A medal commemorating the performance of Viganò’s ballet Prometeo in 1814

A medal commemorating the performance of Viganò’s ballet Prometeo in 1814

Contributor: Lilla Maria Crisafulli

Location: In the possession of the author

Description: This medal, struck in 1817, commemorates the work of one of the greatest dancers and choreographers of  ballet history, creator of the so-called choreodrama, Salvatore Viganò (1769-1821). It reads:

A SALVATORE VIGANO’ / IMPAREGGIABILE COREOGRAFO/ CHE COLLA/  RAPPRESENTAZIONE DEL PROMETEO/  DATA  L’ AN MDCCCXIV/  NEL REGIO TEATRO DI MILANO / IMMORTALATOSI. /TANTA GLORIA. NELLA MIRRA / E NEL PSAMMI / BRILLANTE. TVTTAVIA / SOSTIENE/  GLI AMMIRATORI DEL BELLO/ SACRAVANO MERITATAMENTE/  NEL MDCCCXVII.

[TO SALVATORE VIGANO’ SUPREME CHOREOGRAPHER WHO WAS IMMORTALIZED FOR THE STAGING  OF HIS PROMETEO  IN THE YEAR 1814  IN THE ROYAL THEATRE OF MILAN. MUCH GLORY FOR HIS MIRRA  AND BRILLIANT IN PSAMMI. HOWEVER ADMIRERS OF THE BEAUTIFUL PRAISED HIM DESERVEDLY IN 1817.]

Viganò’s Prometeo opened on 22 May 1813 and met with an unprecedented popular triumph. This ballet was one of Viganò’s fantastic-allegorical dances that Ritorni calls pantomimo-dramas, transitional ballets located somewhere between the ballet en action and the danced poem. In all, Viganò composed more than 40 ballets of which 15 were these pantomimo-dramas, heroic dances or grand ballets animated by hero-comic or tragicomic actions. The so-called “passo d’azione alla Viganò“ [pas en action à la Viganò] was to dance what Wagner’s infinite melody was to opera. The ballet entirely danced à la Viganò disappeared with his death in 1821, until, a century later, the Russians rediscovered it, and used it as a basis for their choreographies. Admiration for Salvatore Viganò and his revolutionary dance had a lot to do with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Italian experience and underlies the expression of his revolutionary poetics in Prometheus Unbound (1820).

Salvatore Viganò and his wife, the Spanish Maria Medina, a dancer of almost mythical sensual grace, performed in Vienna from 1793 to 1795, and then again, from 1799 to 1803.

The Habsburg court was fascinated by the couple who were idolized for their pas de deux that suggested sexual passion, as well as revealing, under the short and thin Greek tunic, the flexible body of Maria Medina. The elusive grace of their attitudes won the admiration of the twenty-eight year old Wilhelm von Humboldt, amongst many others. Maria aroused the jealousy of the empress Maria Teresa who forced the Viganòs to hastily leave the Habsburg capital in 1795 for a long tour in Central Europe. According to Helena Kazárová, Viganò danced in Prague Nosticz Theater in 1795 and maybe also at some other private aristocratic theaters, as four big panels showing him dancing are to be found at Count Waldstein’s  private theatre at Litomyšl Castle, and a portrait of the couple in Český Krumlov Castle. On their return to Vienna in 1799, the empress of Austria commissioned music for Viganò’s ballet in three acts, The Creatures of Prometheus, from the young Ludwig van Beethoven. This was premièred on 28 March, 1801, and was followed by 22 more performances. As Viganò’s original script and choreography were lost, there was, at least until the recent study by Costantin Floros, no precise connection maintained between the musical score and the ballet en action, with the result that Vigano’s authorship fell into oblivion and Beethoven’s music (op. 43), especially the Ouverture, came to be seen as an autonomous work.

Stendhal, enthusiastically recalling performances of Viganò’s ballets in 1817 in Italy, identified Viganò’s genius as the discovery of the true Romantic spirit of ballet : ‘L’instinct de son art lui a même fait découvrir le vrai génie du ballet, le romantique par excellence….’, [The instinct of his art has revealed to him the real genius of ballet, supremely Romantic], and glossed this as a spirit that called upon the imagination of spectators to fill in for the mute poetry of the dancers’ wordlessness. Viganò’s spectacles were not just akin to Romantic poetry, but akin to Romantic painting : ‘L’œil le plus accoutumé à ce qu’il y a de plus sublime dans le beau pittoresque, ne peut s’empêcher de reconnaître le génie d’un grand peintre…’[The eye accustomed to the sublime and the picturesque unerringly recognises the genius of a great painter…]

Salvatore Viganò and his revolutionary dance had a lot to do with Shelley’s Italian experience and the expression of his revolutionary poetics in Prometheus Unbound. Shelley came to Italy with the ambition of finding inspiration for the creation of a boundless language. He perceived the necessity to create a ‘democratic’ language able to erase all the traditional and codified divisions between sexes, social classes, scientific classifications, literary and artistic genres and, more than anything else, between verbal language, bodily language and the language of the soul. Above all, he came to Italy, as Goethe did, to experience what was seen from the North as a ‘total art work’ or, as Shelley says in A Defence of Poetry (1821), ‘A harmony of the union of all’. In a letter to Maria Gisborne, he writes: ‘one of my chief aims in Italy being the observing … [of] the rules according to which, the ideal beauty of which we have so intense yet so obscure an apprehension is realized in extensive forms.’

The party’s first stop in Italy was Turin, where they went to the opera house. The day after, they moved to Milan, arriving on 4 April, to go to La Scala the following night to see Viganò’s ballet of Otello ossia il Moro di Venezia — an exhilarating experience. Writing to Peacock on 6 April 1818, Shelley says: ‘The opera itself was not a favourite […]. But the Ballet, or rather a kind of melodrama or a pantomimic dance, was the most splendid spectacle I ever saw […] The manner in which language is translated into gesture, the complete & full effect of the whole as illustrating the history in question, the unaffected self possession of each of the actors, even to the children, made this choral drama more impressive than I should have conceived possible. The story is Othello & strange to say it left no disagreeable impression.’ During their stay in Milan the Shelleys and Claire Clairmont saw and admired Viganò’s ballet at La Scala several times between 4 and 29 April 1818. They recorded in their letters the pleasure they received from Viganò’s choreodrama in Naples in December 1818 and probably in Florence in 1819. To the Hunts, Mary Shelley sent a more detailed description: ‘The corps de ballet is excellent and they throw themselves into groups fit for a sculptor to contemplate. The music of the ballet was very fine and the gestures striking. The dances of many performers which are so ill executed with us are here graceful to the extreme….’

Since Viganò’s second treatment of the Prometheus myth, Prometeo, probably a revision of the earlier ballet and originally staged in 1813 and 1814, was performed in many European theatres, the Shelleys must surely have heard of it. Viganò’s Prometeo was a tragic-heroic dance in six acts whose epic representation was made even grander by the score put together from the music of Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and of Viganò himself. The stage was animated by 13 primi ballerini, 38 different characters who acted the chorus, plus 80 other ballet dancers who appeared at the beginning of the first and second act, representing, respectively the age of the brutes, the origin of mankind, and the wonders of heaven.  Prometeo, of which the libretto still exists and which this medal commemorates, was a hymn to love and forgiveness towards mankind much like Shelley’s lyrical drama. Arguably, Prometheus Unbound in many ways thematizes the voice,  the music, and the movement of Viganò’s ballet en action.  Shelley, like Viganò, was a cultivator of  ancient Greek dramatic art, and believed in the vital recourse to an ideal form of drama able to fuse, in an organic way, the various dramatic genres and different arts. Shelley’s lyrical drama seems to mime a sort of choreography that involves the spoken word, the music and the body. There is a virtual presence of a corps de ballet inscribed in the language of the poem: different metrical and lyrical measures produce sudden changes in the rhythm and in the instrumental backing; the multiple patterns of the rhymes as well as the variety in the strophic schemes visualize the movement of dancing itself.

Act IV, as a whole, speaks the language of dance. From the opening  “Train of dark Forms and Shadows,”  a group that proceeds, singing, in a disorderly fashion (vv. 10-30), we pass to a panorama of the Chorus that gives shape to this group in movement and gives structure to the individual dancers (lines 69-79). The poem’s choreography then brings on stage in a vertiginously rapid kinetic succession the Chorus of the Spirits (83-88) followed immediately by the Chorus of Hours. The two choruses soon become one: one corps de ballet and one polyphonic chorus. (vv. 129-134). As in Viganò, these lines have a counterpoint or counter-dance in the lines of the Chorus of Hours (vv. 159-174) that splits off again from the main body and offers a series of figures of exquisite balletic virtuosity. This counter-dance is then taken over by the re-united Chorus of Hours and Spirits (175-179) which announce the love duet, or ‘pas de deux’, between the Moon and the Earth, before leaving the stage to Demogorgon. If in Act IV, ‘real’ dancing is staged, in Act III lines 30-60, we see Prometheus, finally unbound, rejoicing and singing a love song to Asia and to the beauty of the universe. It is a hymn to joy that  turns into a most surprising ‘solo’.

Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound seems to summarize the entire project not just of Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, but of Viganò’s revolutionary choral-drama.  From this Italian perspective what has been traditionally said about the unstageability of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound loses much of its force.

Date: 1817

Creator: unknown

Subject: Salvatore Viganò. Prometeo bitten by an eagle.

Media rights: Numismatica Ranieri

Object type: commemorative medal

Format: metal

Language: Italian

Publisher: the author

References

COMMENTARII DELLA VITA E DELLE OPERE COREDRAMMATICHE DI SALVATORE VIGANÒ E DELLA COREGRAFIA E DE’ COREPEI SCRITTI DA CARLO RITORNI REGGIANO, Carlo Ritorni, Tip. Guglielmini e Redaelli, Milano, 1838.

DANCE: A SHORT HISTORY OF CLASSICAL THEATRICAL DANCING, Lincoln, Kirstein, 1935.

ENCICLOPEDIA DELLO SPETTACOLO FONDATA DA SILVIO D’AMICO, Casa Editrice Le Machere, Roma, Sansoni, 1962,

STENDHAL, ROME, NAPLES ET FLORENCE, a cura di Roland Beter, Julliard, Paris, 1964 p. 66, p. 182.