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Known for certain is that an ancient hall for theatre performances existed at court of the nobility of Novellara in the second half of the 16th century. A letter to Count Alfonso I Gonzaga in 1567 refers that the “scene” was almost ready and that Lelio (Orsi) would be able to begin painting it. This hall was to be inaugurated on 28 January 1568 in occasion of the marriage celebration of Count Alfonso I with a play enriched with rare and novel intermezzos, fruit of the genius of one Sir Mutio Busi of Novellara, while the beautiful stage sets would done by Lelio Orsi (cfr. Melloni 1988, p.5).
Little documentation exists concerning this ancient theatre, which was probably located in the same area of the Rocca where the present theatre stands today. A plan of the entire Rocca in the 17th century that reveals little and a curious description by Malagoli (transcribed by C. Melloni in Cronistoria di un teatro) provide the only information available to date. Instead, the various theatre performances held there are frequently mentioned, tied as they are to the life at court. It is worthwhile to quote Malagoli’s description of the ceiling over the stalls which was painted by Lelio Orsi and his pupils.
“Represented was a gallery with four railings and above each was a crimson damask cushion with gold tassels that hung over the side. In the midst of this sumptuous gallery (which was shaped like an arena) one could see the sky, with Jupiter holding the book of fate open in his left hand and in his right, thunderbolts. From one side the eagle observed what Jupiter was doing. At the top of the walls along the ceiling there was a garland with large melons, radishes, watermelons, a white beet and a black beet, as well as various species of birds including a Pelican. Painted as well was a man, who appeared to be a Jew with a triangular hat crammed down on his head, wearing a black jacket, and with large eyeglasses on his nose, leaning on the cushion on the railing, which looked out on the proscenium, as if he were the impresario observing all.”
In 1786 boxes were added to hall, whose 16th century arrangement had presumably remained unchanged for two centuries. By the middle of the 19th century the original building no longer satisfied new stage demands nor the public’s needs and slowly, over time, the idea of building an entirely new theatre took root. The abundant correspondence between the promoters of this initiative – who wanted to bring it about in the best way possible – and the Società dei palchettisti of Carpi (constituted in 1848) still exists and reveals an exchange of opinions, advice, and so on.
The choice of the architect to whom the project would be entrusted was also shrewd: Antonio Tegani, who had gained experience by assisting Cesare Costa in the construction of the Municipal Theatre of Reggio Emilia. The ancient theatre of the Gonzaga family was demolished in 1858, along with all the rooms on the south side of the Rocca in order to allow entrance onto the stage of the new theatre that would stand in the same area. In 1862 building of the new theatre was begun. Tegani reproposed a sort of reduced version of the Municipal Theatre of Reggio Emilia, which can be seen in the horseshoe-shaped hall, three tiers of boxes, a gallery in the ample and elegant central box, the proscenium surmounted by a clock and a large stage with wooden trellis-work. Interior decoration was entrusted to Cesare Cervi, who planned for the ceiling of the stalls an elaborate square with mixtilineal borders. According to the contract with his client, Cervi was to provide not only the interior decoration but also stage sets and the machines necessary to create the effects of lightning, rain, thunder and thunderbolts (see Maccarini-Masselli 1988, pp.93-94). The new theatre was inaugurated on 25 July 1868 in occasion of the Fair of S. Anna with the staging of I Lombardi alla prima Crociata di Giuseppe.
Source: local Staff Reggio Emilia