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The Building of La Fenice (first go)

Since I’m skipping off to the opera on Thursday night, €50 lighter, to watch a Mozart piece I’ve never heard of (IlSogno di Scipione if anyone’s interested), I thought it pertinent to investigate the history of this, the ‘oldest opera house’ still in existence. What little I know of the place stems from catalogue notes I’ve written thus far on Francesco Guardi’s drawings of the building, similar to the one illustrated here, now at the Met in New York (37.165.73). Back in the day, that is, the eighteenth century, it seems to have been a place of fun, frivolity, and fornication. I doubt that’s still the case #sadfaceemoji. 

La Fenice (the phoenix) was completed in 1792 after the city’s previous opera house had burnt down 1774. Its name reflected its revival; a literal rise from the ashes. The building was designed by Gianantonio Selva (no idea) who proposed a neoclassical style. Although the design of his rival, Pietro Bianchi, was considered superior, Selva’s bid proved more practical for the small space which the opera house was required to occupy.

The interior design was intentionally egalitarian, as was reflected by its decorative style and the audience boxes which were constructed to equal in size. This proto-socialist pipe dream soon fell flat, however, as Selva had to re-arrange the seating in order to make way for a splendid Royal Box in the early eighteenth century, with enough space for four-foot-nothing Napoleon and his entourage. 

This first iteration of La Fenice didn’t last long. The building was once again destroyed by fire in 1836, and then in 1996 (this time by two nitwits with a match). I hope the present version lasts beyond Thursday. 


A Western Art History blog by someone who sometimes gets paid  to read and write about Western Art History. Mostly Old Masters. Mostly Italian. Hopefully accurate.

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