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Teatro della Pergola: The Oldest Working Theatre & Opera House in Florence

The first time I’ve ever stepped foot in Teatro della Pergola is when I was a 21 year old study abroad student, sent here by my school to watch La Mandragora (the Mandrake) a satirical play by Italian Renaissance philosopher by Niccolò Machiavelli. At the time, I was studying political science, a rather random degree to pursue in a country in the throws of Berlusconism, or rather perhaps this was a brilliant coincidence. Why, well when it came to Machiavelli, he was also the author of The Prince a 16th-century political treatise which explained how to acquire and maintain political power. One of his advices for any ruling leader stated “It is better to break promises if keeping them would be against one’s interests.” Machiavelli believed as a ruler, it was better to be widely feared than to be greatly loved. Of course it’s worth noting, that while he wrote The Prince in 1513, it didn’t come out until five years after his death. Because of this work, and his ideas regarding politics in general, the term Machiavellian to describe certain personality types was coined; used to describe those who are cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous, especially in politics. 

Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Back to La Mandragora, this five act comedy was first published in 1524, and while Machiavelli wasn’t exactly known for being a “Funny” dude, he was known for his vulgar attitudes, irony and of course melancholy. The plot of Mandragora is based around a 24 hour period when a young Florentine, the witty Callimaco, has set out to sleep with a young beauty named Lucrezia. The problem of course is that she’s already married (hardly a hurdle to Florentine men during this time apparently) and quite virtuous.

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It’s a great play and I know that I would have enjoyed this more now, than as a 21 year old who didn’t yet speak Italian.

However what I do remember was the magnificent location where the play was located, the Teatro della Pergola on Via della Pergola, 12/32. Close to the Duomo cathedral on a quiet street, home sweet home for over 350 years. The name “Pergola” stems from a place where the grapes grew, hence the mill as a symbol for the theater. It is one of Italy’s oldest still-working theaters in the country, it was built in 1656 under Cardinal Gian Carlo de’ Medici, designed by architect Ferdinando Tacca who also happens to be the son of a famous sculptor, Pietro Tacca.

At the time of being built, its design was particuarly unique; special tiered boxes encircled the stage (possibly to keep rifting Florentine families at bay of one another?). Breathtaking upon first site, just being here serves as a luxurious getaway from the normality of every day Florentine life.  The spacious marble entryway, frescoed ceiling and red velvet seats permeate the Sala Grande (1,000 + seats) while a smaller Saloncino (grand in its own right 400 seats) where musical acts typically take place due to its impressive acoustic abilities. 

In it’s birth, it was used mainly as a court theater for the Grand Duke of Tuscany, it was here where Mozart’s music was first heard by Italians as well as the premiere of  Verdi’s Macbeth in 1847. At the turn of the century, arrived actress  Eleonora Duse, who’s dressing room at Pergola is practically a shrine. It is said the heyday was between 1823 and 1855 when the theater was under the management of the impressive impresario Alessandro Linari. The theater got an upgrade in 1855, which is from where the current design takes its look and some of the most famous actors of all time have been here, including the great Eleonora Duse and Vittorio Gassman

Locandina macbeth a firenze, 1847, via Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to IgersFirenze, a local volunteer community group of instagrammers based in Florence, we got a special behind-the-scenes visit recently of Pergola, one that spurred this blog post as special spot like this in Florence deserve to be shared and celebrated. It’s my personal opinion that we can’t allow these places to go out of fashion.

I don’t want to live in a Florence full of cool bars and hip restaurants, I live here because I need a dose of culture too.

That’s why I fell in love with the place after all, access to so much culture, theater, music and art, all in one place, and pretty accessible to us all.

My friend Laura Masi, a wonderful photographer and instagrammer helped me out by providing the photos for this post because like the dummy I can be at times, I forgot to bring my real camera. Bad Georgette. So enjoy this photo montage by Laura which offers a pretty peek at our recent visit. You can go too (just call and arrange ahead, the visit costs around 15-20€). Email museo@teatrodellatoscana.it for more info or call +39 347.4361862.

Every back room in Pergola tells a story, old wells, costumes and theatrics are around each corner. Photo credit: Laura Masi

The marble foyer of Pergola is a pleasure for the eyes, tall pink marble columns are offset by a checkered black and white floor

A miniature version of Pergola theater, how it was, shown to us during the private tour. Photo credit: Laura Masi

An actress playing Eleonora Duse’s seamstress

A special highlight of our tour took place behind the stage area, they showed us a special plaque dedicated to Antonio Meucci, a Florentine inventor who worked at Pergola is credited to have truly invented the telephone, even though Alexander Bell got all of the credit. Since Antonio worked in  theatrical special effects, he got his start on creating the technology for the phone in the background at Pergola, which was considered one of those most advanced theaters of its time. Everyone wanted to be here and to work here earned you a special prestige. 

During our visit actors played the part of important figures spanning three-centuries at Pergola, the impresario Lanari, the inventor Meucci, the soprano Barbieri Nini, the machinist Canovetti and the seamstress of Eleonora Duse.

Though Pergola’s beauty is tantamount; it is worth remembering that is is a place of culture and history and one of the city’s gems, where both musical concerts and plays take place in such majestic surroundings. So many people have pastsed through its doors; behind the scenes action was just as exciting as the show the audience gets to see once the red velvet rises.

I feel lucky that I’ve been able to be reminded of this thanks to this recent, introspective visit. After all, it ran into financial trouble in 2011. Luckily instead of reducing shows or closing down the theater, the city together with the cooperation of Ente Cassa set up a foundation to save Pergola, something we should very much appreciate. So many friends have told me of special shows they have seen here, perhaps it was a December ballet of The Nutcracker or like me, a Machiavelli comedy. For sure, I am going to go back with Nico to be reminded of the glory that has existed here for 350 odd years, and hopefully just as many more…  

You know what’s even cooler? Pergola is on google’s platform which celebrates art & culture. You can almost feel what it’s like to explore inside with this cool 360 experience. 

What’s on right now…

Teatro Della Pergola. Via della Pergola, 12/32
50121 Firenze
Italy

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2 Comment

  1. Reply
    Alexandra Lawrence
    23.02.2017 at 18:56

    I knew I’d love this post after it opened with a discussion of Machiavelli’s plays!! Great write up on a historical and contemporary gem.

    1. Reply
      GirlInFlorence
      26.02.2017 at 19:49

      Thank you my lovely! I was so struck on this place I knew I had to write about it… Now we just need to go back for a show!

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