Animation, Plasticity, and Music in Italy, 1770-1830

Animation, Plasticity, and Music in Italy, 1770-1830

by Ellen Lockhart

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This path-breaking study of stage works in Italian musical performances reconsiders a crucial period of music history. Through an interdisciplinary examination of the statue animated by music, Ellen Lockhart deftly shows how Enlightenment ideas influenced Italian theater and music, and vice versa. As Lockhart reveals, the animated statue became a fundamental figure within aesthetic theory and musical practice during the years spanning 1770–1830. Taking as its point of departure a repertoire of Italian ballets, melodramas, and operas from this period, Animation, Plasticity, and Music in Italy traces its core ideas between science, philosophy, theories of language, itinerant performance traditions, the epistemology of sensing, and music criticism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520284432
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/19/2017
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Ellen Lockhart is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Toronto. She has coedited, with James Davies, Sound Knowledge: Music and Science in London, 1789–1851, and her critical edition of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West is forthcoming.

Read an Excerpt


Attentive Statues

I have seen a medicine That's able to breathe life into a stone, Quicken a rock, and make you dance canary With spritely fire and motion.

Shakespeare, All's Well That Ends Well Like Italy itself as imagined by later generations, Gasparo Angiolini's theater was populated by statues: simulacral humans who dwelt among the living, arousing longing, wreaking vengeance, or assisting in colonization. Yet unlike, say, the marble goddess in Heine's Florentinische Nächte (1837) or the sculptures in Madame de Staël's Corinne, ou l'Italie, which aroused or unsettled in their very stillness, Angiolini's statues came to life to interact with the living, their newly animated limbs moving rhythmically in time to music. Angiolini was the foremost Italian choreographer of the second half of the eighteenth century. He is best known today for his Don Juan (Vienna, 1761, with music by C. W. Gluck), which featured the return of the sepulchral "stone guest." In 1767, he choreographed a ballet on the subject of Ovid's Pygmalion myth. In his late propaganda ballet Deucalione e Pirra (Milan, 1797), the hero and heroine create humans from rocks to repopulate the world. Yet surely the most peculiar of Angiolini's animated statues is found in La vendetta spiritosa, which had its premiere in May 1781 at Milan's new opera house, the Teatro alla Scala. For La vendetta spiritosa, Angiolini wrote the story, choreographed the dance steps and gestures, and even composed his own musical accompaniment, each medium carefully designed so as to correspond to the others. Yet as we will see, if La vendetta spiritosa was brought into being by an ideal of the complete artwork — which would later be called a Gesamtkunstwerk — it was a version of this ideal that was organized around the aesthetic force of the mute, muscular body. In the ballet, Arcadian shepherds and shepherdesses enact a portion of Étienne Bonnot de Condillac's philosophical tract, the Traité des sensations, bringing a statue to life by stimulating its sensing organs. Angiolini's aim, as we will see, was to communicate "ideas, even the abstract ones of philosophy," through bodily motion and music. Despite the challenges that La vendetta spiritosa must have posed to its audience, it was deemed a success and revived a decade later for Venice as La vendetta ingegnosa, o la Statua di Condilliac.

Gathering strands from performance traditions, literature, and high-Enlightenment philosophy, the coming pages will show how the animated statue became a figure of aesthetic engagement and in the process granted new status to untexted music as an animating force. This figure emerged in Angiolini's writings and pantomimes alongside a host of new notions about how symbols were perceived and understood and what changes they might effect in their perceivers. Angiolini had argued since the 1760s that gesture could function as a language, provided it had an appropriate musical accompaniment. As we will see, his three well-known Viennese pamphlets — the prefaces to Don Juan (1761) and La Citera assediata (1762) and the "Dissertation sur les ballets pantomimes" that accompanied his Sémiramis (1765) — drew on recent French theories of language. But his "philosophical" ballet on the statue theme — which will serve as the crux of this first chapter — must be understood as a monument to Milan, that ancient, sprawling capital of Austrian Lombardy, where Angiolini lived for the last three decades of his life and which was home to one of Europe's most distinctive projects of mass enlightenment. Among his colleagues, there were Pietro Verri and Cesare Beccaria, figures now remembered as legal and political theorists but who were also energetic participants in debates on music, theater, and the Italian language. As we will see, Angiolini and his Lombard compatriots created something like an antique semiotics that spanned language and the fine arts. They sought a reformed relationship between meaning and its avatars, and new uses for representative sound. Their goal was nothing less than a revitalized Italian culture, and through it an Italy reborn.


We can begin with a genealogy, dwelling on two immediate ancestors of La vendetta spiritosa. Animated statues have, of course, featured in Western imaginations since classical times. Prometheus was said to have created humans from clay; Pindar lauded a race of stone men; the story of Pygmalion is told in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Of these, the last had the most vibrant afterlife, transmitted within early modern romance, didactic literature, and art criticism. Wendy Heller has found troupes of dancing statues in seventeenth-century Venetian opera. Less well documented is the tradition of improvisatory performance that existed alongside this literary tradition, which informed it and was changed by it. The moving statue was a staple of commedia dell'arte players. It can be found in innumerable lazzi set in ruins or sculptors' ateliers and in improvised versions of plays and stories featuring such characters. For instance Don Juan, with its famous stone guest, entered the repertoire of the commedia dell'arte on its arrival in Naples in the early 1630s and remained there for the next two hundred years; the half-dozen comic operas on that text that appeared between 1777 and 1787 bore the marks of this tradition. After all, metamorphosis had always been a favorite inspiration for Harlequins and Pulcinellas.

With one important exception, statues within improvised theater left few traces. The exception is Gregorio Lambranzi's Neue und curieuse theatralische Tantz-Schul (1716), the most important iconographic source for Italian dance before the nineteenth century. Like Angiolini a half-century later, Lambranzi was both a choreographer and a dancer, performing his creations in Italian theaters between the acts of operas. Unlike Angiolini, however, he was interested above all in the comic genre of Italian dance, which combined the steps of French belle danse with commedia characters, plots, and slapstick humor. His treatise aimed not to provide a complete record of his work but rather to encourage other dancers to improvise in a similar style. For each dance, he provided no more than a melody, a picture, and the briefest of plots. In a preface he reminded his readers to use only the traditional steps (cabrioles, coupés, jetés, chassés, pas graves, contretemps and the pas de chaconne, courante, gavotte, and so on); even the Harlequins, Scaramouches, and other stock characters in the comic dances should use no step, figure, or costume other than those usually employed in Italian theaters. He also noted that these characters have their own "absurd and burlesque" (ridiculi e burleschi) versions of the traditional steps. Most relevant for our purposes is Scaramouche, the bad-tempered gentleman from Naples, who moves with "long, unformed, and heavy steps" (grandi, lunghi, e spropositati passi).

The Neue und curieuse theatralische Tantz-Schul contains no fewer than three dances for moving statues. The second and third, which appear in volume 2, are comic sketches featuring multiple dancers: plates 12 to 17 show the animation and wrestling of two stone servants in a palace, while plate 24 shows sculptors carving a statue (that is, freeing another dancer) from a large block of marble. The first of Lambranzi's statue dances is more mysterious. It is on plate 24 in volume i's collection of "national dances," reproduced here as figure 1. As the curtain rises, a single dancer is frozen on a decrepit stone podium amid overgrown ruins. He stays motionless until the first half of the dance has been played once; when it repeats, he leaps from the pedestal and dances around the stage, performing "Scaramouche's steps, cabrioles, and pirouettes." The music given at the top of the figure — a two-part loure — is to be played three times. When it comes to an end, the dancer departs. Lambranzi supplies no clue as to instrumentation or harmonies, but custom would suggest nothing more exotic than violin-dominated string textures and the most basic harmonic progressions.

This dance is a puzzle. Is the figure stone or flesh? The pedestal and ruins suggest that he is very old, even classical. And yet the costume and attitude place him firmly within the commedia dell'arte. The verbal indications are vague; caption and preface describe him first as "a lovely, motionless statue" and then, following the animation, by the name of Scaramuzza. Is Scaramouche himself therefore an animated statue, his awkward gait the result of stiff legs? Or was he merely hiding among the ruins for his own amusement, waiting to leap out and frighten the tourist? The music provides no further clues. While the tunes associated with statues in volume 2 are full of tone paintings, this loure seems oblivious to the action. Its lilting melody, dotted rhythms, and repetition schemes belong to the domain of French courtly dance. The animation itself occurs in the limn between musical events: after the end of the first statement and before its literal repetition.

Also ambiguous is the relation of this dance to the treatise as a whole. Lambranzi claims to supply "fifty dances from different nations"; but what nation may be inferred from this combination of a French courtly artifact and a commedia lazzo within a setting of classical ruins? The presence of the Neapolitan Scaramouche suggests that this is an Italian dance; indeed, the commedia characters, with their acrobatic and often distorted motions, were emblematic throughout Europe of "Italy," just as clogs were indices of Holland and eunuchs were markers of the East (such "national" signifiers are deployed throughout Lambranzi's treatise). Of course, in 1716, "Italy" existed only as historical memory and as a contested literary and linguistic terrain (more about this below). When Lambranzi published his treatise, Italian comedians were perhaps the peninsula's most successful export; they could be found in fairgrounds and theaters across Europe. Italian literature, on the other hand, was at the time seldom noticed beyond the Alps (or, indeed, by any but a few thousand on the peninsula). In the eighteenth century, travelers visited Italy ostensibly to meet the past in quiet, motionless material forms, from Roman ruins to Renaissance art. Italy's former hegemony now belonged to France, whose language, like the steps of its belle danse, was in use from Moscow to Gibraltar. Lambranzi has his audience witness something come to life in this ruined landscape: something aggressive, strange, and ultimately fugitive (as this Scaramouche runs away at the end of the dance). Though it seems unlikely that he imagined a pointedly nationalist allegory, Lambranzi does imply that the features of this curious little cipher are central to his project. On the title page, Athena holds a scroll containing a loure with French steps in Feuillet notation; below, Lambranzi-as-Scaramouche strikes his characteristic pose among a gallery of statues.

Lambranzi's moving statues were denizens of a strange wonderland that was also home to dwarfs, hunchbacks, the blind, three-legged men, Turks, Dutchmen, and gypsies. His treatise provides a vivid glimpse into the repertoire of the Italian comic dancer in the first part of the eighteenth century. He took on alternate physical identities, playing with the borders of humanness (not by accident was this known as the stile grottesco). His scenes are brief, entertaining, and opaque; they neither adapt preexisting verbal texts nor lend themselves to comprehensive transcriptions (as we have seen). Yet these dances and the popular Italian theater they represent were the source of later developments in pantomime ballet. There are traces of them even in Angiolini's self-consciously high-minded "reforms," which dismissed the Lambranzian style in the strongest terms. Marie Sallé, who was admired by David Garrick, Noverre, and Angiolini, was trained by the famous Harlequin John Rich during the 1720s and became perhaps the most famous early performer of "action ballet." Sallé's international career was launched by a Pygmalion: she danced the role of the statue to great acclaim in London in 1734. In her version, the newly animated statue is brought to maturity in a series of courtly dances, their diverse steps and meters supplying her with a gamut of enticing affects. The Mercure de France rapturously recalled how Sallé descended from her pedestal and "learned" the steps of the belle danse. Sallé was said to have composed her own music for this dance. If she did, it is now lost, but a score survives for the Parisian revival done the following year. Her ballet — which has been called "the first modern dramatic ballet"— is thought to have inspired the most important mid-eighteenth-century versions of Pygmalion: Rameau's opera-ballet and the pantomime by Angiolini's Viennese predecessor and teacher, Franz Hilverding. From the 1730s to the 1750s, arguably through the gradual acceptance of such pantomime within French theater, the animated statue moved from the margins of theatrical practice to the center.

Sallé's and Rameau's ballets featured lengthy scenes of statues "becoming human" through listening and moving, the statues learning to move gracefully in a variety of ways as the orchestra sounded a series of dance movements. Such an emphasis on self-formation was absent from the Ovidian tradition of Pygmalion fables. I would suggest, then, that when Étienne Bonnot de Condillac based his Traité des sensations around the figure of the animated statue, he was influenced in part by this performance tradition. While later historiography saw Condillac overshadowed by Rousseau and the Encyclopédistes, during the eighteenth century he ranked in the first tier of Enlightenment thinkers. The influence of his Traité des sensations will be felt for the remainder of this book, and so we will consider it at some length here. The treatise was a thought experiment designed to illustrate how a human may acquire all the higher mental faculties purely through the use of his senses. Condillac starts by asking his audience to imagine a statue; he then activates a single one of its organs, the nose. From the scents detected by its nostrils, the statue experiences pleasure and pain, and these sensations create the faculty of attention. The next faculty was that of memory, which is developed via the simple procedure of placing a sequence of objects beneath the statue's nose. By comparing these various stimuli, the statue acquires the faculty of judgment — and so on. In subsequent chapters, Condillac describes the statue in other states of extreme sensory deprivation: after "limited to the sense of smell" comes "limited to the sense of hearing," "limited to the sense of taste," and "limited to the sense of sight." Once he establishes the various effects of each sense in isolation, Condillac begins to investigate various combinations: "with sight and smell combined," and so forth.

The culmination comes with the final sense: touch. For Condillac, touch signified consciousness of one's body and the ability to move it. Touch was the "lowest level of feeling" or "the fundamental feeling." He wrote, "It is at this play of the machine that animal life begins. It depends uniquely upon it." From touch came what Condillac called the "I." Touch allows the statue to draw its hand along itself and discover that the various parts of its body are connected and have extension through space. Condillac believed that movement was motivated by pleasure and pain: pleasure prolonged repose, but pain triggered a muscle contraction, causing the affected body part to move away. The statue's first motions were free of intention and learned behaviors: "It moves, naturally, mechanically, by instinct, and without knowing that it does it." The statue's discovery of the "I" naturally leads it to locate other bodies, which it identifies as "not I" because in touching those things "the 'I' does not reply." (As we will see in the next chapter, Rousseau later recycled this elemental monologue for the animation scene in his melodrama Pygmalion.)


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Table of Contents


1. Dancing Statues
2. Pimmalione
3. Defining Italy in Haunted Rome
4. Partial Animacy and Blind Listening in Napoleonic Italy
5. Giuditta Pasta and the History of Musical Electrification

List of Illustrations

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