The Italian Renaissance was called the beginning of the modern age. The word Renaissance itself is derived from the Latin word rinascere, which means to be reborn. Many dramatic changes occurred during this time in the fields of philosophy, art, politics, and literature. New emphasis was placed on enjoying life and the world around you. A new interest especially grew in the area of theatrical arts. This great new movement was originated and centered in Italy, and without Italian contribution, would never have launched European society into the dawning of a new era.
During the Italian Renaissance, even though theater was becoming very popular, opera was the most popular form of entertainment. One could also attend the widely popular, public form of theater, known as commedia dell'arte, an improvisational form of theater. Even still were the private court theater performances held by the priviledged citizens (nobility). These plays were presented by the courts and were only held on special occasions. As the demand for permanent theaters arose, so did the demand for more efficient equipment for staging. The look of the theaters during this time was derived mostly from the Greeks and Romans, which in turn was the influence for pretty much everyone else. You would find elongated U-shaped auditoriums, boxes in tiers around walls (usually 2 or more), and an undivided gallery above top row (for servants/lower classes). A central floor space (orchestra or pit) was not a popular place for the elite until the late 19th century, and some theatres had no seats till the late 18th century. Spectators could stand and move around.
Perspective became very important. The stage was raised slightly(raked) in the rear to give the viewer more to see. The proscenium arch still remains, to give that "picture frame" look to the stage. Border flats hid rigging and machinery that was overhead. The scenery consisted of a series of flats. These flats were situated on small groves in the floor to allow for rapid scene changing, although still manual. However, Giacomo Torelli invented a device that would actually shift all the flats in and out of a given scene simultaneously!!!! This system consisted of chariots or wagons on tracks below the stage. Poles came up through slots cut parallel to the front of the stage with scenery and wings and backs attached to them. A system of ropes and pulleys helped get a simultaneous shift of scenery.
As for the actual theater, there are really two types in Italy at this time. The court theaters, as mentioned, were private theaters with plays held for nobles at a special occasion
of some kind. These plays were often written and designed totally by court writers and designers. These plays were very well received among those that actually got to see them. These shows, no matter how successful, still mostly ran one night only. The truly
vibrant theater scene in Italy during the Renaissance belongs to the commedia dell'arte troupes. These improvisational plays were extremely popular due to their stock characters and scenarios; and the fact that these were public performances that were accessible to many more people than the court plays.
The fixed plot in the comedies was the same. After a lot of complications the young lovers get each other, the servants get their reward and the old men are deceived: The rich persons want to protect their fortunes by arranging marriages between each others' children. The barrister or the doctor wants to introduce their son or daughter into the rich family, while the young persons are falling in love contrary to all financial dispositions. The stock characters were known by everybody. At the top of the social pyramid we find the rich merchants, bankers and ship owners (of course you were not allowed to make fools of the clergy and nobility). Below them we find a group of "parasites" - officials, barristers, doctors and officers and in the bottom we find the large number of repressed and underpaid servants.
An important part of every play, given always to the most expert and popular actors, were the humorous interruptions, called lazzi, which often had nothing to do with the play itself. It might be clever pantomimic acting, acrobatic feats, juggling, or wrestling. For example, three characters meet at a bakery, where they hear of an accident which has happened to one's the wife. While they express their dismay at the affliction, they fall to eating greedily from a huge dish of macaroni; and as they eat, tears stream down their faces. Or again, a servant, disgusted at an order his master has given him, delays carrying it out until he has turned a complete somersault. Maybe, one famous actor could execute this trick having a full glass of wine in his hand, without spilling a drop.
The rascally servant, the old man, the lady's maid, and the rest--stock characters which appeared in every play--always wore a conventional dress, with masks. There were also unmasked characters: the innamorata, or the young lovers. In general these masks may be classed under four or five groups: Pantalone and the Doctor, both old men; the Captain, a young man of adventure; the valet or jester, usually called Zanni; the hunchback Punchinello; and another old man, somewhat different from the first two.
Improvisation, masked fools, acrobatic tricks, intrigue plots, satire and music are widespread in the sixteenth century theater, but only the Italians combined them all on outlines roughly resembling regular plays. The Renaissance was the spark that ignited the bonfire of modern theater arts. Thankfully, we have taken what the Italiens taught us, combined it with others along the way, to mold a society rich in the way of arts. The sky is the limit...you never know how far you can go until you just go.