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San Cassiano Theater, an epochal novelty for the world of music. Venice 1637
In February 384 years ago, the Teatro di San Cassiano opened in Venice, the first public opera house to be accessed by paying a ticket

An absolute novelty, given that until then, in the still short history of melodrama, the shows were organized in the context of celebrations and events of the courts and the aristocracy, and were reserved for a small circle of guests. 

In 1637 with the opening of San Cassiano - rebuilt by the patrician Tron family on the site of an older theater destroyed by a fire, and expressly intended for musical theater - an extraordinary event was witnessed, destined to change the history of the opera and its use.

In fact, the entrepreneurial opera theater was born, which brought with it many innovations: if on the one hand it established a commercial mechanism that would have profoundly influenced the artistic aspects and the productive structure of melodrama, on the other it put in contact with the new form of spectacle a much wider range of public than the restricted courtesans, contributing to the spread of a long-range cultural koiné.

The opera performance enjoyed immediate success, so much so that after the inauguration with the Andromeda by Francesco Mannelli (on a libretto by Benedetto Ferrari), the San Cassiano in the first thirteen years of activity will host 50 unpublished works; and not only that: soon 16 other theaters will be built in Venice which during the Carnival seasons attracted spectators from all over Europe.

It stood on the Rio de la Madoneta, where there is now a park

Among the major composers represented on the stage of the first public opera house in the world, Claudio Monteverdi (1567 - 1643) and above all Francesco Cavalli (1602 - 1676), one of the greatest operas of the seventeenth century; his work The marriage of Teti and Peleo (1639) is the first for the San Cassiano of which both the libretto and the music have survived. Then they followed The loves of Apollo and Daphne (1640), The Dido (1641), The virtue of arrows love (1642), The Egisto (1643), The Ormindo (1644), The Doriclea and the Titone (1645), Jason (1649), The Orimonte (1650), Antiochus (1658), Elena (1659). 

Among the other significant composers active at the San Cassiano Theater until the mid-eighteenth century, at least Marc'Antonio Ziani, Tomaso Albinoni and Baldassare Galuppi are worth mentioning.

The Theater, which takes its name from the parish in which it was located, in the Sestriere di Santa Croce not far from Rialto, was then rebuilt in an enlarged form in 1763, and inaugurated with the opera Dimone's death, music by Antonio Tozzi, libretto by Giuseppe de Kurtz and Giovanni Bertati. The last season known to us is that of 1798, during which two works were set up, The bride of extravagant temperament, to music by Pietro Guglielmi, and The contrary moods, music by Sebastiano Nasolini.

San Cassiano Theater (1637): historically aware display (the first in the world) Image by Secchi Smith, © Teatro San Cassiano

In 1805 the French will decide to close the theater which will become definitive. The entire San Cassian building will be demolished in 1812 to make way for civilian homes, and the area where it stood will subsequently be covered by the Albrizzi garden.

The San Cassiano Theater, although no longer existing in its material structure, has nevertheless left a deep imprint detectable in the architectural structure of countless theaters all over the world: it constitutes in fact the prototype of the so-called 'Italian theater' (characterized by the tiers of boxes superimposed, from the generally horseshoe-shaped room and from the depth of the scene), destined to enormous fortune in the following centuries 

Despite the absence of images relating to the internal aspect of the original seventeenth-century building, from the surviving documentary evidence it is reasonable to conclude that the theater had a structure with 153 boxes distributed over 5 orders (according to the name in use in Venice, a 'Pepiano' and First, Second, Third and Fourth tier of boxes). The dimensions of the theater were quite small: the proscenium measured just over 8 meters, while the stage had an average depth of 6 and a half meters.

Even the boxes were extremely limited in size compared to those we are familiar with in nineteenth-century buildings: their width ranged from about 95 cm to about 120 cm of the central stage. The attested height of the boxes of the first order (the second row from the bottom) was just under 2 meters and 10, that of the third order (the fourth row) just over 1 meter and 80. 

The intent was understandably to have as many boxes as possible (both vertically, with respect to the number of orders, and horizontally), maximizing profits and guaranteeing the economic sustainability of the company, which in fact had a triumphant future.

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