This document is adapted from Patrizia Costa's exhibition catalogue, The Theater of Jacques Callot. This exhibition, which drew exclusively from the UAG collection of prints by Callot, was held at the UAG of the University of Pittsburgh in 1992. I wish to thank Patrizia for her generosity, advice and support.
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the theater and the `theatrical' in Jacques Callot's work. Callot spent his earliest years in an ambience of pomp and ceremony which was highly theatrical in nature. His father served as a painter, heraldic designer and organizer of many of the festivities organized at the ducal court of Charles III of Lorraine. It is often assumed that the young Jacques assisted his father in directing the funeral arrangements for Charles III, who died in 1608. In the seventeenth century, court funerals were festivals in their own right: Charles III's funeral lasted two months and several thousand notables participated in the ceremonies. Large sums of money were spent on technical, artistic and literary innovations for these court performances. By assisting his father, Callot learned all sorts of theatrical devices and developed a taste for the fantastic as well as a knowledge of spatial illusion.
While working on the etchings for The Funeral Book of the Queen of Spain, Callot met Giulio Parigi, the designer and director of most of the theatrical events that took place at the Medici Court in Florence. There, Callot recorded the scenic spectacles conceived for the various extravaganzas sponsored by the Medici family. Most of these festivities were designed to celebrate a wedding, commemorate a holiday or, as in the case of the engraving below, to flatter a visiting dignitary. In this print, Callot depicted the veglia held at the court during the Carnival season of 1616 which coincided with the wedding of Ferdinand Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, and Caterina de' Medici, the second sister of Cosimo II.
Thyphoeus Beneath the Moutains of Ischia is one of three prints depicting the interludes from the veglia entitled la liberazione di Tirreno e d'Arnea, which presents the liberation of the legendary founders of Tuscany, Tirreno and Arnea, from the seductions of Circe, thus enabling their subsequent union. Based on episodes in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso and classical mythology, this theme was also a clever allusion to the political ambitions behind the Medici marriages. The interlude depicted in this print differs slightly from the usual form of the subject since it was here an organic part of the entertainment, stemming from the plot of the veglia itself. At the end of each act, the participants engaged in singing and dancing and, as the print shows, moved from the stage onto the floor of the hall where they were joined by the nobility.
During Callot's lifetime, significant theatrical developments took place all over Europe. Some of the most important ones fueled Florentine theatrical entertainment, which Callot experienced first hand. One of these forms, the commedia dell'arte, which was Italy's first public, professional theater, is of special interest. The dialogue performed in the commedia was not written, but improvised on stage according to a general outline or scenario. The actors played stock character types. The most important ones, Pantalone, il Capitano and Zani, are seen in Callot's Three Italian Comedy Performers, a series done in Florence in 1618.
Caption: Pantalone Caption: il Capitano
In each of the three etchings, Pantalone, il Capitano and Zani, the figure of the performer commands the viewer's attention, yet many small characters are seen in the background. In addition, crowds of spectators, their backs to the viewer, stand with their attention riveted to the scene set on a large, outdoor stage.
Troupes of the commedia toured France, Spain and England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, where they were very popular. The troupes played at fairs, on holidays and for special engagements. The actors' costumes were simple and their stage consisted of several boards across a few trestles and a curtained backdrop behind which the actors made their entrances and exits.
The Capricci series contains, among other figures, an assemblage of commedia dell'arte actors, such as these two Pantaloon figures:
Caption: Two Pantaloons Dancing, Face to Face Caption: Two Pantaloons Dancing, Back to Back
While some of Callot's prints are accurate depictions of theater life, others are abstract visualizations of the theatrical ideal. For instance, the frontispiece of the set of the Gobbi, or `Grotesque Dwarfs,' sets the tone for the series' grotesque and caustic quality:
All of the figures depicted are hunchbacked. Whether or not these were intended as caricatures is uncertain. There is ample evidence, however, that hunchbacked people were maintained as companions and entertainers at the Medici Court when Callot was employed there. In his Musica, Ballo e Drammatica alla Corte Medicea dal 1600 al 1637 (Florence, 1905), Angelo Solerti tells us that it was customary for these Gobbi to form troupes of entertainers and perform on July 6, the feast day of Saint Romulus, and he makes special note of their appearance in Florence in 1612.
The print entitled the Entrance of M. de Brionne from The Combat at the Barrier is a good example of Callot's later theatrical production in Nancy. The Combat at the Barrier was produced to celebrate the official entrance of the Duchess of Chevreuse in Nancy in 1627.
According to the inscription on this print, the scene represents the entrance of the Count of Brionne as Jason. This mythological program was based upon the adventures of Jason in securing the golden fleece. The ships depicted represent the Argo, and the picture at the lower left shows the dragon guarding the golden fleece in Colchis. The Combat at the Barrier is Callot's last commission for festival prints and fanciful theatrical images.
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