, showcasing works by Patrizia Mussa, complements the inauguration of the new operatic season at La Scala, a theatre that makes a point of not doing anything people might like (if I see again the Dame aux Camélias I might scream). It is part of many events organized throughout the […]

The new exhibition at Palazzo Reale, showcasing works by Patrizia Mussa, complements the inauguration of the new operatic season at La Scala, a theatre that makes a point of not doing anything people might like (if I see again the Dame aux Camélias I might scream). It is part of many events organized throughout the city in a (vain) attempt to raise some interest for the opening opera of choice, Verdi’s least exciting work Don Carlos.

An Exhibition of Photographs?

Not precisely, though the website at Palazzo Reale describes it that way.
Sixty large-format pictures of theatre interiors telling a story of transition from the first theatres in Vicenza, Sabbioneta and Parma, more courtyards than buildings, to grand palaces like La Scala in Milan, the San Carlo in Naples, the Fenice in Venice, the Argentina in Rome, the Massimo in Palermo, complemented by some particularly scenographic architectures that present the whole world as a theatre, such as the Royal Palaces in Venaria or Caserta. Flicking through magazines, you’ll see dreamlike pictures engulfed with light, often with frontal vision, total focus and super-exposure.


If the photos almost look as if they’re coloured with pastels, it’s because they are. After taking a photograph, Mussa prints it on cotton paper and retraces details with colours, turning it into a watercolour or a tapestry.

“A work of rigour and rethinking, a look with half-closed eyes, the triggering of a dreamlike process, of unravelling, of impoverishment, the search for a root, for a soul, for another meaning; a kind of X-ray, of retinal or cortical snapshot, imprinted on a thin veil.”

A stunning multi-sensorial experience

As if the stunning setting of the Prince’s Apartments were not enough to complement these wonderful pictures, Alessia Dettori works with the Scent Company and diffuses scents of white flowers like tuberose, rosehip and talc, with a crown of geranium, freesia, magnolia, violet. Famous arias are streamed through the rooms, mostly from Mozart’s Don Giovanni (I guess they couldn’t find one single palatable thing from Don Carlos, and that’s understandable), and you walk through the rooms in complete awe.

1. The original theatre in Milan was a Courtyard theatre

As Milan’s mayor Giuseppe Sala tells us in his introduction to the exhibition, the Royal Palace in Milan was furnished, like most European royal residences, with a resident theatre. It was called the Court Theatre and was first built as a temporary set-up for ceremonies and festivities, before becoming permanent.

Being constructed almost entirely of wood, the Court Theatre was destroyed by fire many times, and later rebuilt. The last time this happened, however, the flames incinerated it completely.
Maria Theresa of Austria decided then to donate a new theatre to the city, to be used not only by the court but by all the citizens. The Church of Santa Maria della Scala was demolished and, in its place the current Teatro alla Scala was built in its place, inaugurated in 1778 with an opera written by Salieri.

The first room is dedicated to this part of history, the Court Theatre, reconstructed through a maquette and brought to life by Musso’s shots of an interior that is no more.

On the central table, sketches and plans show us the idea for the new theatre that will become La Scala.

The sketches are partly based on the maquette and partly based on a watercoloured etching from 1747 by Marcantonio dal Re, an artist from Bologna who gives us a view of the interior as it appeared on the celebrations for the birth of Pietro Leopoldo Archduke of Austria.

2. Venaria and Palazzo Grimani

After the overview of the Court Theatre, the second room is dedicated to the Venaria Royal Palace near Turin and Palazzo Grimani in Venezia, which is kind of fun since I’m reading Maddalena and the Dark, and the titular Maddalena is Maddalena Grimani, that same Grimani.

The pictures of the court in Venaria are incredible, especially if you’ve ever been there on a sunny winter day. The light flooding the halls is magnificently rendered, and the highlights on the marble floors almost let you hear the ticking of your own heels.

Palazzo Grimani is a different thing: located in Venice in the Castello district, near Campo Santa Maria Formosa, it used to be the residence of the Grimani family since 1521, when Antonio Grimani was doge, and it stayed on as their residence till 1865, until the government acquired it.

The interiors are absolutely stunning, one of the main features being the Antiquarium where a permanent exhibition was inaugurated in 2019 and lots of works that belonged to the Grimani family, including the Ganymede stolen by the eagles, and that’s what Musso decides to represent in one of the most powerful pictures dedicated to Venice.

3. More Venaria, Pavia, Caserta, Brescia

The third room is dedicated to four theatres, one for each wall: alongside the already mentioned Venaria near Turin, we have pictures from the Fraschini Theatre in Pavia, the Court Theatre in Caserta (yeah, the Star Wars one), and the Grand Theatre in Brescia. They’re almost all neoclassical structures, aside from Brescia, which came late at the party but that’s what they do.

Teatro Fraschini, Pavia

4. Novi Ligure, Turin, Parma, Vercelli and Florence

The Romualdo Marenco in Novi Ligure was built around 1839 following a design by Giuseppe Becchi who almost copied his own Carlo Felice in Genova. The theatre of course wasn’t dedicated to the local composer Marenco, who would be born three years later, and was called Carlo Alberto. The dedication only came in 1943, 37 years after the composer’s death.

Recently renovated, the theatre’s interiors display a stunning eleven-petal daisy on the ceiling, against a luxurious golden background.

Against the green background of the room, red is the main character of these pictures.

Much better known is the Royal Theatre in Turin (Teatro Regio), inaugurated in 1740 in rococò style and renovated many times throughout the centuries until, after being destroyed by a fire in 1936, it was rebuilt by Carlo Molino and it opened again in 1973.

The original construction, praised as a source of wonder by Giovanni Gaspare Craveri in his 1753 guide to the city, was commissioned by Vittorio Amedeo II, recently become King of Sardinia, to no other than Filippo Juvarra, royal architect and renowned scenographer who was also responsible for the development of the Royal Palace in Venaria. This theatre too was to replace the Court Theatre in the old San Giovanni palace, and it was a stunning, ambitious space, capable of hosting around 2500 people in the main concert hall. Turin will meber shut up about the fact that Giuseppe Piermarini, tasked with designing the future La Scala theatre in Milan, was ordered to look at the Regio as an example.

After the disastrous fire in 1936 and throughout the war, the theatre remained in ruins. Two incompetent idiots named Aldo Morbelli and Robaldo Morozzo della Rocca won the design competition for its renovation just one year later, it’s not like we wanted to leave it like that, but their project was never brought to light.

At last, the municipality decided to give direction of the project to Carlo Molino, one of the masters of those years. The theatre was reconstructed in six years, with a structural design by the engineering legend Sergio Musmeci.

The Regio Theatre in Parma only shares the name with its counterpart in Turin: constructed as a replacement of the 1689 Teatro Ducale, it was commissioned by Duchess Maria Luisa to the Court Architect Nicola Bettoli, who started construction in 1821 on the grounds of the monastery of Sant’Alessandro. The new theatre was completed after eight years that costed a fortune, and could host 1800 people.
It was then renovated in 1853, when gas lighting was brought in to replace candlelight.

The main feature of the hall is the frescoed ceiling, decorated by Giovan Battista Azzi, who decided to represent the Duchess as a Harmonia, surrounded by a court of dancing maenads.

6. Venice and Mantova

We surpass a room in which we see shots from the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, the San Carlo in Napoli, the Argentina and Teatro Valle in Roma, the Carignano in Torino and the Teatro della Pergola in Firenze, and the court theatre in Caserta. The next room is dedicated to two beloved masterpieces: the Fenice in Venice and the Scientific Theatre in Mantova.

The first one was designed by Giannantonio Selva after winning a design competition, and embodied the republic’s political ideas by proposing boxes with no ranks and no differences. That’s very Venetian of them: all citizens are the same… provided they have the money to actually get into the theatre.

Napoleon decided to redecorate the main room in turquoise and silver, following the new style, and then again new frescoes were implemented by the beginning of the XIX Century following another design competition: Giuseppe Borsato presented designs with Apollon triumphant on a carriage, surrounded by the Muses.

The theatre, owing to his name, burned down the first time in 1836 and was reconstructed with decorations by Tranquillo Orsi, but I was a kid when it was set on fire the second time, and I remember the great stirring it caused.
The current reconstruction is due to Aldo Rossi.

The Scientific Theatre in Mantova is a peculiar one, starting from its name. Also known as Teatro Bibiena, it was commissioned by Count Carlo Ottavio di Colloredo when he was rector of the famous National Virgilian Academy, better known as Accademia dei Timidi. The structure was founded to promote the study of Virgil, but Maria Teresa d’Austria reformed it in 1767, extending its theatrical and poetic scope to scientific research. The theatre was commissioned and constructed within those years: Antonio Galli da Bibbiena designed the building and the interiors, the facade was built by Paolo Pozzo following a design by Giuseppe Piermarini who was too busy to be bothered with it himself.

The interiors are quite warm, with dark red decorations on a golden background, yet Musso manages to bring us her otherworldly signature atmosphere and the lights on the boxes engulf the whole ambient.

7. Valencia, Mondovì and Racconigi, plus La Scala in Milan

The theatre in Mondovì, to which Patrizia Musso dedicates three shots, was built in 1851 by Giovan Battista Gorresio and once was the biggest in the region. Its current conditions have frequently been denounced by many photographers and organizations, including the Fondo Ambiente Italiano, which recurrently proposes it for the Places of the Heart annual competition.

The room also hosts one of the few experiments with outdoors of the exhibition: a shot of the Racconigi Castle greenhouses designed by Pelagio Pelagi. It’s not outdoor, strictly speaking, since glass windows close the right portion of the porch, but it’s close enough, and I think it has nothing to envy to the grand views of halls and foyers.

8. A proper outdoor experiment: Caserta

The proper outdoor experiment is a shot of the famous fountain atop the staircase. The represented scene is Actaeon turned into a deer and attacked by his own dogs, and counters the other fountain where Diana is represented bathing with her nymphs. As the legend goes, Actaeon was a hunter who unwillingly surprised the goddess naked and was transformed, only to be torn apart. Its inclusion in a selection on theatres should be no surprise: the whole garden of Caserta is meant to be a setting for spectacles and transforms nature into a theatre for life.

9. Mantova and the new La Scala Theatre

The last room offers us a view of Palazzo Té in Mantova, and then it completely devotes itself to the project by Giuseppe Piermarini of the new theatre in Milan.

The single shot from Mantova comes from the so-called Horses Hall, a room decorated by Giulio Romano with impressively realistic side views of… well, horses.

The shots from the theatre inside in Milan were particularly charming to me as they were taken during the construction site: plasterboard piles, electrical wires and working tools, absorbed that otherworldly light Patrizia Mussa has touching all her pictures, and you’ll find yourself smiling for that touch of blue, that touch of red, that touch of yellow peeking from layers and layers of white light.
The rest of the room is occupied by a maquette of the stage in La Scala for the Europa Riconosciuta.

Recommended? Absolutely!

The exhibition is a stunning one, and Patrizia Mussa’s work is absolutely stunning. Delicate and yet powerful, enticing, utterly magical. It positions itself as one of the best exhibitions to be seen in Milan, alongside Van Gogh and Rodin. It’s an exhibition to be walked and re-walked, to be taken in body and soul, and its charm will accompany you while you walk home through the crisp, winter evening.

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