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A Legacy of Inigo Jones

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Inigo Jones has left a legacy in more areas than one. He could easily be considered a renaissance man with his involvement in so many different fields. Perhaps this is due to Vitruvius’ belief that architects should have practical and theoretical knowledge in all the sciences, arts and nature (Cartwright). Inigo has greatly impacted the realm of technical theatre through his life contributions and varied careers. While he dabbled in costuming, architecture, lighting, landscape artistry, and scenic design, he is well known for his developments in technical theatre. Without Inigo Jones, technical theatre as we know it would be very different. Inigo Jones has influenced his successors and created the technical theatre world we know today.

Little is known about Inigo Jones’ early life or how he became the well renowned architect and stage designer that he is well known as to this day. The earliest evidence of Inigo’s early career was that he apprenticed for a joiner well before his father died. His father, also Inigo Jones, was a cloth worker who died in 1597. Inigo’s life between his father’s death and the year 1603 remains a mystery. In 1603, we first hear of Inigo as having the profession of a “picture-maker.” During this time the term ‘picture-maker’ was used to discern painters of buildings from those who painted pictorial compositions. Inigo’s profession was one of the latter (Summerson). Shortly after, Inigo was sent to Italy to study drawing. While in Italy, Inigo learned about perspective drawing and scenery (Summerson).

Inigo Jones’ trip to Italy was a pivotal moment for his career and his legacy. Not only did Inigo fine tune his drawing skills, but he learned new ways of thinking and design that he brought back to England. The classical architecture and scenic elements he brought from Italy “[ushered] in an age of elegance and classical proportion and harmony” (HISTORYUK). He was introduced to the proscenium arch which he familiarized to the British theatre. Included in his introduction of Italianate Scenery was moveable scenery arranged in perspective. Inigo Jones’s scenery used a series of shutters that slid in and out using grooves in the floor. He even flew in scenery from above and introduced colored lighting by placing candles behind tinted glass (Worsley). At the court of Florence, Jones studied the work of Giulio Parigi. After 1630, Inigo’s designs are almost all copied from Parigi’s intermezzi (Brockett). Inigo owned a copy of Palladio’s treatise on architecture in which he scribed notes comparing Palladio’s idea with those of Serlio, Scamozzi, and Vignola to name a few (Brockettt).

In order to understand how Inigo Jones took what he learned in Italy and adapted it for the British stage, it is important to note how perspective scenery came about. Back around 15 BCE, Vitruvius wrote De Architectura, in which he detailed exactly what he thought architecture should entail.

Much more than a book on buildings and machines, the contents of De Architectura reveal the ancients’ much wider concept of what exactly is ‘architecture’ and it describes such topics as science, mathematics, geometry, astronomy, astrology, medicine, meteorology, philosophy, and the importance of the effects of architecture, both aesthetic and practical, on the everyday life of citizens. In short, according to Vitruvius, the successful architect and engineer should have both theoretical and practical knowledge based on a broad and deep understanding of all the sciences, arts, and even nature. Even more importantly, for Vitruvius buildings should always be three things: beautiful, stable, and useful (Cartwright).

The first notable figure in perspective scenery was Filippo Brunelleschi. He discovered a mathematical system for linear perspective. This created an illusion of space and distance on a flat surface, usually a painted backdrop.

While still in the early phase of his architectural career (probably c. 1410–15), Brunelleschi rediscovered the principles of perspective construction known to the Greeks and Romans but buried along with many other aspects of ancient civilization during the European Middle Ages. Brunelleschi demonstrated his findings with two painted panels, now lost, depicting Florentine streets and buildings. From Manetti’s descriptions it is clear that Brunelleschi had understood the concept of a single vanishing point, toward which all parallel lines drawn on the same plane appear to converge, and the principle of the relationship between distance and the diminution of objects as they appear to recede in space. By using the optical and geometric principles upon which Brunelleschi’s perspective devices were based, the artists of his generation were able to produce works of astonishing realism. On two-dimensional surfaces they were able to create extraordinary illusions of three-dimensional space and tangible objects, so that the work of art appeared to be either an extension of the real world or a mirror of nature. Although the laws governing perspective construction were brought to light by Brunelleschi, they were codified for the first time by the humanist architect Leon Battista Alberti. In 1435 Alberti set them down in Della pittura (“On Painting”), his famous treatise on painting, which included a warm dedication to Brunelleschi—undoubtedly an expression of Alberti’s debt to his friend’s revolutionary discovery (Hyman).

From Brunelleschi’s time to that of Serlio’s we have a few notable figures who were major contributors in Inigo Jones learning the scene design principles he later instituted. Leon Battista Alberti published Brunelleschi’s secret in Della Pitture, the first treatise on the geometric principles of linear perspective. Pellegrino da San Daniele placed individual houses in front of a painted backdrop for a staging of Ariosto’s The Casket at Ferrara. It is believed that he used these houses as angled wings.

Sabitini wrote on the problems of scene changes and the use of devices such as sliding tracks set in grooves on the floor of the stage to facilitate set shifts. He also pioneered a device that would simulate movement of special effects such as waves or clouds. Jones passed his borrowed knowledge on to Webb who, in his turn, placed in on the English stage and began a tradition that was to be improved and refined throughout the Restoration (Helton).

Next, Sebastiano Serlio published Architetura the first work detailing the design and construction of a court theatre (Wild).

Serlio’s playhouse was erected in a large existing room (a Hall of State) in the court palace, the standard practice of the day. The stage, located at one end of the room, was raised to the ruler’s eye level and the perspective scenery was designed to provide the Royal Chair with a perfect view. The front half of the stage floor was level, the rear half sloped up towards the back wall increasing the illusion of depth. The scenery was placed on the raked (or sloped) portion of the stage. Serlio’s sets (Comic, Tragic and Pastoral) consisted of four sets of wings (the first three were angled– one face parallel to the front edge of the stage and the other angled up stage — and the fourth wing was flat and parallel to the audience) and a backdrop or back shutter. His sets were conceived in architectural terms. They were not meant to be shifted (Wild).

Next, Giovan Battista Aleotti introduced the flat wing in Ferrara opposed to the usual angled wings. His most notable work is the Teatro Farnese in Parma. The Teatro Farnese was the largest and most extravagant theatre erected up to that time. This theatre combined a U-shaped auditorium with a new concept: the proscenium arch. Teatro Farnese is still standing, and is the first prototype of the proscenium arch structure. This was the first time the audience was given a frame to view a play’s action through (Tidworth). Giovan Battista Aleotti is also known for his work as a hydraulic and military engineer. He instituted this work into Teatro Farnese with the first moveable scenery in theatre history (Tidworth). The stage is deep enough to equip nine to ten rows of sliding flats. The action, however, was not intended to be confined to this area; it could spill forward into the arena in front of the scaenaefrons and even into the middle of the U-shaped ranks of seats (Tidworth).”

Inigo Jones introduced this Italian concept of perspective scenery to the English court theatre of James I. At first he used angled wings in his designs as well as a back shutter as seen in his production of Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness. Three years later, Inigo moved on to framing his scenery with a proscenium and in the 1630s he abandoned his use of Serlio’s angled wings for flat wings that he learned were much more practical (Wild).

From Italy, he traveled to Denmark where he worked for King Christian on the design of the palaces of Rosenborg and Frederiksborg. Inigo became much more popular when he helped bring masques to the stage while collaborating with Ben Jonson. Masques were allegorical stories that suggested parallels between the person being honored and some mythological personage or event. The story and its symbolism were usually presented through visuals like dance, props, pantomime, and scenery (Brockett).

Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson partnered for many years on masques. “The masque as a genre stemmed out of various court entertainments and folk customs, was most fully developed during the reigns of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, and became almost immediately obsolete during the British Civil War as a result of the challenge to the monarchy (Donaldson).” Jonson wrote the masques, and Jones designed the costumes and the scenery. Their first collaboration was on The Masque of Blackness in December of 1604. Jones had been traveling for a few years and had just arrived back in London so it is quite possible they did not know each other long when they began working together (Donaldson). The beginning of their relationship was rocky. Jonson had never traveled to Italy but had a superior classical training as compared to Inigo. Jonson mocked Jones who recited an incorrect name out of Vitruvius’ De Architectura. This is most likely because Inigo read an Italian translation rather than in the original Latin form that Jonson was well versed in. More shockingly, Jonson poked fun of Inigo’s upbringing which was not very far from his own. Jonson suggests that Jones was brought up on borrowed money. He also suggests that Inigo’s first profession as a joiner was one to be embarrassed of. Since Jonson was a bricklayer, he didn’t start his life much better than Inigo did (Donaldson). Even if they both started from a humble beginning, they were about to start an amazing partnership for the new royal dynasty. Their alliance flourished for more than two decades. After a series of successful collaborations Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones parted ways. Ultimately, Jonson accused Inigo of exemplifying the scenic changes and transformations. Jonson thought that they purposely had more predominance in the masques than Jonson’s poetry. In fact, ‘The Masque of Oberon’ in 1611 cost over £2000 and the costumes alone cost over £1000. Jonson only received £40 for writing the script (Kinney). The nature of masques was for a one night performance. After the performance, the scenery was dismantled and often the audience members would take pieces as souvenirs.

The difference between Inigo Jones’s work and [Jonson’s] might therefore be represented analogically (Jonson believed) as that between body and soul: the former, doomed in time to be ‘utterly forgotten’, the latter to be preserved eternally (Donaldson).

Fundamentally, Jonson did not like that his work paid him a small portion of what Inigo’s scenery and spectacle cost. He believed his work would live on forever. Jonson did not feel that Inigo’s work, which was torn down the same day as the performance, would be remembered for years or centuries to come. This analogy fails to convey what Jonson actually thought of Jones’ work. Jonson placed a high value on his partner’s artistry and creativity. Jonson knew that Inigo’s work created a visual symbolism for his own writings of the court masques (Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies).

In 1642 the theatres were closed due to a civil war that broke out in England. The closing of the theatres was thought to prevent public disorder. The theatres remained closed for eighteen years, causing considerable hardship to anyone in the theatre profession. The Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell, opposed theatrical performances which put them at odds with King Charles I who promoted theatre at his court.

The year of 1656 was a pivotal year for theatre and Inigo Jones’ work. William Davenant succeeded in producing ‘The Siege of Rhodes’ in his home, The Rutland House, which introduced scenery and the first actress (Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies). He staged it with moveable scenery arranged in perspective, which was to prove highly influential. This was one of the first uses of Inigo’s Italianate Scenery.

Italianate Scenery was a combination of both the Italian and French influences coupled with the reemergence of some of the elements of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century court masques. The masques were a toy for the nobility, an indoor extravaganza that lacked literary merit but provided much dramatic spectacle. John Webb was the pupil and son and law of renowned masque designer Inigo Jones. During the reign of Charles I, Jones created elaborate scenes and costumes for the masques and aided in the redesigning of banquet halls to accommodate stages up to 35 feet wide and 25 feet deep that were fitted with trap doors and machinery to allow for the manipulation of scenery from below.

Many of Jones’ ideas were taken directly from the writings of Italian designer Sebastien Serlio in his published work D’Architechturra. Serlio created detailed drawings of three classic scenic designs, the tragic set composed of palaces and temples with great lofty arches and elaborate decorations, the comic set with contemporary houses set about a public mall or square, and the satyr set of outdoor landscape filled with forests, field and cottages (Helton).

John Webb, the pupil and collaborator of Inigo Jones, painted a newly introduced proscenium arch (Loftis). This ‘frontispiece’ concealed both the workings of the machinery and masked the sides of the stage from the auditorium. The groundplan for The Siege of Rhodes shows four pairs of shutters that are set directly behind each other. This allowed for immediate scene changes that could be transformed before the audience’s eyes. Webb also adapted Inigo’s use of parallel or flat wings which terminated in a back shutter or backdrop (Milling, Jane, Peter Thomson, and Joseph W. Donohue). Inigo learned this concept from studying Giovan Battista Aleotti. This introduction of scenery was a great success and the Kings’s Company, run by Thomas Killigrew, swiftly followed suit at their own theatre (Powell). After Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, Davenant and Thomas Killigrew were granted royal patents, which gave them virtual monopoly over presenting drama in London. These monopolies were not revoked until the 19th century (Victoria and Albert Museum).

If Inigo Jones had not ventured to Italy or had the passion and drive to create a name for himself, the technical theatre world we know today would be very different. Inigo Jones brought Italianate Scenery over to Britain where they were able expound and develop it to eventually create the box set, which we still use today. We owe it to Inigo Jones for his willingness to learn, for teaching what he knew to those around him, for not fearing Puritan hate, and for his research on Vitruvius and Italian scene designers for what we know as modern scene design.

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