The Original Asolo Theater

by Lin Vertefeuille (Ringling Museum Docent), October 2000
Photos and comments added (with*.*) by Willem van Osnabrugge in November 2005

The original Asolo Theater's evolution began in the fifteenth century when Venice had trouble holding onto its overseas empire. Its weak ally, the King of Cyprus, was plagued by revolts and decided that political ties could be strengthened by a marriage alliance with Venice. Since Venice was a republic without a royal family, a leading merchant's daughter, Caterina Cornaro, was selected as "Daughter of the Republic," to become the King's bride. After the King's death a year later, Venice eventually annexed Cyprus. In compensation Queen Caterina was given a royal court in the small town of Asolo, forty miles northwest of Venice. She built her palace in a medieval fort and lived there twenty years. Queen Caterina was not just a pretty face - her court attracted great Italian poets and writers. After her death in 1509, the castle became a municipal building occupied by the Venetian governor. After Napoleon's invasion of Italy, when Austrian and French troops passed back and forth, the building was vacant.

In 1797 the Town gave permission for Antonio Locatelli to privatize and build a theater "of boards" inside the great hall of the palace, possibly to provide entertainment for a troop garrison. It was inaugurated, November 20, 1798, by the company of Antonio Rosa. Its design was horseshoe shaped with box seats in back and seats rising straight up three levels. It was Rococo in style. Seven portrait medallions were decorations with the central portrait of Caterina presiding directly above the "royal box." The other six medallions celebrated famous dramatists and poets of Italy who were identified by initials of their names. They were: Dante (D.A.) and Petrarch (F.P.) the great fourteenth century poets ; Ariosto (L.A.) and Tasso (T.T.) the epic poets ; Carlo Goldoni (C.G.) comedy and Pietro Metastasio (P.M.) tragedy playwright of the sixteenth century. On each side of the proscenium is a medallion with three masks representing comedy, tragedy and satire or pastoral plays, the third leading form in the Italian tradition. Flying figures above the royal box are hard to interpret but were most likely symbolic spirits of the theater: Delight, Merriment and Love. Many prominent actors and actresses performed in the theater until 1885. Eleanora Duse began her career there, toured the United States and was eventually buried in Asolo.

In 1855 the little theater needed repair and was purchased from private owners by the Society of Box Holders. Municipal architect, Francesco Martinago, was hired to refurbish and reconstruct it. He was careful to retain its original design and at this time two more medallions were added. Next to Caterina's portrait was added the medallion of Antonio Canova (A.C.) 1757-1821, the greatest eighteenth century sculptor who was born only five miles from Asolo. The other medallion placed next to the proscenium was Vittorio Alfredi (V.A.) 1747-1803, a tragedy playwright.

In the 1800s the Town of Asolo was popular with English artists and writers, especially the romantics - Browning, Bryon, George Sand and Shelley. Robert Browning's last work was Asolando. He enjoyed performances in the theater. At the end of the nineteenth century, it was little used and finally during the Fascist period in 1930, it was decided to dismantle and convert the hall into a motion picture theater. Adolph Loewi, the German Consul in Venice and antique dealer, liked its Rococo details, purchased and stored it for twenty years.

His friend, A. Everett Austin, then Director of the Hartford Athenaeum was a theater professional and expert in eighteenth century decorative arts. He was excited when shown the disassembled theater, but was unable to purchase it because he had already installed the Avery Theater in the Athenaeum.

During the War the theater continued to reside in a warehouse in Venice. When Everett Austin became Ringling Museum's first director, in 1946, he began making arrangements to purchase the theater. It was purchased for $8000 and shipped to Tampa , then installed in Gallery 21 in 1950. The components brought from Italy included the proscenium arch, the curving walls with medallions, ceiling ornaments, valances over each box and some smaller elements. Only the ground floor was installed in Gallery 21 because there wasn't room for the staircase. The opening performance, February 26, 1952, was the eighteenth century opera, La Serva Padrona by Pergolesi and Bastien et Bastienne, by Mozart. Everett Austin designed the costumes for Bastien. During the next few years the Asolo was in constant use for a variety of functions: chamber music, plays, movies and lectures. A museum symposium a artists and art historians from several museums and universities was held there annually 1949-1959 and closed with productions by FSU students.

In 1957 the theater got its own building and moved from Gallery 21 to a new building. *West of the Art Galleries' north wing (building removed in 2004)*. The new building, keeping the same auditorium proportions as Caterina's palace hall, was completed with an additional large lobby. The grand opening, January 10, 1958, was celebrated with the performance of Mozart's Abduction from Seraglio. Life Magazine featured the opening in its February 17, 1958 issue, giving it national prominence. The eighteenth century atmosphere was enhanced in the lobby by period furniture donated by Everett Austin including settees, chairs and a carved gilded table. On the walls of the second and third levels, numerous items from the Museum's Theater Collection were hung reflecting the Baroque Age. This included engravings by Jacque Callot representing characters from Comedia dell' Arte and fifteen of the Disguises of Harlequin, by Giovanni Domenico Ferretti (1692-1768), now in Gallery 16.

In the 1960s a repertory of five performances each of seventeenth and eighteenth century comedies involved FSU graduates and students from the Yale School of Drama. The schedule expanded to include Baroque operas. Eventually, latter in the 1960s operatic productions were eliminated and were replaced by dramas and comedies including Shakespear . National fame came to the Asolo in 1975 when PBS Theater in America chose it as one of eight companies to be featured in a television series. They performed The Patriot for the series and in 1977 The End of Summer which starred Helen Hayes.

* The Ringling Asolo Building from 1958 till 2004.*

* Interior Ringling Asolo Theater. Postcard from 1970s.*

In the late 1980s supporters identified the need and planned a new state-of-the-art theater with over 500 seats, an open stage, built-in video taping facilities, rehearsal area, shop and office space. It was to be the home of FSU graduate programs in television, acting and broadcast arts. The new Asolo theater, on Tamiami was born! *The inside Victorian theater was bought in Schotland.* The last production (1989) in the original Asolo was Cyrano de Bergerac because it had been the most popular play in its Florida history. At the end of the performance, the audience, company and staff walked in a candlelit procession from the original Asolo to the new theater. The original Asolo Theater has a fifty year history at the Museum and a wonderful 200 year past.