Monday, June 02, 2014

Word of the Day -- Proscenium

A proscenium is the area of a theatre surrounding the stage opening. A proscenium arch is the arch over this area. 

In ancient Rome, the stage area in front of the scaenae frons was known as the "proscenium", meaning "in front of the scenery". In the Roman theater, no proscenium arch existed, in the modern sense. However, Roman theaters were similar to modern proscenium theaters in the sense that the entire audience had a restricted range of views on the stage—all of which were from the front, rather than the sides or back.

The oldest surviving indoor theater of the modern era, the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza (1585), is sometimes incorrectly referred to as the first example of a proscenium theatre. The Teatro Olimpico was an academic reconstruction of an outdoor Roman theater. This emulation of the Roman model extended to referring to the stage area as the "proscenium", and some writers have incorrectly referred to the theater's scaenae frons as a proscenium, and have even suggested that the central archway in the middle of the scaenae frons was the inspiration for the later development of the full-size proscenium arch. There is no evidence at all for this assumption (indeed, contemporary illustrations of performances at the Teatro Olimpico clearly show that the action took place in front of the scaenae frons, and that the actors were rarely framed by the central archway).

The Italian word for a scaenae frons is "proscenio." One modern translator explains the wording problem that arises here: "[In this translation from Italian,] we retain the Italian proscenio in the text; it cannot be rendered proscenium for obvious reasons; and there is no English equivalent....It would also be possible to retain the classical frons scaenae. The Italian "arco scenico" has been translated as "proscenium arch."

However, this translator fails to note the importance of the word "Frontispiece" during the long 18th century, which is a sensible and literal translation of the Italian phrase: "scaenae frons."

In practice however, the stage in the Teatro Olimpico runs from one edge of the seating area to the other, and only a very limited framing effect is created by the coffered ceiling over the stage and by the partition walls at the corners of the stage where the seating area abuts the floorboards. The result is that in this theater "the architectural spaces for the audience and the action . . . are distinct in treatment yet united by their juxtaposition; no proscenium arch separates them."

However, the Teatro Olimpico's exact replication of the open and accessible Roman stage was the exception rather than the rule in sixteenth-century theatre design. Engravings suggest that the proscenium arch was already in use as early as 1560 at a production in Siena.

The most likely candidate for the first true proscenium arch in a permanent theatre is the Teatro Farnese in Parma (1618). A clearly defined "arco scenico"—more like a picture frame than an arch, but serving the same purpose—outlines the stage and separates the audience from the action on-stage.

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