We are welcomed by music instruments: a virginal painted by Guaracino in 1667, a few psalteries, lutes and lyre-guitars, the Sommer fortepiano that belonged to Verdi. Around the instruments, against the wall, a 17th-century painting by Baschenis, and below it the showcase of antique instruments. And then the bust of Verdi sculpted by Gemito in 1874, and below it, as a historical thread linkings the two La Scala protagonists, a portrait of Piermarini, the architect who was called by Empress Maria Teresa to build the Teatro alla Scala.
Evaristo Baschenis’s oil on canvas Strumenti musicali, is a still life of musical instruments placed with recherché elegance on a table covered with an Oriental carpet. The painting shows five musical instruments: a lute, a guitar, a violin and bow, a mandola and a spinet. Then there is a wooden box, a book, two musical scores and a piece of fruit. The carefully studied attention to the way the shapes are placed next to each other and the sophisticated colours of the instruments are enhanced by the wave of light that slides over the sinuous curves of the sound boxes and by the presence of fruit, which never lacks from the compositions of the painter from Bergamo.
A 17th-century spinet with a warning above the keyboard. A writing in Latin that tells anyone coming nearer "Inexpert hand, touch me not!" seems to refer to a commission coming from privileged quarters. Onofrio Guarracino, a musical instrument maker, was active in Naples in the second half of the 17th century. Yet this instrument reserves another precious thing: the top painted in 1669 by Angelo Solimena, a great painter from the area of Salerno. Precisely from this painting one can hypothesise that the spinet has been made for a female as indicated by the heroic figure of "Judith with the Head of Holophernes", received by the procession of female musicians.
Giuseppe Piermarini, here in the portrait by Martino Knoller, is the architect of La Scala. When the Teatro Ducale burnt in 1776, inside the Palazzo di Corte, in Piazza del Duomo, he had been working in Milan for some years. The painting shows him with in his hands one of his work instruments, the compass. In this period Piermarini was at his busiest in Milan, involved as he was in the construction not only of the Royal Palace and Teatro Grande alla Scala, inaugurated in 1778, but also of the successively renamed Teatro Lirico, the Palazzo Belgioioso and the Villa Reale in Monza, besides restructuring the Brera courtyard. In designing Milan’s new theatre, top-most in Piermarini’s mind were considerations of maximum functionality, with the definition of accessory spaces for workshops, lunch and games rooms, and bathrooms, as well as a state-of-the art technology for the stage. The innovative choice of horseshoe-shaped hall was considered at the time to be the best for acoustics.
We are now in the room devoted to the Commedia dell’Arte. Drama between the 16th and 18th centuries: the actors improvise mixing recitation, acrobatics and songs. Jacques Callot’s etchings document the free vitality of the theatre of piazza. The collection of theatre- and music-related porcelains coming from Europe’s famed porcelain factories: Capodimonte, Doccia, Meissen, Chelsea, Sèvres. Fantasy, vivacity, chromatic beauty and realism of lived scenes. The two showcase tables contain small musical instruments (amongst which a crystal flute) and a selection of very rare medals of artists and composers, which comprises pieces coined for the museum
Amongst the treasures of the museum, the superb collection of ceramic pieces, of varying quality but all directly connected to the world of the theatre. The collection includes 170 pieces, most of which were purchased with the Sambon Auction. They are part and parcel of the theatrical tradition, of a form of miniature communication. The dominating theme is the Comedy of Art, with the masks, the groups in movement, or the musicians depicted with the particularity of rare popular instruments or of masks thrown in the rhythm of dance. Hard porcelain in Europe was first produced in Saxony in 1710 as an imitation of Chinese and Japanese porcelain that had been imported by the East India Companies.
We are in the heaven of bel canto. Gazing down from the walls are the prima donnas of the Golden Age of Milan and of La Scala. The sumptuous Isabella Colbran (Rossini’s first wife in 1822) with peplum and lyre while interpreting Mayr’s Saffo. On the opposite side there is, with the ruby costume worn in Rossini’s Desdemona, Maria Malibran the idol of La Scala in the 1834-35-36 seasons. Giuditta Pasta, as a twenty-year old, sighing in Tancredi or domineering with the priestess-like majesty of Norma, for the first time interpreted by her at La Scala in 1831. In the semicircular room, we can also mention the marble bust of the choreographer Salvatore Viganò (1769-1821), who, at the glorious time of Rossini’s operas and of Alessandro Sanquirico’s grand stage settings, gave the first tangible sign of the greatness of the shows at the Scala.
A great singer, in the portrait by Gioacchino Serangeli. Giuditta Negri was born in Saronno, in Lombardy, in 1797. In 1816 she married the lawyer Giuseppe Pasta, who was also the tenor in the two operas she debuted with at Milan’s Teatro Filodrammatici. Developing an outstanding career in the whole of Europe, the artist remained culturally and sentimentally linked to Milan. Her true opera début at the Scala was with Bellini’s Norma in 1831: although the opening night was not a success (because she was physically exhausted), her following performances were such that her fame spread throughout Europe. Her interpretation, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes melancholic and sometimes with the white-hot impetus of fury, will stay forever in the history of singing.
The Painting Gallery is crowded with portraits of 19th-century artists who share their common sense of belonging to La Scala. In the centre there is the famous painting by Inganni with the sun-basked Teatro alla Scala still (we are in 1852) overlooking a narrow street prior to the creation, following a major urban redevelopment, of the piazza in 1858. On the wall to the right, entirely dedicated to Verdi: Achille Scalese’s portrait of the composer, flanked by the portraits of his two wives Margherita Barezzi and Giuseppina Strepponi, and the impresario Bartolomeo Merelli who gave the young Verdi the libretto and the opportunity to perform Nabucco at La Scala. Under the portrait of Verdi the spinet that his father-in-law Antonio Barezzi gave him in 1832 in Busseto.
The austere portrait by Achille Scalese depicts the composer when he was forty-five: strapping, strong-willed, a sullen gaze that looks far ahead. How often Verdi clashed with La Scala! Disappointed by the haste with which his works were performed, never satisfied of the stagings that didn’t comply with his precise and fussy indications, and of the lights and the singers during the rehearsals. And yet his musical life and his art are indissolubly linked to this theatre, from the triumphal debut of Nabucco and then (despite an absence of 24 years) until the three great masterpieces: Simon Boccanegra, Otello and Falstaff.
Another great singer in the second-half of the 19th century was Adelina Patti (on the picture the first frame on the right), primadonna at the Scala in the 1877-78 seasons. "When I heard her for the first time (she was eighteen) in London - Verdi writes -, I was astounded not only by the marvellous performance but also by a number of stage traits that revealed her great acting talents". The showcases (here as well as in the previous hall) are a concentration of precious and intimate memories (such as the miniature portraits that artists brought along with them in their travels); relics (such as Mozart’s hair); stage jewels and objects; princely gifts, such as the dagger that belonged to Napoleon I, which was given to Giuditta Pasta, star of Tancredi, in Paris in 1823.
A connecting room with showcases containing objects from the Catalogue of Giulio Sambon’s Theatre Collection which was auctioned in Paris in May 1811 and which forms the nucleus of the Scala Museum. Busts and biscuit statuettes representing famous musicians or theatre people. Verdi relics with his funeral mask and the moulding of his right hand. His writing portfolio, with inkstand and pens, letter-holder, pack of cards, French-Italian dictionary, found in the Hôtel Milan room where the Maestro died.
Belonging to a family of artists, Eleonora Duse was born from comedian parents originating from the Veneto region. She made her debut at the age of five, playing Cosetta in Victor Hugo’s Les misérables. She led the eventful life of itinerant actors, perennially on the move across Italy, Europe and America. She was increasingly attracted to the works of veristic authors, to D’Annunzio and Ibsen’s theatre; but she was, above all, a restless person who kept asking on the meaning of things, on the spontaneity of the way words came into being. Admired by authors for the intensity of her acting, she had long and tormented relationships with Arrigo Boito and Gabriele D’Annunzio.
We are now in the 20th-century hall. Lodovico Pogliaghi and Adolf Hohenstein depicted Verdi’s final hours (January 27, 1901). Verdi’s music was published by three generations of the Ricordi family: Giovanni, the founder of the publishing house (who moved the printing shop in the porticos of via Filodrammatici and the publishing house’s office in these halls that now host the Museum), Tito and his son Giulio. The conductors. Arturo Toscanini, reformer as well as the man behind the modern Scala: appointed permanent "concertatore" and conductor from 1898; in 1921, when the theatre became an independent body; and in 1946 when it was reconstructed after the war. And finally, the interpreters: Rosina Storchio, Claudia Muzio, Tamagno, Caruso, Pertile and Maria Callas.
The works of Giacomo Puccini, here portrayed by Arturo Rietti in 1906, were performed at La Scala hundreds of time during the whole 20th century, with great popular preference. His last opera Turandot was staged on 25 April 1926 at La Scala. The opera remained unaccomplished, as the composer was restlessly trying to find a happy and triumphant finale for the bloody fable. During the opening performance, at the death of Liù, Toscanini announced from the podium that Puccini had died and stopped the show. His theatre, which set a substantially anti-heroic bourgeois discourse to music featuring an extremely modern orchestration, was the ingenious expression of the world of the Scala and of the 20th century.
Arturo Toscanini arrived at the Scala in 1887 as cellist. Four years after he returned to conduct four widely acclaimed concerts. In 1898 he was called to open the season with Wagner’s The Master Singers of Nuremberg. More and more acclaimed by the audiences, he preached and put into practice absolute faithfulness to authors. He created a new way of listening to opera: he refused to give in to singers’ whims and believed stage acting was essential. He played a crucial role in the two major reforms of the Teatro alla Scala: in 1898, under the management of Guido Visconti di Modrone, when a major democratisation process was launched at the opera house, which was, until that time, under the exclusive proprietorship of the box owners, and in 1920 when Teatro alla Scala became an autonomous entity. He went into voluntary exile in 1929 when he left Italy in protest against the Fascist regime. In 1946, Toscanini retuned by popular acclamation to conduct a series of concerts at La Scala fully reconstructed after the war.
Going up to the second floor of the museum we go back in time for a while. We are in the hall dedicated to the set designs and the historical memories related to the artistic adventures of La Scala. It is a precious nucleus of drawings and etchings ranging from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Holding centre stage is the Regio Ducal Teatro of Milano. In the showcases the Albums of Sanquirico’s scenes; the etchings by Piermarini for the construction of the Scala in 1778; the terracotta piece Franchi made as a model for the gable of the façade; Donnino Riccardi’s first curtain with a theme by the poet Parini; the handwritten list of box owners; the libretto of the opera that inaugurated la Scala in August 1778, Europa riconosciuta by Antonio Salieri.
This print on paper by Marc’Antonio del Re shows the interior of the Teatro Ducale in 1742. In Milan there had been a permanent theatre inside the Ducal Palace since the end of the 16th century. Located in the wing overlooking the present-day Via Rastrelli, it took the name of Salone Margherita to celebrate the visit to Milan of the Austrian princess on her journey to Madrid to marry Philip III. A series of devastating fires have marked its history and a series of reconstruction works lead to the Gran Teatro Ducale in 1717: five rows of seats in the sumptuous hall, in a blaze of lights and mirrors, statues and columns, while others walk around the spacious stalls under the divine protection of Apollo who dominates the frescoes on the ceiling. This is where, among other things, Mozart’s first three operas Mitridate re di Ponto, Ascanio in Alba and Lucio Silla were performed. But during the night of 25 February 1776, the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, another (perhaps intentional) fire completely destroyed the theatre. It was decided that reconstruction should begin immediately, away from the Palazzo Regio Ducale. The funds were quickly found, thanks to the interest of Empress Maria Theresa. The choice fell on the area of the dilapidated church of Santa Maria della Scala. In two years only, from 1776 to 1778 the Milanese had again their opera house: La Scala.
The last hall provides visitors with a place where they can take a break and possibly attend small concerts and recitals around the pianoforte that once belonged to Franz Liszt, who played at the Scala in 1838. The boats of comedians with which in June 1721 Carlo Goldoni as a youth ran away from his scholastic obligations to join the stage, was Renato Simoni’s bedstead, a symbol of the theatre critic and playwright’s love for the theatre. It was donated to the Scala, together with many other objects, as well a collection of 37,000 theatre-related books and documents that became the nucleus for the Livia Simoni Library. Opened in 1954, it is unique in the world thanks also to its collection of rare musical manuscripts that were once part of the Museum Archives. Over the years the Library, which has been enriched by volumes until getting to the number of 140, 000 books, is today consultable at the second floor of the Museum.
Theatre foyers used to be places where people would play cards, dice, roulette and other games, both in the daytime and in the evening. And this was the case also at La Scala, right from its inauguration. And just a few months after La Scala opened in December 1778, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria had to issue an edict prohibiting a number of games of chance. But there were soon plenty of waivers and exceptions, not least because the theatre made a considerable amount of money from gambling. As a youth, Alessandro Manzoni himself was attracted to the games and would spend time in the foyer of La Scala. One day the poet Vincenzo Monti saw him and reprimanded him severely. There were also plenty of board games with routes marked out into squares along which the players progressed by throwing dice, the aim being to reach the end without falling into traps or dangers, such as the ‘Gioco dell’Oca’, Tombola, ‘Biribissi’. The wooden board shown here dates back from the second half of the 19th century and is a geographic and cosmogonist representation in 16 squares, a journey through distant lands.