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Theater reborn from its ashes: La Fenice

by Isabella Laiden

The fate of the Gran Teatro La Fenice, one of the jewel buildings of Venice, is similar to the mythical Phoenix bird, from which it takes its name. La Fenice was also born from a fire. Subsequently, it was reduced to ashes with each fire. But each time, it was reborn from the ashes like the bird of the Phoenix.

According to legend, the Phoenix bird, the size of an eagle and said to have a very long life, built a nest when it realized its life was over. For this, I collected dry branches and then covered them with glue. And it would have settled on the grass before the glue dried. Then waited for the sun to ignite the nest. When the hot sunlit the nest, the Phoenix, too, turned to ashes with the branches. Finally, an egg would emerge from the ashes left, and a phoenix would be born.

From the San Benedetto alla Fenice Theater

The birth of the Teatro La Fenice, which takes its name from the reference to “born of the ashes” and means “phoenix”, also begins with the destruction of the building called “Teatro San Benedetto” in a fire in 1773.

At the end of the eighteenth century, opera was a great fashion in Europe. There were seven theatres in Venice, two dedicated to theatre and the other five to music. One was the Teatro San Benedetto, a leading art centre in the city’s opera life, especially in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was the most elegant and famous theatre in the town. But San Benedetto was destroyed by a fire in 1773; The Noble Palchettisti Society, one of the leading noble families of the city, rebuilt the theatre. However, the land owner, Venier, claimed to have the rights to the theatre. And the controversy went to the judiciary. The case ended with the victory of the Veneers family. After that, the Palchettisti family decided to build another more immense, more beautiful, luxurious theatre and opera house.

Its birth was magnificent.

The noble family wanted to create a magnificent building that would please both the eyes and ears of the public. So they decided the new theatre would be built in the famous San Marco district. In the place, a plot of land was found whose position connects the Rialto Bridge to the San Polo district and the Accademia Bridge in Dorsoduro. And the family hired their typographers and assistants to initiate designs and models. Finally, on 1 November 1789, a tender was issued for the construction of the La Fenice Theater:

“The Noble Society of the new Theater to be erected in Venice on top of the land purchased in the districts of S.Angelo and S.Maria Zobenigo has entrusted its presiding and adjuncts to procure drawings and models …” inviting “architects to compete national and foreign to propose the formation of a theatre… the most satisfying to the eye and ear of the spectators…”

Since the preferred access route to reach the theatre would be the waterway, the notice recommended planners consider an entrance measuring at least twenty feet from Rio Menu, measuring thirty-two gondolas, the perfect means of transportation. It emphasises the importance of having a fire-resistant, quick-response, and repairable design.

A commission of experts selected the neoclassical architect Giannantonio Selva from among 28 projects. The cost of the work was six hundred thousand ducats.

An Italian-style theatre

The project was conceived as an art house that reflects the typology of the Italian square, “a natural amphitheatre that allows you to live both at home and in the square”. The side-by-side loggias seemed disadvantageous, but it was impossible to give up the comfort of the separate porches that allowed the locals to experience each phase as their own home. Considering the lifestyle of the Italians, this choice was correct. Being together, eating or dancing in the privatised spaces of the theatre coincided with the peculiar lifestyle of the society of the time.

The new theatre was built between 1790 and 1792 in the Sestiere del San Marco district in Campo San Fantin. The family named the theatre after the legendary bird La Fenice to celebrate its rebirth after the disaster.

Reborn from its ashes, La Fenice The La Fenice Opera House in Venice was inaugurated on May 16, 1792, Festa della Sensa, with “I giuochi d’Agrigento” by Giovanni Paisiello on a libretto by Pepoli.

It was and is the site of numerous world premieres of operas by Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Britten, Nono, and Maderna. In recent times Kagel, Guarnieri, Mosca, Ambrosini, Perocco.

The hand of Napoleon

After the fall of the Republic, La Fenice was also forced to submit to the style of the French invaders. La Fenice assumed the function of state theatre during French domination. Napoleon’s visit to Venice is reflected in the walls of the Fenice. The decoration of the theatre was replaced by the Empire style in blue and silver, and since there was no stage to welcome the emperor, a private entrance was built.

The visit took place on Tuesday, 1 December 1807, and the cantata “Judgment of Jupiter” by Lauro Corniani Algarotti was performed in honour of the famous guest. The following Thursday, there was a big dance party. According to the testimony of the royal librarian, Abbot Morelli, the beautifully decorated theatrical hall appeared to be an enchanting place intended for the refuge of high-level personalities.

Subsequently, the stage was built in the imperial style. In clear Empire style, Borsato’s project provided a structure with regular geometric compartments around a Triumph of Apollo on the chariot surrounded by the Choir of the Muses. A subject, therefore, is suitable for a theatre and, simultaneously, an easily recognisable allusion to the new power which, in the best Baroque tradition, was assimilated to the solar god. Ten medallions surrounded the central scene with graduated heads and, on edge, four fake reliefs alluding to music, all framed by a frieze with masks and festoons supported by phoenixes and geniuses. Napoleon never returned to the city, but other rulers enjoyed this prestige.

1836 another fire

On the night between 12 and 13 December 1836, a fire due to a stove malfunction destroyed some rooms and interiors. Still, within seven months, it was rebuilt on the model of the original Selva project by the engineers Tommaso and Giovanni Battista Meduna. The decorations of the Great Hall were entrusted to Tranquillo Orsi.

The Gala to celebrate the reconstruction took place on December 26, 1838, with Donizetti’s “Maria di Rudenz” written for the occasion.

The fate contained in its name peeped out again in 1996 when the Teatro La Fenice was destroyed by a devastating fire, once again managing to be reborn from its ashes. After that, the styles and decorations of the theatre were changed several times. The interventions concerned the imperial lodge, destroyed during the “48 popular uprisings” as a symbol of Austrian oppression. Six public clubs were built in place of the imperial lodging to restore La Fenice to its eighteenth-century origins. On August 22 1849, upon the arrival of the “Royal Austrian Imperial Government”, it was ordered to rebuild the entrance according to the previous form. Until 1854, its interior decoration was inspired by the eighteenth-century Venetian style with green and gold lacquer.

The royal box replaced the imperial portico with the Savoy coat of arms. In 1946, the winged lion of San Marco was brought back to the pediment of the stage, replacing the Savoy coat of arms, which had existed since 1866.

Taste of art in Fenice

During the nineteenth century, La Fenice was a theatre of primary importance, hosting numerous premieres of works by great Italian writers such as Gioachino Rossini, Giuseppe Verdi and Vincenzo Bellini. The greatest composers, singers, directors, dancers and artists of all ages have passed on the Venetian stage.

It was destroyed again in 1996!

The theatre maintained the same aspect in the twentieth century except for small conservative interventions until the evening of January 29, 1996, when La Fenice ended up in ashes at the hands of two unfortunate electricians and with the concurrence of superficiality and neglect. The canals around the Fenice were dry because cleaning works were in progress, which had not been done for decades. The theatre was also closed for restoration and adaptation works. Two electricians, Enrico Carella and his cousin Massimiliano Marchetti, with their company, Viet, were working on the maintenance of the theatre and, in order not to incur a penalty due to the delays accumulated by their company, they decided to cause a small fire to cause a delay due to force majeure. Convicted in the Supreme Court in 2003, Carella and his cousin were allegedly imprisoned for 7 and 6 years.

La Fenice was reborn in 2004!

The construction, which continues with the financial support of the Venetian state and local city administrations, the Italian central government and UNESCO, cost 90 million euros. However, the La Fenice Theater was rebuilt without losing the ancient facade. The interiors, richly decorated with stucco and gilding, were made in different eras and by other artists, and their decorations and the antique furniture on fire were almost perfectly copied. And it has been restored with the intervention of skilled artisans. As a result, the capacity of the spectators of the building, whose reconstruction began in 2001, increased from 840 to 1000. La Fenice, built in the same way preserving the image of the facade, was reopened in November 2004 with the representation of La Traviata.

The fate enclosed in its name came to light in 1996 when a devastating fire destroyed the Teatro La Fenice, and it was reborn from its ashes. The Gran Teatro La Fenice is still the main theatre in Venice. It is one of the most beautiful and prestigious theatres in the world, with its extraordinary acoustics.

It continues to exist, carrying a different colour and beauty in each of its wings like a phoenix … It continues to produce a different melody from each of its branches…

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