Inigo Jones introduced the proscenium arch and moveable scenery arranged in perspective into British theatre. Whilst travelling in France and Italy he had been impressed and inspired by the use of stage machinery and scenic invention. Under James I and Charles I he collaborated with the writer Ben Jonson on a series of masques and elaborate court productions that cost a fortune.
Engraved print of a court ballet, 1617
This print shows a court ballet performed before Maximilian, Duke of Bavaria, in Vlasislav Hall, Prague Castle in 1617. Spending vast sums on such lavish, ephemeral spectacles was quite usual in 16th and 17th century Europe. Their purpose was often to impress visiting dignitaries and present a positive image of a ruler and his court. They included vast processions, dances, sung episodes and acted interludes, all sumptuously costumed with elaborate coaches and chariots and stage effects. From these spectacles evolved ballet and opera. In this production, the dancers form geometric patterns on the floor of the theatre before what we would now think of as the proscenium arch, which is 'designed' as a rocky archway. It helps to give the perspective illusion to the scenery behind it, as well as helping to mask the ropes, pulleys and counterweights that worked the cloud machine and the god descending in his chariot.
Costume design for Jacqueline The Knowing One in the French Ballet des Fées de la Foret de Saint Germain, pen and ink over lead, watercolour heightened with gold, 1625. Museum no. S.367-1988
Engraving published in Les Plaisirs de L'Isle, Paris, 1673-74, the ballet La Princesse d'Elide at Versailles in 1664, drawn and engraved by Israel Silvestre. Museum no. S.137-1992
The ballet La Princesse d'Elide was part of a seven day fête held in May 1664 at the Palace of Versailles. The festivities celebrated the birth of a son to Louise de La Vallière, mistress of the French king, Louis XIV. Versailles had no theatre, so temporary stages were set up around the palace and in the gardens. Here the stage has been set up in the grounds with the stage and orchestra pit looking up the avenue of trees and hedges towards the palace. Actors are shown performing before the king (seated centre front) and the court. The engraving is titled Seconde Journée - Theatre fait dans la meme allée, sur lequel la Comédye et le Ballet de la Princesse d'Elide furent representez.
Such lavish celebrations helped impress foreign dignitaries and reinforced Louis' image as absolute ruler. Louis and his courtiers often took part and Louis' nickname, The Sun King, came from his performance as Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, in the Ballet de la Nuit in 1653.
Costume design for a drummer in the French Ballet des Fées de la Foret de Saint Germain, pen and ink over lead, watercolour, 1625. Museum no. S.369-1988
Engraved print of a ballet at Versailles, engraving by Charles Nicolas Cochin, 1745
This engraving shows a comedy-ballet called The Princess of Navarre being performed at the French Royal Palace of Versailles, just outside Paris. It was produced as part of the celebrations of a royal marriage; the King's son, the Dauphin, had become engaged to Maria Theresa of Spain. The composer Jean Philippe Rameau was asked to write the ballet in partnership with the author Voltaire. The decorations were arranged by Charles Nicolas Cochin who also made this engraving of the event.
Costume design by Inigo Jones (1573-1652), England, 1613