The Bibiena Family: The Doyens of European Theater Design

'Architecture, Theater, and Fantasy: Bibiena Drawings From the Jules Fisher Collection,' an exhibition at The Morgan Library & Museum 
By Lorraine Ferrier
Lorraine Ferrier
Lorraine Ferrier
July 29, 2021 Updated: July 29, 2021

In 1716, poet Alexander Pope received a letter from writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who had just seen a performance of “Angelica vincitrice di Alcina” in Vienna.

“Nothing of the kind was ever more magnificent; and I can easily believe what I am told, that the decorations [sets] and habits [costumes] cost the Emperor thirty thousand pounds sterling [over $4.1 million today],” she wrote, as quoted in the exhibition catalog for The Morgan Library & Museum’s Architecture, Theater, and Fantasy: Bibiena Drawings From the Jules Fisher Collection.” 

The lavish—often fantastical—sets she referred to were designed by the Italian Bibiena family, who pioneered a new approach to theater set design. It was an innovation that made them the most sought-after theater designers for nearly a century.

Bibiena
“Courtyard of a Palace, a Design for the Stage,” circa 1710–20, by Giuseppe Galli Bibiena. Pen and brown ink, gray wash, and blue watercolor, over graphite; 12 1/8 inches by 8 1/4 inches. Promised gift of Jules Fisher, The Morgan Library & Museum. (Janny Chiu/The Morgan Library & Museum)

Some 300 hundred years after the Vienna performance, John Marciari, who is the Morgan’s Charles W. Engelhard curator and head of the department of drawings and prints, witnessed similar exclamations of delight: A couple of his colleagues were on their way to a meeting when they took a shortcut through the study room where Marciari was studying a selection of Bibiena set design drawings. 

“These were fairly young employees in their 20s, and they saw these drawings and they just went wild for them,” he said in a telephone interview. They’d never seen anything like it, and wanted to know more, he added.

There has not been an exhibition in America dedicated to the Bibiena in more than 30 years, and although Marciari was planning one, he was unsure how much interest there would be. But his colleagues’ responses to the Bibiena drawings encouraged him.

Marciari tells us more about The Morgan Library & Museum exhibition “Architecture, Theater, and Fantasy: Bibiena Drawings From the Jules Fisher Collection.”

The Epoch Times: How did this exhibition come about? 
Mr. John Marciari: The Morgan has a big collection of theater drawings, including over 100 Bibiena drawings, largely through the legacy of American set designer Donald Oenslager, whose collection came to the Morgan after his death. Jules Fisher, the Tony Award-winning lighting designer, is an avid collector of Bibiena drawings, and he began to think about the Morgan as an ultimate home for his collection to join the great collection already here at the Morgan. And so he began talking to us about that, and it gave us the idea of honoring his promised gift with an exhibition. We thought, we have a really rich collection of this material that we haven’t shown in decades, and generally no one has.

So it’s been really gratifying to see the interest in this show, both by people who are only vaguely aware of the Bibienas because of the theater connection, but even more so from people who have never heard of them, and who don’t really think about drawings connected with the theater but just who are taken with these set designs. 

The Epoch Times:  For around a century, the Bibiena family dominated European theater design. Who were the Bibienas? 
Mr. Marciari: The first artist in the family was a painter, not a man of theater at all. Giovanni Maria Galli of Bibiena (1618–1665) was born in the town of Bibbiena in Tuscany, and he traveled to Bologna [in northern Italy] to become a painter. And he specialized in trompe l’oeil, the painting of palace ceilings and walls that makes it appear as if the architecture extends further. 

Giovanni trained his sons Ferdinando (1657–1743) and Francesco (1659–1739), and they began working for the Farnese Court, which at this point was back and forth between the cities of Parma and Piacenza, both in northern Italy. 

Bibiena
“Stage Design With Sailing Vessels,” circa 1718, by Francesco Bibiena. Pen and brown ink and wash, over graphite; 10 inches by 15 3/8 inches. Gift of Jules Fisher, The Morgan Library & Museum. (Janny Chiu/The Morgan Library & Museum)

Ferdinando and Francesco were working for the ducal court, and like all artists who were attached to court at the time, they were sort of impresarios of the arts in that they did some painting, but they were also asked to take part in designing contemporary decorations for festivals, and floats for ceremonial entrances if someone came to town to visit. An artist at a court like that would do everything. And so naturally, with there being important theaters going back to the previous century in Parma, and more recently in Piacenza, inevitably the duke asked them to help design some of the theatrical performances. 

Because Ferdinando had trained in the complicated art of perspective, he thought: Well, what if we use this two-point perspectivesomething known to scientists but never used in the theater, or really in painting before. So instead of a single vanishing point in the middle of the stage, buildings were projected using two vanishing points that would be off in the wings of the stage. 

Bibiena
“Stage Set: Grand Palace Hall With Columns and Grand Staircase,” 1719, by a follower of Ferdinando Galli Bibiena. Pen and brown ink and gray wash, over graphite; 14 5/8 inches by 20 7/8 inches. Promised gift of Jules Fisher, The Morgan Library & Museum. (Janny Chiu/The Morgan Library & Museum)
Bibiena
“Courtyard of a Princely Palace,” circa 1719, by Giuseppe Galli Bibiena. Pen and brown ink, gray wash, and blue watercolor; 13 3/4 inches by 18 inches. Promised gift of Jules Fisher, The Morgan Library & Museum. (Janny Chiu/The Morgan Library & Museum)

So essentially, every building on stage gets turned, and the audience sees them at an oblique angle. This means a couple of things: For one, that the illusion works from anywhere in the theater, not only from someone seated right in the center of the audience. And also that it opens up worlds. If you have a vanishing point in the middle of a stage, eventually the perspective collapses onto itself. Whereas if it’s viewed at an angle, with a few columns you can suggest infinite space beyond it, without having to draw in each individual column because the perspective vanishing points are not seen. And it literally changed the way sets look. 

No one had ever seen a theater set that looked like this before; it was a whole new world. 

And the way that my colleague Arnold Aronson, who’s a professor of theater, describes this in the catalog is that instead of the proscenium arch being a kind of the world beyond the proscenium archan extension of the viewer’s spacewith a Bibiena set, suddenly, it’s a window onto a parallel, but splendid reality. We don’t have to pretend that it’s your space; it’s a window onto a whole other world. 

Bibiena
“Palace Interior With Tritons and Mirrored Gallery, a Design for the Stage,” circa 1745–50, by Carlo Galli Bibiena. Pen and brown ink and gray wash, over black chalk; 13 5/8 inches by 15 inches. Gift of Jules Fisher, The Morgan Library & Museum. (Janny Chiu/The Morgan Library & Museum)

It’s a complete paradigm shift in the history of theater, and it’s such a dramatic shift that everyone who sees what the Bibienas did in a set then tried to get a member of the family to come and design sets at their theater. 

So the Bibienas start moving outward from the area of Bologna, Parma, Piacenza, up to Mantua, to Venice and then, of course, far beyond that to Vienna especially (which was just completely smitten with the theater) and where the family worked for generations. But they literally worked in theaters everywhere, from Lisbon in the West to St. Petersburg in the East, and from Naples in the South to Stockholm in the North. 

And it’s one of the great eras of theater. Italian opera was becoming popular and musical performances and theater are on a scale not seen prior to the 18th century. I think of the international fame of someone like Vivaldi or like the celebrated Italian castrato singer Farinelli. It’s a really international art world for music and theater in the 18th century, so the Bibienas profited by their invention, and also they were hitting the right moment when theater in general was expanding.

The Bibiena family built 13 theaters over the course of the 18th century, only two of which survived. So the drawings are the best record we have of their genius.

The Epoch Times: The exhibition catalog describes the Bibienas’ set drawings as scenographic art. Can you please tell us more about that?
Mr. Marciari: They are, by and large, working drawings. These are really aiming not at being drawings, but as working documents to create the illusion onstage. I like to describe the process this way: The set designer has an idea in his head of what he wants the audience to perceive on stage. That will be a three-dimensional illusion: what the audience sees on stage, behind the actors in the depth of the stage. And then you have to translate that to a two-dimensional sketch, the first idea. 

Many of the Bibienas, and others who worked in theater, were trained as painters. So they started to work with a sketch; that’s the way an Italian artist works. And then they went from a rough sketch to a carefully finished drawing that helps to explain to the people who actually have to build the sets what they’re meant to do. 

So it is getting an idea out of the designer’s head onto the page as a two-dimensional drawing, which then needs to be re-created as a set in the theater through a combination of several flats wheeled in from the wings, or dropped from the fly system above the stage as a painted backdrop. So now you have the two-dimensional image being blown into three dimensions, but still being created with two-dimensional flat illusionistic paintings. They don’t ever actually build columns and arches. It’s all painted on several layers of flats, making use of actual trompe l’oeil perspective technique, which is where the Bibiena family began.

The Epoch Times: I also read in the exhibition catalog that the attribution of these drawings is somewhat problematic. Why is that?
Mr. Marciari: Because they are a family workshop, where a father trains his son(s) and also  nephew(s), and they all work together on projects, it is very hard to know who is responsible for any one thing. For example, you could have a performance in, let’s say, Vienna, where Giuseppe Galli Bibiena is the contracted, documented impresario responsible for the performance. But he has his son Carlo, and who knows how many other assistants working with him. So even if you can connect a drawing to a specific performance, it’s rather hard to know whether that was created by Giuseppe, Carlo, or one of the others. 

Bibiena
“Capriccio of Rome With Triumphal Arch and Neptune Fountain,” circa 1740, by Giuseppe Galli Bibiena. Pen and brown ink and gray wash with blue watercolor, over graphite; 17 5/8 inches by 26 inches. Promised gift of Jules Fisher, The Morgan Library & Museum. (Janny Chiu/The Morgan Library & Museum)
Bibiena
“Entryway Leading to a Courtyard and Two Levels of Galleries, a Design for the Stage,” circa 1740–50, by Giuseppe Galli Bibiena. Pen and brown ink, gray wash, and blue watercolor, incised; 15 3/8 inches by 21 1/4 inches. Promised gift of Jules Fisher, The Morgan Library & Museum. (Janny Chiu/The Morgan Library & Museum)

It’s easier to ascribe a drawing to one generation of the family than to specify which member of the workshop did it. For instance, Giuseppe wrote a book and published a lot of designs, so we can study Giuseppe’s designs and see how they’re different from those of his father, Ferdinando. 

But I don’t want to insist on the attributions. When I look at drawings by Italian painters, attribution is one of the first things I worry about, but that just isn’t a primary concern for me or most scholars in thinking about the Bibienas. Again, it’s because they were not made as artistic performances. They’re not drawings that are meant to be recognized as the work of one or another person; they are working drawings. 

Bibiena
“A Colonnaded Stage,” circa 1750, by Carlo Galli Bibiena. Pen and brown and black ink and gray wash; 10 7/8 inches by 15 5/8 inches. Promised gift of Jules Fisher, The Morgan Library & Museum. (Janny Chiu/The Morgan Library & Museum)

The Epoch Times: What fascinated you the most when you put this exhibition together?
Mr. Maciari: My specialty is Italian art: paintings and drawings by painters in the 16th–18th centuries. I’m not a theater person. So I was learning the history of theater drawings to a certain extent as I was working on the show. 

And, what I was trying to explain earlier about the idea that these are two-dimensional drawings that are ultimately a three-dimensional creation that is then made into this two-dimensional illusionistic painting—it is a very different relationship than you have when a painter starts by sketching on a piece of paper or something similar that could then be painted on a flat canvas. 

The give-and-take between the idea in the mind, the drawing on the page, and the creation on the stage, in this mix of two and three dimensions, I found that was a fascinating way of thinking about these drawings and what the artist was trying to convey as he put pen to paper. 

I also love how you can really see things being worked out. In some of the drawings, they look like they’re free-sketches, but there are these carefully measured pencil lines underneath that set out the perspective scheme. Or some of them have letters, which are clearly indications of the different flats. 

Bibiena
“Colonnaded Stage Set,” circa 1750, attributed to Carlo Galli Bibiena. Pen and brown and black ink with gray wash; 13 3/8 inches by 19 1/4 inches. Promised gift of Jules Fisher, The Morgan Library & Museum. (Janny Chiu/The Morgan Library & Museum)

And again, the set designer is working with a playwright, the choreographer, a musician, and then a patron; they’re very much collaborative works. And in some drawings, we can see the working, where there’s a design, and then obviously someone said, “No, no, you have to change this, or dress this up a bit more.” There is one drawing in the show that was clearly a carefully completed drawing, but then over the top of it, additional decoration has been quickly drawn, and there were even additional elements once glued on top. What’s been left to us on paper was maybe the most interesting aspect of the show for me. 

Bibiena
“Left Portion of a Palatial Hall, a Design for the Stage,” circa 1720–30, by Ferdinando Galli Bibiena. Pen and brown ink and wash, over graphite; 11 3/4 inches by 6 7/8 inches. Gift of Jules Fisher, The Morgan Library & Museum. (Janny Chiu/The Morgan Library & Museum)

My favorites are, in fact, those drawings that give the idea that these are working documents. Ferdinando’s drawing “Left Portion of a Palatial Hall, a Design for the Stage,” which he created circa 1720–30, is a really lively sketch, but it’s over the top of his carefully constructed pencil perspective drawing. You get the sense that he had to liven it up. Having designed the space carefully, as a draftsman, as perspective scientist, he then—in order to give a sense of the drama, and the light and shadedraws over the top of that. And then the drawing also has the letters buried in there, “G,” “H,” and so on, which correspond to the different parts of the set, the flats, that were used to create the illusion on stage. So that’s my favorite. It’s one where you see all of that backed up in the piece of paper.

The exhibition, “Architecture, Theater, and Fantasy: Bibiena Drawings From the Jules Fisher Collection,” at The Morgan Library & Museum runs until Sept. 12. To learn more, visit TheMorgan.org

Lorraine Ferrier
Lorraine Ferrier