March 27th every year is celebrated as World Theatre Day to recognize the importance of the performance arts in our life. They entertain us, enrich us, leave us wonderstruck, make us smile, and sometimes leave a lump in our throats ( and sometimes, to be frank, also bore us to within an inch of death). In short, they make us experience the entire rainbow of emotions that constitute the human experience.
Today, of course, we have cinema, Netflix, YouTube, TikTok ( did you just say Da Vinkiiiii), and everything in between to keep us entertained. But for most of human existence, the one medium that served all the human need to be entertained and enthralled was the theater.
So theatre is old. But do you know which is the oldest surviving theater still in use in the world?
It’s the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, Italy.
Little surprise there, eh? Think theatre and the first image that comes to most peoples’ minds is perhaps an opera house made of the finest Italian marble, a prima donna’s falsetto voice piercing the heavy stillness of a lush wooden hall filled with counts and countesses dressed in the finest fineries wealth can buy.
That is pretty much the scene that the Teatro Olimpico was built to cater to.
Constructed sometime around 1585 CE by the famous Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio, ( the man who lends his name to the adjective Palladian ) the theatre is a work of art of behold. It was Palladio’s swansong, for he died soon afterwards. The first play to be performed at the Teatrico Olimpico was Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex – that tragic tale of love, lust, incest, and power.
In terms of style, the Teatro Olimpico attempts to imitate ancient Roman architecture – a theme that was much in vogue during the Renaissance. The Renaissance, which literally means “rebirth”, was, in fact, a movement to reclaim the lost glorious past of Italy. So it was, but natural, that architects and painters should try to imitate Roman style in their work.
However, a constant obsession with the past can sometimes also be a hindrance to progress. This was the case with a lot of Renaissance architecture too. Continuously imitating Roman style meant that innovation was stifled. With the Teatro Olimpico, the fixation of Italian architects with ancient Rome came to an abrupt end. The turn of the century heralded swift changes that would mark the transition from the medieval to the modern world- the industrial revolution, colonial expansion, breakneck-speed technological advancement, constant warfare, and globalization. Through all this, the Teatro Olimpico stood calm and steadfast. It even miraculously survived bombing and shelling during the two World Wars!
The theatre continues to be in use today, although performances are few and audiences are limited to a maximum of 400 to avoid damage to the delicate structure.
So if you’re ever in the north of Italy, make sure you pay a visit to the town of Vicenza, located among the Monte Berico hills, with the Bacchiglione river cutting through it, and the glorious Teatrico Olimpico and its 450 years of golden whispers murmuring at its heart. And if you listen hard enough, perhaps you just might catch, ricocheting off its walls, the soft murmur of a French countess, her beautiful face hidden behind a Venetian mask and a sardonic smile, revealing a terrible secret to a handsome Italian prince in a richly brocaded coat, a silk cravat, and a cruel heart.