What does a Phantom write about on a snowy January morning when celebrating a the 1500th post of a blog? I can’t help feeling that it should be something frivolous and fun, and what could be more fanciful on a freezing day than a court masque?
Inigo Jones is mainly celebrated for having designed the Queen’s House – first Palladian house in Britain, set the template for all the others, groundbreaking architecture, yada, yada. But what I love about him is that when it came to the theatre he was an utter luvvie, designing OTT sets and really rather saucy costumes for featherlight dramas mainly put on by courtiers for each others’ amusement.
Like so many others in the arts, he wasn’t born wealthy – he was the son of a Smithfield clothworker. Just how he clawed his way up the slippery slope isn’t known, but he managed to get himself a job on the staff of the Earl of Rutland (an interesting chap I will return to at some point…) and from there it took just a couple of years, via a trip to Italy to check out Palladio’s work (again, how he managed to get himself out there with no cash is a mystery, but it does prove that where there’s a will there’s a way) to design his first theatre set for Anne of Denmark (the queen who later got him to build that house for her.)
There was nothing Anne liked better than a nice masque, which was probably a good thing since she didn’t get to see much of her husband James I (he much preferred the company of his male favourites.) He’d clearly worked out the best way to have a quiet life was to indulge her – and he had to bail her out financially by selling Queen Elizabeth’s jewels and furniture at least once after she overspent on fancy frippery and fabulous nonsense.
So what did a Renaissance masque actually consist of? I’m still not entirely sure. It seems to have mainly revolved around people wafting around in beautiful costumes of great symbolism, usually pertaining to some obscure piece of Classical mythology that made whoever had commissioned the piece look good in front of the monarch of the day.
The sets were incredibly ornate too, specially created with all kinds of technical geejaws so that ‘magical’ transformations could take place to the amazement of all the guests. None of it was particularly heavy on plot. I suppose the closest thing we have to anything like it today is panto, though possibly without the slop-scene.
There was a script, often written by Jones’s exact contemporary and best mate Ben Jonson until a punch up in 1631 over which was more important, the words or the look of the thing. Sadly for poor old Jonson, always the purist, the words were really just a by-the-by in court masquery, even playing second fiddle to the dancing, where the ‘actors’ would come over all Brechtian and reveal the artifice by taking partners from the audience.
Before I leave poor old Jonson seething at the injustice of it all, I should point out that he may have the last laugh this year – I notice Greenwich Theatre, in another one of their welcome forays into home-produced shows, will be presenting Volpone this season.
Not that the general public would have ever got so much as a peek at one of Jonson & Jones’s original masques – wonders such as Pan’s Anniversary, or the Shepherd’s Holiday were strictly for the nobs only.
But what the masques did create was a platform for Jones to show off the new designs that were all the rage in Italy. While the Brits were still clodhopping around with half-timbered gables, over on the continent Andrea Palladio was creating the clean lines of the Renaissance, based, like those masques, on the Classical world of Ancient Greece and Rome.
Inigo Jones, who had marvelled at all this in Rome, found masques the perfect way to infiltrate Palladio’s ideas into temporary showcases for the new style. After a while, it seemed like merely the next step to create a permanent building.
Anne didn’t need a new house. Greenwich Palace was still in fine nick (more than could be said for it half a century later…) But then she didn’t need to put on masques. They were fun. And so would be the new palace. Jones was completely liberated – to create a novelty, a ‘curious devise,’ purely for pleasure.
But that’s a whole other post. Or ten…