Geoffrey Heptonstall

The Teatro Olimpicia

Games People Play

The Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza is the oldest indoor theatre in the world. It is also one of only three surviving Renaissance theatres. Vicenza, including the theatre, is the work of Palladio, a template for the neo-Classical style of architecture that bears its originator’s name. The Palladian style is an ideal not only of architecture but of a way of living according to Classical civic virtues as they were interpreted by learned Italians of the Sixteenth Century. Its influence is visible from St Petersburg to Jefferson’s Monticello. It may seem in its high elegance of another era than our own crowded, competitive modernity. But this is not to argue for the Palladian style, not for a Classical patrician society. The point, rather, is to note the interesting circumstance of the Teatro Olimpico’s foundation.

The Accademia Olimpica, which continues to this day, first assembled in 1555. The redesigned city was clearly intended to be a showcase of the Renaissance city, and to be a template for cities of the future. Like Florence and Rome, it needed a learned society devoted to scientific and cultural pursuits. Its model was the Olympian Festival, the most prominent of many such festivals in antiquity. It is the one that can be named above all others in the modern world. But the details of its nature and development are sequestered by the centuries that have passed.

Olympia in Elis, was second only to Delphi as a sacred site in the Greek world. There were temples to Hera and to Zeus, the former dating before 700BC. The Festival is also very ancient, reputedly founded by Heracles who was honoured in the sacred precinct. The origins of the Festival are appropriately mysterious. Their sacred nature was intrinsic to the festival’s ethos and purpose. Modern liberal notions of team work (and the dignity of all who compete whether they win or lose) contrast with the heroic model of antiquity where only victory was deemed honourable. To be heroic was to be favoured by the gods. The Festival was held to honour the gods (most specifically Zeus). To favour those who competed and lost would be to dishonour Zeus. To this end in 776 BC the names of the victors of the Games were recorded.

But the Festival encompassed more than the Games. The ancient festivals also featured cultural pursuits. Poetry, drama, music and oratory were also featured. As with the Games competition was severe. More favourably to modern minds, it was the case that during the Festival a truce was declared so that all Greeks could travel safely to Olympia. This truce appears to have been honoured for the thousand years and more that the celebrations were held. Circa 400 AD the Festival was abolished as pagan, given that it honoured pagan gods. It is said that the Judaeo-Christian idea of shame (derived from Genesis) played a part in this abolition, since athletes of the ancient world competed naked.

The good burghers of sixteenth century Vicenza were not thinking to honour ancient gods when they revived the Olympic ideal. The Christian virtue of compassion had removed the stigma from worthy defeat. The idea of losing honourably long since had entered Western sensibility. The celebration of the arts and sciences was clearly the motive for the Accademia’s foundation. There was no stadium, no chariot race. What was built was a theatre.

Very early in the life of the theatre Palladio’s pupil and successor, Vicente Scamozzi, designed a remarkable stage set. It is a magnificent illusion. A wooden scena gives the appearance of Renaissance buildings. The scena is marked by three arches, each of which appears to be a street fading into the distance. In actuality those streets are no more than a few paces in length. But the illusion is perfect. On stage is a town. The set was so marvellous it was never removed. This has restricted the choice of work performed, but the restriction may seem in keeping with the Palladian setting.

It is worth noting that Scamozzi was a great influence on Inigo Jones who met with him during his Italian tour. Goethe in 1786 was to meet Bertotti Scamozzi, also an architect, and a direct descendant of Palladio’s pupil. Goethe was fortunate to attend a session of the Accademia whose theatre he found overwhelmingly beautiful. It was the formal elegance and general decorum which appealed to Goethe. There was no thought for athletic contests.

The revival of the athletic element of the Olympian Festival came in 1796 when Revolutionary France held an annual Olympiade de la Republique. The Greek struggle for independence from the Ottaman Turks produced early in the Nineteenth Century perhaps the most serious attempt at revival. There were further attempts at revival throughout the century. In 1850 in Shropshire, for example, the Wenlock Olympian Games were first held, as they continue to be held even today. These Games continued until 1875. But it was Baron de Coubertin’s visit to Shropshire which led to the first modern ‘Olympic Games’ in Athens in 1896.

Inspired by ideals of international fraternity, de Coubertin’s athletics bore little relation to the Festival of antiquity. The artistic element was minimal. The religious aspect was absent. Personal victory was expressly subordinate to the communal activity of taking part. At first the revived Games attracted little attention. The second Coubertin Olympics at the Paris Exposition and the third at the St Louis World Fair were no more than sideshows. Only later in the Twentieth Century did the Games increase their stature. The cultural element was confined to the opening and closing ceremonies. The ideals of world peace were compromised by international conflict, and also by an increasingly competitive nationalism.

The latter was much in evidence in 1936 when the ceremonies were held in Berlin. Leni Riefenstahl’s propagandist film, Olympiad, stressed the roots in a pagan, pre-Christian antiquity. More disturbingly, it recorded the bodily prowess of athletes in terms of statuesque perfection rather than human qualities of emotional perseverance and disciplined concentration.

The ‘Olympic Games’ since then have reflected the absorption of sport into an increasingly powerful popular culture. The permeation of popular culture into general society has been marked in the years that the Coubertin Olympics have flourished. Social identity can be defined in terms of popular culture (‘Which team do you support?'). Sport in this climate becomes the primary means by which a society can be emotionally identified. In the ancient world the victors were lauded as individual champions. Today nation competes against nation. The gold medallist is not lauded in terms of athletic honour, but as a source of national pride. De Coubertin’s ideals of international peace and a sense of shared achievement is today no more than a rhetorical gesture. The modern Olympiad may be representative of modernity. The sporting achievement as sport is secondary to the fact of winning a political victory in a world arena. The individual is not lauded as a human being, but as a symbol, an embodiment of nationhood. The athlete is seen as heroic in the manner of an Ayn Rand novel wherein a lone visionary struggles with a world of mediocrity. The victory is against apparently overwhelming odds. It also may serve to symbolize a nation at a moment of great peril. From this mindset emerges the hyperbole which justifies the ubiquitous media coverage. In the publicity fever the sport - the thrill of extraordinary achievement - is lost.

What are lost are the Olympics themselves. (It is tempting to say that Glastonbury is closer to the ancient Festival than anything we see today.) Whether the model is the Games of the ancient world, the Renaissance project, or Baron de Coubertin’s humane optimism, an Olympic ideal has no place in the philistine chauvinism on display in 2012. This absence of a cultural role made the Cultural Olympiad held in London during 2012 so necessary. It is not a decorous margin to the sporting events, but a restoration of the central purpose of the Festival. Through the summer of 2012 London will see some potentially imaginative responses to what will be happening in the sporting arenas.

Of course London always displays a cornucopia of arts, but the Olympiad will focus attention on the social importance of the arts. They will seek something of the central role that a civilised community accords to culture of the mind and the sensibilities as well as the body. However, the Cultural Olympiad has been both under-reported and misreported. Our values seem to lie elsewhere. But these arts events do signify how new styles of cultural architecture may rise - not only in metaphor.

A radical revaluation of the social role of the arts may take some time. For pertinent example, there has been not enough mention of literature, whereas traditionally poetry was at the heart of the ancient Olympiad. Our notions of the arts yield too readily to their capabilities in performance. We expect artists to be extrovert and popular, rather than experimentally and gradually working through the vascular labyrinth of society.

China in 2008 finished the Beijing Games with a reminder (that for many would be a first time lesson) that both paper and printing are inventions of Chinese culture. It was a boast, but true and justified. The West can claim to have invented the publicity machine which devours everything in its sight.

Geoffrey Heptonstall © 2012