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A Venetian Evening at the Palazzo: Musical Entertainment and Festival

By Dr Margaret Shewring and Professor Ronnie Mulryne

Those who were present will not readily forget the evening of 19 March 2010 at the Palazzo Pesaro Papafava. Guests in evening dress, and some in carnival masks, arrived by motoscafo – in itself an exciting and in many cases novel experience. From the candle-lit garden entrance they made their way to the Palazzo’s main reception hall and there enjoyed an entertainment that exceeded all expectations for musical excellence, atmosphere and historical pertinence. The performers were members of a Renaissance Music Ensemble known as Mascherata, composed of Catherine Groom (recorders, voice, harp), Adrian Horsewood (voice, drum, reader) and Richard Mackenzie (lute). Together they presented a programme of song, reading and instrumental music such as Henri III might have heard during his celebrated and spectacular visit to Venice in 1574, beginning with a haunting drum-beat processional entrance that commanded attention and gave notice of delights to come.

Guests for the occasion included the Architect directly responsible for the new RSC auditorium in Stratford (shortlisted for the Stirling Prize), a leading Theatre Design Consultant, a former Chief Executive of Shakespeare’s Globe, a Master Printer and Publisher, a leading Developer, a highly successful Financial Consultant, a Playwright and former Senior Officer of the Arts Council, family friends and relatives and a clutch of Oxbridge and other professors, senior academics and graduate students from Warwick and across Europe. For many the chief delight of the event was the Palazzo itself, so evocatively situated on the edge of a Venetian canal in the failing light. This will come as no surprise to Warwick colleagues who have taken advantage of the University’s occupation of this historic building. Nor will they be surprised to learn that an invited contingent of guests went on to enjoy a superb Venetian banquet at a favoured nearby restaurant.

Mascherata’s choice of music appropriate to the visit of Henri III , future king of France and lately king of Poland, proved a winning one. Henri didn’t, so far as we know, visit the Palazzo Pesaro Papafava, but his activities fully embraced the carnival spirit. He spent most of his seven or eight days on the Venetian mainland at the Ca’ Grande de’ Foscari, now in the ownership of the University of Venice, watching the endless series of entertainments, day and night, on the Grand Canal. He attended unbelievably lavish banquets in the Doge’s Palace, and each day heard Mass at one of the city’s great churches. There were less formal moments too. A special performance was mounted for Henri of that peculiarly Venetian entertainment, the battle between the Nicoloti and the Castellani, in which competing factions try to toss each other from a bridge into the murky waters of a local canal. The famous Commedia dell’ Arte company, the Comici Gelosi, put on ‘a pleasing and charming tragicomedy’ for the king. It was also rumoured that Henri, a handsome fellow, enjoyed other Venetian attractions among the local courtesans whenever he escaped from his official lodgings on Murano. And, of course, there were very grand water pageants involving the famous Bucintoro. As one contemporary writer put it: ‘Just as one cannot find a more beautiful ship ... there is no majesty equal to that of seeing it moving serenely, resplendent with so much gold and ornament’. Maybe, our concert audience may have mused, Shakespeare read this description when imagining the splendours of Venetian shipping in The Merchant of Venice.

All of these associations, and more, come to one’s thoughts in Venice, ‘a city,’ according to a contemporary commentator on Henri’s visit, ‘that cannot be grasped in the mind of those who have not seen it’. They were especially in the mind, by contrast, of many listening to Mascherata, since this memorable evening formed part of a conference with the title ‘Waterborne Pageants and Festivities of the Renaissance’, mounted in the Palazzo under the auspices of a research group that has become, partly as a result of the conference, the Society for European Festivals Research. Currently based at Warwick, the Society has already brought together an international and multi-disciplinary group of scholars, including academics and museum and gallery curators, has launched a publications programme (with Ashgate Publishers), has hosted a conference and workshop (at Warwick and the Warburg Institute in London), is planning a conference in Bergamo, and has developed a close association with the art-and architecture-based European Science Foundation project PALATI UM. The Society is planning a major conference in association with PALATI UM for 2013, which we’d like to hold, if everything works out, at (where else?) the Palazzo Pesaro Papafava in Venice.

The background to all these past and planned events lies, of course, in published research, a good deal of it by Warwick colleagues, several of them based in Warwick’s Centre for the Study of the Renaissance (a collaborative venture by English, French, Italian, History, History of Art and Theatre Studies) and in the AHR B/C-funded Centre for the Study of Renaissance Elites and Court Cultures. For a number of years the Renaissance Centre, under the EU Erasmus and Socrates schemes, was able to bring students to Warwick from the University of Venice, and to send our graduate students in return to Venice. Warwick’s base in Venice – the envy of universities across the UK – has unquestionably inspired Warwick research and stimulated its international scope. The long association of History and History of Art with Venice, and latterly the Renaissance Centre’s association, have been to an extent responsible for Warwick’s leading reputation among British universities as a hub of Renaissance Studies. The University’s presence in Venice at the Palazzo Pesaro Papafava is much more than a matter of symbolism. When you have the opportunity to mount and attend conferences, make academic contacts and enjoy music, in a place with so many associations and such stimulating facilities, you are privileged indeed among your academic colleagues.

Comment

‘Warwick’s base in Venice – the envy of universities across the UK – has unquestionably inspired Warwick research in Renaissance Studies and stimulated its international scope. The long association of History and History of Art with Venice, and latterly the Renaissance Centre’s association, have been to an extent responsible for Warwick’s leading reputation among British universities as a hub of Renaissance Studies.’

Dr Margaret Shewring is a Reader in the School of Theatre, Performance and Cultural Policy Studies. She specialises in the theatre of the Renaissance and Restoration periods, Modernism in Europe and Shakespeare on the contemporary stage.

Professor Ronnie Mulryne is Emeritus Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies. His research focuses on Shakespeare and Renaissance drama, especially drama in performance. Both have had a long connection with Warwick’s Centre for the Study of the Renaissance. In March 2010 they organised the conference on ‘Waterborne Pageants and Festivities of the Renaissance’ at the Palazzo Pesaro Papafava.

Margaret Shewring

Dr Margaret Shewring

School of Theatre, Performance and Cultural Policy Studies

M dot E dot Shewring at warwick dot ac dot uk


Ronnie Mulyrne

Professor Ronnie Mulryne

Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies