Architecture, Theater, and Fantasy is a captivating survey of the Bibiena family’s impact on set design

Baroque Bliss

Architecture, Theater, and Fantasy is a captivating survey of the Bibiena family’s impact on set design

Grand Palace Hall with Columns and Grand Staircase, Ferdinando Galli Bibieena, 1719. Pen and brown ink and gray wash, over graphite. (Courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum, photography by Janny Chiu)

A principal thrill for the spectator of theater or film is the cordoning off of the outside world through the suspension of disbelief. The flight to imagined realms often depends on atmospheric immersion; ranging from phantasmagoric CGI to the extravagant historicist ornament of the movie palace, or the creation of space-defying sets. Central to the development of this artistic mode were the advances established during the Baroque era—roughly spanning from the early 17th century to the mid 18th century—that incorporated new elaborate machinery, adoption of the proscenium arch, and innovation in perspective-led set pieces. Now on display in a new show at the Morgan Library & Museum, Architecture, Theater, and Fantasy: Bibiena Drawings from the Jules Fisher Collection provides an immersive survey of this era through one of its chief protagonists, the prodigious Bibiena family.

For three generations the Bibiena family traipsed Europe as something of rockstars in the world of Baroque theater design. From their native Tuscany, the family established a formidable presence throughout the many princely states that would later constitute Italy and further afield to the royal courts of Vienna, Prague, Stockholm, Saint Petersburg, and Lisbon.

Set drawing by Giuseppe Galli Bibiena with colonnades and arcades.
The courtyard of a princely palace, Giuseppe Galli Bibiena, ca. 1719. Pen and brown ink, gray wash, and blue watercolor. (Courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum, photography by Janny Chiu)

“The Bibiena have since their own day been credited with the invention of the scena par angolo sets, those with the architecture depicted using two viewpoints at the sides of the stage,” noted John Marciari, Charles W. Engelhard Curator and Head of the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Morgan. “This changed entirely the relationship of the design to the actors and audience and allowed sets of unprecedented grandeur, and the use of this brought the Bibiena fame across Europe, and as they moved to work in theaters in every corner of the continent, they effectively changed the history of theater design thereafter.”

The exhibition is a gift from the personal collection of renowned Broadway lighting designer Jules Fisher and consists of 25 works located within the museum’s intimate Thaw Gallery, a three-walled space often used for similarly focused drawing shows.

The pieces are more or less organized in three thematic groupings: the left wall hosts drawings related to the Bibienas’ beginnings as quadrature artists and sketches that provide glimpses into their design processes, such as the pen and brown ink and grey wash Palace Interior with Stairs to the Right. Those hung at the central wall are the finished works shown to patrons or producers and they reveal the enchanting impact of two-point perspective rendered in exquisite detail, as in the Courtyard of the Princely Palace where Corinthian collonades and coffered arcades appear to span infinitum. Drawings on the right wall similarly document the family’s use of scena per angolo techniques as applied to settings outside of their usual palace and courtyard scenes, such as a naval scene and prison.

Drawing of design process of Bibiena family
Stage Design: Palace Interior with Stairs to the Right, Bibiena Workshop, ca. 1700. Pen and brown ink and gray wash. (Courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum, photography by Janny Chiu)

It is perhaps the impermanence of their primary medium, set design, that has diminished the fame of the Bibienas in comparison to their more vaunted Baroque peers. However, their legacy lives on through the substantial collection and curation of their well-preserved drawings.

“Although the Bibiena were once relatively popular in American museums, this is the first exhibition dedicated to them in 30 years, so we hope this will bring their work to the attention of a new generation of museum visitors,” continued Marciari. “Even more than for architects, it is Jules Fisher’s hope (and ours) that the exhibition and the gift of these drawings will be of interest and inspiration to a new generation of theater students and professionals.”