The Goldoni Theater is the oldest and still existing theater in Venice, as well as the fourth most ancient one throughout the city (after the Michiel Theater, the Tron Theater -1581- and the San Moisé Theater -1613). It was built by the Vendramin family in 1622 and was called by their name. The opening ceremony of the theater, also named San Salvador and San Luca Theater, took place in the Autumn of the same year with a performance of the acting company “Gli Accesi”.
For the very first 30 years only comedies were performed. In 1653 the theater was destroyed by a violent fire; the new owners, Andrea and Zanetta Vendramin decided to rebuild it inside the old undamaged walls and to entrust repairs to external managers, which were the only beneficiaries of the funds but were obliged to pay out to the Vendramin family an average annual income of 1.000 ducats and to incur all the expenses.
Andrea and Zanetta were the owners for more than 40 years and kept on subcontracting to external entrepreneurs; one of the most important ones worth to be mentioned is Gaspare Torelli, an outstanding figure within the Venetian cultural panorama in those times. Librettist, costume designer and set designer if needed, Torelli signed his first contract with the Vendramin family in 1681 and it was renewed two times (this had never occurred before). In those few years he was able to leave an important mark at all levels (scheduling and productions, structural improvements, etc.). He renovated and enlarged theater and stage and renewed the equipment so as to offer an excellent theatrical seasons to the Venetian public.
The success obtained by the dynamic presence of Gaspare Torelli was obstructed by the Grimani family, who was the owner of three theaters (San Samuele Theater, SS. Giovanni e Paolo and San Giovanni Grisostomo). In 1687 Torelli renewed his commitment to the Vendramins for ten years more; the Grimanis were worried about the steady success of the contending theater and so they convinced or forced the manager to accept the movement to the Parma Court proposed by the Farneses and to sublet to them the Vendramins’ contract and the ownership of some reserved loges at the San Salvador Theater. It was certainly an interference going beyond legal limits and it could not be accepted by the Vendramin family. After Andrea’s death in 1685, indeed, Zanetta and her sons Alvise, Francesco, Andrea and Antonio took legal action, were successful and in 1869 obtained the management of the theater again. The two families who owned the Venetian theaters ended to be in competition with each other at the beginning of the 18th century; in 1703 they came to terms (for the first time in their business about the theater) and signed a contract which regulated, for five years, the performances of the San Samuele Theater and the San Salvador Theater, which started to be more and more often named as San Luca Theater in documents. At the end of the preset period, the contract was not renewed. Antonio and Francesco Vendramin, who took over from Alvise, kept on managing the theater independently until the season 1752-1753 which was the turning point thanks to the employment of Carlo Goldoni in the San Luca Theater.
The first time Goldoni showed himself in a Venetian theater was in 1734, and since then he went on being appointed by the Grimani family to hold this job at the San Samuele Theater. Then he moved to the Sant’Angelo Theater where the stage management was Girolamo Medebach and where he stayed (writing and staging 40 comedies )until the expiry date of the contract in 1753. Due to personal conflicts with Medebach, too, Goldoni left the Sant’Angelo Theater and met the Vendramins who seized the moment and offered the well known Goldoni a very favorable contract based on making a deal directly with the owner and giving him his comedies which should have been immediately paid before their reading. The trust in Goldoni’s ability to produce successful and appealing comedies was absolute. This is why his incomes had almost doubled but the most relevant fact was that he was free to get his works printed wherever and by whichever editor he liked.
Thanks to this cultural and social attitude of the whole Venetian city and of its notables, Carlo Goldoni could start that Theater reform which let him create everlasting works and characters that have always been performed on all the stages and in every language all over the world. As a matter of fact comedies like Il Campiello, Gl’innamorati and I Rusteghi date back to that time. The last season passed by Goldoni at the San Luca Theater in the year 1761 was particularly flourishing and took to produce comedies like La trilogia della villeggiatura, Sior Todero brontolon, Le baruffe chiozzotte and Una delle ultime sere di carnovale. When Carlo Goldoni left to Paris, Francesco Vendramin kept on managing the theater like a business up to the time when, in 1775, the Security Committee of the Local Authority decided that the theater was not safe and needed a drastic restoration. It was also due to the fact that the way of managing the theater by the Vendramins had stopped the profitable rental system which obliged the lessees not only to organize the shows but also to maintain and renovate the theater facility, and the San Carlo Theater was an old and unsafe building at that moment. In Autumn 1776 the theater was reopened and its activity started again with the company of Antonio Sacchi but the audience didn’t immediately meet with the Vendramins’ expectations, maybe also because during the restoration the theater had come under some structural changes and extensions, like the entrance located in Calle Berizi (the present Calle del Teatro), a new foyer and some more loges (seventeen were totally added, five of which at the first order or “pepiano” and four at each of the three following orders of loges).
The theater activity went on at a mean level until the fall of the “Serenissima” Republic in 1797, also because of the financial difficulties which the Vendramin family was drawn into. In 1798, on the 18th of January, the Austrians came into possession of Venice, according to the Campoformio Treaty which decreed that Napoleon gave Venice to Austria.
During the short term of the French domination, in 1807 the Ministry of Interior reduced the city theaters, that could only be used proportionally to the population density. The Venetian theaters were reduced to four and the San Luca one was closed. It was a large, centrally located theater, whose static conditions were not worse than the other ones, so we can suppose within reason that its closure depended above all on political motivations, as the Vendramins were suspected to sympathize with the Austrians.
In 1815, when the Austrians came again, an imperial decree gave back to the San Luca Theater the possibility to be reopened. It happened officially in 1817 following a radical structural renovation.
Specific attention was paid both to the maintenance of the theater and its amenities and to the renovation of the theater lighting and scenery equipments, also because there had always been a high and urgent competition with the other Venetian theaters, especially with the new born La Fenice.
In 1833 the foyer was enlarged, the stage was lengthened and the theater curve was adjusted; on the 28th of September the ancient Theater of the Vendramins at San Luca changed its name into Apollo Theater.
In the night between the 12th and the 13th of December 1836 La Fenice Theater was destroyed by a very aggressive fire, so the Vendramins agreed to transfer the shows, which had already been made ready for the imminent Carnival, to the Apollo Theater. That season was outstanding indeed and the opera Pia de’ Tolomei by Gaetano Donizetti was performed the first time. There was no program reduction, except for a ballet which could not be performed because of the delimited size of the stage.
Due to the Carnival and in order to give more convenience to the spectators coming from La Fenice Theater, Domenico Vendramin made a suitable landing place prepared on the Carbon bank that was next to a covered street which led directly to the door of the theater hall.
Unfortunately in 1844, when he was again thinking about a new and relevant renovation, Domenico Vendramin died prematurely and so his widow, Regina de Marchi, took on the management of the theater; her first aim was to see that her husband’s plan would come true. The Apollo Theater was the first one in Italy to be equipped with gas illumination and to be completely illuminated. In Spring 1853 the painter Ferrari Bravo was given the task to renovate the theater: it was a significant restoration in a flowered neo gothic style, which gave the Apollo Theater the new feature that distinguished it until its end.
The second half of the 19th century was a very particular and difficult period; Regina de Marchi was an intelligent woman with a strong personality and managed the theater for almost forty years. She faced in a positive way all the problems caused by historical facts to a public and well-known place like an old local theater. She hosted the celebrations for the 1848 irredentist revolt and the short free time of the new republic and faced in a dignified way the Radetzky’s oppressive regime, the disappointment of the second independence war, censure and financial difficulties, but she was still there to manage the theater when the Italian troops entered Venice on the 19th of October, in 1866.
Starting from this date the Apollo Theater activity began again and lasted for about ten years more. It’s worth to be remembered the successful activity of the new “venetian” company by Angelo Moro Lin and its writer and poet Giacinto Gallina with his comedies Le barufe in famegia and La famegia in rovina.
In 1874 another restoration work led to remove dirt from decorations and to reinforce basic structures. At the time there were five orders of balconies and 162 loges; the parterre had 560 seats and a total capacity of 1.250 seats with three exits to the street (three in the parterre, one of which towards the foyer and the other two next to the orchestra); on the side of the left scene one more exit was beneath balconies (exit shared with the Carbon under portico, a passage still used nowadays to the scenery transfer). Something worthy of note is that the second line of balconies on the right was directly joined to the owner’s home. A relevant work converted the last order of loges into a gallery.
In 1875 the actor Angelo Moro Lin and Regina de Marchi decided together to entitle the ancient San Luca Theater to Carlo Goldoni. It was obviously not only a question of name, but firstly in reference to a more pertinent “comic” characterization in honor of the great playwright and then a worthy homage to one of the most eminent sons of the city of Venice. In the evening of the 26th of February, 1875, a day after the anniversary of Goldoni’s birth (it was necessary to postpone the ceremony until one day later because of an over-the-top snowfall), the Apollo Theater died and the Carlo Goldoni Theater was born. A bust by the sculptor Soranzo, which is still present in the theater foyer, and given by the Prince Giovannelli, was shown. The ceremony was touching and Moro Lin, surrounded by his actors, made a successful speech in Venetian dialect and expressed the wish that a suitable monument would have been erected to the most famous poet of the city. All the company (who distinguished themselves as “goldonian company”) performed the comedy Una delle ultime sere di Carnovale, that is the last comedy written by Goldoni before leaving Venice indefinitely and by which he could, in some way and in a theater to him entitled, come back.
In 1880 Regina de Marchi, widow of the last member of the Vendramins, died and the grandniece Chiara Ciotto got the ownership of the theater, together with her husband Pietro Marigonda who became its director. When Pietro’s son, Antonio Marigonda, was the owner, the Goldoni Theater appeared to have some urban problems and needed some external refurbishment: these problems were solved by demolishing some crumbling buildings and by broadening the Calle del Teatro.
The façade of the theater was not adequate and some engineers were charged with planning a new one. The project was approved in May, 1909, and the construction was completed in only four months. This was the first, real façade of the ancient Vendramin Theater, which the contemporaries didn’t appreciate and which was named “railway style” façade.
Beyond the aesthetic opinion about the new façade, these years were very important for the theater activity because a clear commitment of redevelopment was focused on the very careful attention to the settlement of the artistic selection. All the best Italian companies and some foreign ones, too, referred to the Goldoni Theater and for this reason a statistical survey relating to the 1909 season about the box office takings placed Venice immediately after Milan and Rome.
After the Great War there was a remarkable relaunch of the theater activity and the Venetian audience never missed the dates with the great companies of that time. In 1923 the theater celebrated the fourth century of its existence, but the preceding year another exceptional event had inserted the Goldoni Theater in all the artistic and elite news sections of that time: Eleonora Duse had made a comeback to Venice twenty years later. In March 1922 (scarcely two years before her death) she acted two extraordinary plays: La donna del mare by Ibsen and La porta chiusa by Marco Praga.
The unexpected death of Antonio Marigonda caused a sudden stop in this very good time of artistic growth that led to a quick downfall of the activity until the closure of the theater. Piero and Andrea, Pietro Marigonda’s sons, managed the theater for a short time, till the year 1937 , when the ownership changed again and the theater was purchased by the Lawyer Giacomo Baldissera baron Treves de’ Bonfili, and the management was entrusted to ICSA (Imprese Cinematografiche Spettacoli e Affini: cinema, performances and similar Companies). The last ten years of the Goldoni Theater were not significant because of a programming of popular entertainment categories like the operetta and the revue. It is important to note that the Venetian audience took position against and was successful in avoiding the transformation of the Goldoni Theater into a movie theater, something that occurred to other ones, like the Rossini (ex San Benedetto Theater) and the Malibran (ex San Giovanni Grisostomo Theater).
During the painful years of the Second World War, the theater went on operating, also because Venice hosted the Ministry of Popular Culture and therefore the General Management Office for Performance. On the 15th of June, 1947, the theater was considered unusable and was permanently closed because of the unsafe structural conditions which needed an almost total rebuilding. That Summer in 1947 nobody could have never imagined that the old Goldoni Theater would go on being closed for such a long time and nobody could have supposed such a rough and many times changed path, the endless patience of Venetian people and the way of proceeding similar to a serialized novel with a lot of coups de théatre. The first ten years spent without an agreement between the last owner, the Lawyer Baldissera (who could not or did not want to be responsible of the necessary works), and the Municipal Administration that had decreed the building was a community benefit (so as to avoid a possible speculative use) and aimed at its expropriation. On the 5th of October, 1957, the Municipal Administration acquired the building from the Lawyer Baldissera but, at that point, the main problem was to find the necessary money to proceed.
The impasse seemed to break through by means of a project by the Fondazione Giorgio, but it had no follow-up. Two more years spent before the approval by the High Council for Public Works of a new project which was about restoration, not total renovation: it was considered a partial demolition of the building and the preservation of some structures.
At that time, there were also disputes between conservatives (who supported the theory “just like it was, just where it was”) and innovators (who were in favor of a modern structural work). The project seemed to be able to have a positive follow up and the reopening of the theater was expected, with a certain overoptimism, to occur in 1963. But in May 1962 the works were stopped because of legal disputes with the owners of the neighboring buildings. Two more years spent before a new project was approved, in September 1964. However, only in Summer 1969 the works started: a completely new building was constructed and its external structures were finished in 1973. The works could have been finished even that same year if new disputes between conservatives and innovators would not delay it. It was finally reached a compromise: to maintain the interior with the preceding distinctive features, although with some changes (four orders of loges and a gallery, instead of five orders of only loges and a raised parterre, with a consequent reduction of seats) and to construct a completely new exterior.
Finally, on the 22nd of April, 1979, with a total expense of almost three and a half milliards Lire, the theater was reopened, nineteen years later with respect to the first project, twenty nine years after the takeover by the Municipality and thirty two years after its closure. The opening performance was one of Carlo Goldoni’s masterpieces: La locandiera with Giancarlo Cobelli as a director and Carla Gravina as the leading character, together with Gabriele Ferzetti. The performance was brought touring for three years and a TV adaptation was produced, too, which can be still nowadays be seen by a DVD player.
The Municipality of Venice managed the theater for more than ten years, entrusting the conduction to various directors (among which an unforgettable person like Giorgio Gaber), until 1992, when its management was entrusted to the Teatro Stabile del Veneto, an association of which also the Giuseppe Verdi Theater of Padua is a part and that is still conducting the Goldoni Theater.