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Part 7

As architects’ and stage designers’ skills developed, they conditioned audiences at Festivals to be amazed at the visual feats they could contrive. Fireworks in the open air with spectators at a safe distance were common throughout Europe. In 1613, over the river at Heidelburg, fireworks lit up the sky for the wedding of the Elector Palatine [Example 24]. Castles filled with explosives were situated in the middle with groups standing on the river banks observing the show. Even more spectacular were the festivities at Versailles in 1674, which ended with the blowing up of the palace of the enchantress Alcina [Example 25]. You see the royal family and the court comfortably accommodated around the edge of the lake on which the destruction was engineered. The scene was engraved by Israel Silvestre who had recorded the entire series of fêtes at Versailles from 1664 to 1678 and whose work became so famous that the plates were published and sold in separate editions.

The relationship of audience and spectacle was one of distance where the emotions were played upon by ingenious machines which sought to create startled astonishment. The relationship was similar in indoor Festivals. The narrator of the London celebrations in 1613, for instance, praised the masque for its spectacular scenes and wrote, “The starres moved in an exceeding strange and delightful manner, and I suppose fewe had seene more neate artifice than Master Inigo Jones shewed in contriving their motion”. By the seventeenth century, the sequence of such scenes of illusion was pretty well fixed. The operas, ballets and masques required at least four standard sets: a seascape; a forest scene; a vision of hell; and the spectacle of heaven peopled by gods and choirs of celestial beings. [Example 26] Here is a typical forest scene; and here is a moderately tranquil vision of hell [Example 27]. Multiple examples of elaborate scenes of illusion can be found in these books. And their ambitious character is well conveyed in these illustrations of a staged tournament at Ferrara in 1631. [Example 28] Mars and Discord descend towards a stage where cloud and flames surround them; they intend to sow the seeds of the war that will initiate the action. Extraordinary knights then enter to defend the cause of peace [Example 29]; these are, perhaps, the most extravagant head-dresses ever worn by beings intending to fight. One wonders how the central figure managed to move at all! Clearly, for this Festival, there was scarcely room on stage for other performers, yet the theatre could often be cluttered up with princes who wanted to be close to the action, as in the climax to the opera in Vienna in 1652. The engraving [Example 30] shows the Emperor and his son , Leopold, King of Hungary, installed on the stage, in fair proximity to the fighting about to break out. And it is worth noting, in passing, the enormous audience closely packed – as it were – into the stalls and balcony.