THE MARIONETTE THEATRE OF
The earliest mention of a theatre built outdoors in the gardens of Isola Bella dates back to 1657; it refers to a place intended for real theatrical performances that would later be hosted in a special space called Teatro delle Commedie (Theatre of Comedies), commissioned by Vitaliano VI Borromeo in 1665 and renovated for permanent use by the architect Filippo Cagnola (1686).
The Teatro dell’Isola was for a long time considered one of the most distinguished private theatres of the Lombard aristocracy, thanks in part to the plays that were performed there, mostly written or suggested by Carlo Maria Maggi (1630-1699), professor of Latin and Greek eloquence at the University of Pavia and a satirical writer of comedies in Milanese dialect. Theatrical activity on the island seems to have come to a halt with the death of its builder (Vitaliano VI, 1690) and only resumed at the end of the eighteenth century in the particular form of the ‘Teatro delle Marionette’ or Marionette Theatre.
Documents relating to the purchase of marionettes and scenery, which were sporadic in the second half of the seventeenth century and the first fifty years of the following one, intensify at the end of the eighteenth century, when the success of this type of theatrical performance began to assert itself in both private and public palaces and theatres.
We thus see the development of marionettes that could be transformed, the inclusion of fantastic and grotesque animals, the conspicuous use of stage machinery, the representation of atmospheric events such as northern lights, storms, thunder and lightning, fires and surprising bursts of flame. Essentially intended for entertainment and amusement, the performances of the Marionette Theatre involved family members, guests and friends of the house, and even servants.
However, the great opportunity for the puppets came in 1828, when, on the occasion of the visit in September of that year of the Sardinian royal family, King Carlo Felice and his Queen, Vitaliano Borromeo decided to build a real theatre exclusively for the little wooden actors, using the Sala della Racchetta for the purpose.
The management of the construction work was entrusted to Alessandro Sanquirico (1779-1846), a set designer at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, who was also responsible for the friezes, the pediment and the curtain of the theatre. In the years to come, he also painted many of the stupendous sets that have survived to this day. The creation of scenes and marionettes, as well as the work of improving the theatre, which had 300 seats and 20 boxes, continued until his retirement. He enjoyed a successful career at the Teatro Regio and Teatro Carignano in Turin, and at the Teatro della Scala in Milan, where he made best use of his Romantic and naturalistic vein.
After years of activity and after entertaining illustrious guests including Count Benso di Cavour, the theatre ceased all activity in 1857 when, as Giberto Borromeo wrote in 1922 in one of his chronicles of the theatre:
“All the early troubles of the War of Independence intervened and the theatre was abandoned to its fate”.
In 1935, the theatre was refurbished to make room for a guardhouse to protect Mussolini and his foreign guests during the International Stresa Conference held at the Palazzo on Isola Bella.
Today much of the material that made up the theatre has been moved to three of the rooms on the main floor of the Palazzo on Isola Madre.
In terms of the variety, completeness and state of preservation of the scenery, stage sets, marionette and scripts, this collection is one of the most important preserved today.
In the first room visitors see the theatre stage, complete with curtain and a series of perspective wings, whose function was not only to conceal the mechanical devices from the public, but also to create an illusionistic deep space in which the puppets moved and the stage action took place.
The wings and backdrops are made of tempera-painted canvases fixed on wooden frames designed and made by Antonio Sanquirico, a famous set designer at La Scala in Milan who worked for the Borromeo family at least until 1832.
In the first room the stage is set with the device of the “Macchina delle nuvole” (Cloud Machine), consisting of a series of painted canvas elements mounted on frames and connected to each other by a system of poles of different lengths and supported by wires wound around a single axis moved by a winch.
In the next room, some of the most beautiful puppets in the collection are displayed in sober showcases designed by Alessandro Sanquirico, including the extremely rare “Nano a trasformazione” (“Transforming dwarf”) from which, using a series of wires, several small marionettes emerge, and a Pulcinella from which other small Pulcinellas sprout.
In the showcase on the left-hand wall there are a number of mechanical devices used for performances: a Greek pitch lamp, pipes for making fog, various types of lamps for lighting the stage and creating effects designed to surprise and amaze, suggest fire, lightning and thunder, and a marionette with a metal head that can spit fire from its mouth.