La Fenice Theatre, son of fires and ambition

Illustrazione di Zoa Studio per il singolo The Rising Phoenix di Eddie Thespot
Zoa Studio’s illustration for the single The Rising Phoenix of Eddie Thespot.

With this article we will tell you the story of the La Fenice Theatre, a building predestined to face the flames. In fact, La Fenice (which means Phoenix) has known several fires in its history and, as its name indicates, has been able to rise from its ashes. Last fire on January 29, 1996, that’s why we’re talking about it today.

With its mythological bird as its emblem, La Fenice is one of the most famous stages of the Opera. Verdi created the Traviata and Rigoletto in particular. Stravinsky, Britten or even Prokofiev composed works for this place. But, as announced, La Fenice Theatre has been marked since its birth in 1792 also by repeated fires. Which we now present to you.

Serenissima and the Theatres

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Serenissima experienced a period of cultural dynamism. Wealthy Venetian families began to finance theaters for works to be performed in public. The families demonstrated their wealth with the architecture of these places and the majesty of the plays. Owning such a project meant striking the spirits of the entire city and the rest of the world.

The Grimani are one of those families. These patricians founded in the seventeenth century one of the greatest dramatic lyric theaters of the time: the Opera San Giovanni Grisostomo.

In 1753, when the fame of their work declined following the performances of the lighter opera – Opera buffa – Michiel Grimani decided to build the San Benedetto. This way, he tries to create once again the spearhead of serious Opera, the dramatic one. But soon the Grimani family had to face the economic crisis and a crisis of the lyric genre.

In 1766 Michiel Grimani was forced to sell the San Benedetto to the Nobile Società dei Palchettisti and the opera house was even burned a few years later in 1773. Rebuilt, the San Benedetto passed definitively into the hands of the Venier family in 1786 following an agreement judicial.

The birth of La Fenice

It is therefore through the flames that La Fenice Theatre is born. The Grimani and the Nobile Società dei Palchettisti commissioned architect Gian Antonio Selva in 1790 to build a new theater in a new location. This family did not care about the decision, taken a few years earlier by the Venetian magistrates, to prohibit the erection of a new theater without the consent of the Council. The magistrates were angered by this constructive madness of Venetian families as the city went through economic hardship. Some families could not even pay their employees anymore.

Nobile Società dei Palchettisti therefore names its theater after the mythological resurrected bird, the Phoenix, in allusion to its legal disputes and to the fire of San Benedetto. Two years later, in 1792, the Venetians were finally able to attend the first performances in what would become one of the most recognized theaters in the world. Who knows if one of these was Casanova, who would die 6 years later.

The “Gran Teatro di Venezia” is located in Piazza San Fantin, a stone’s throw from Piazza San Marco. At the bend of an alley, the building appears. Not very tall and in neoclassical style, La Fenice Theatre seems to move away from the bombast of the Baroque. But behind its walls, the opera house hides a pompous setting full of Rococo decorations. The numerous gilding and moldings stand out against the apparent serenity of the blue ceiling. The hall’s traditional horseshoe shape allows spectators to see performances as much as they can be seen. In line with the Venetian buildings, La Fenice has two entrances: a main facade, which is the only part that survived the fires; and a façade overlooking the canal to allow wealthier families to go there by gondola.

1836: La Fenice Theatre  in ashes is rebuilt in one year 

La Fenice, which arose from the ashes of San Benedetto, has since suffered two more fires. The first in 1836, in the night between 13 and 14 December. On that day there was an opera presented two years earlier in Naples: Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti. Around one in the morning, the keeper of the theater is awakened by a strong smell of burning. As La Fenice prepares for the winter carnival, the building probably catches fire due to a newly installed faulty stove. The lookouts in Piazza San Marco give the alarm, but nothing helps. In nearly three hours, the fire wipes out everything in its path, except the facade and the glass roof.

However, it is a pain that is quickly forgotten because, as we know, the mythological Fenice/Phoenix rises with the same rapidity with which it is consumed. It was then that her name became prophetic. By the will of the Austrian authorities, the opera house was rebuilt by Giovanni Battista Meduna and his brother Tommaso in less than six months. In addition, the ceiling fresco is entrusted to Tranquillo Orsi. The Italian-Austrian insurance company Generali, founded in 1831, provided the theater with an important financial contribution for the works.

La Fenice Theatre reopened a year after the drama, in December 1837, with an opera composed for the occasion by Giuseppe Lillo: Rosmunda in Ravenna. The opera is accompanied by a ballet by Antonio Cortesi. The very short reconstruction times allowed the Fenice to recover quickly but also caused lasting problems in the operation of the venue. In 1854 the owners then had the theater renovated. This won’t change until 1996.

The last fire: 29 January 1996

It was in fact on the night of January 29 of that year that the legend was rekindled. Around 9 pm, shouts rise from Campo San Fantin. A thick smoke comes out of La Fenice Theatre. For more than eight hours the emergency services will try to quell the fire but with great difficulty because the canals adjacent to the theater are dry for cleaning. The intervention promises to be complicated in this city, which has no fire hydrants. Helpless residents can only watch their legacy burn, hoping the flames won’t spread to the rest of the city due to the wind.

At the end the fire subsides, and we can only see the damage which is huge. The most ironic thing was that the theater was in the process of acquiring new fire protection systems. Old plants were then disconnected because they often triggered with dust due to work. Venetians then express themselves and affirm their desire to rebuild La Fenice “Where it was, how it was”. Other voices are in favor of a brand new work that would lead the City of the Doges into a new era. This is the case of the architect Renzo Piano. But that won’t happen. Finally, La Fenice Theatre rises from its ashes in its version of 1837.

A mystery surrounds La Fenice Theatre

The theater team is set up on the island of Tronchetto, under a giant tent, near a parking lot and a petrochemical complex, so that the 350 employees can continue their business. At the same time, an attempt is made to determine the origin of the fire.

It is believed that the disaster was initially caused by a short circuit in the electrical system being installed. But after a few weeks, the experts discover that the fire was arson. Then all kinds of assumptions are heard but the resolution of the case takes place in May 1997.

The perpetrators of the crime are Enrico Carella and Massimiliano Marchetti, two electricians who acted in this way to avoid having to compensate for the delays accumulated by their company. The two colleagues, refusing to lose just under 10,000 euros, set their work on fire. They never imagined that the fire would take everything in its path. Marchetti was sentenced to six years in prison and Carella to seven years. The latter, who fled before the trial, was found in 2007 in Mexico and extradited to Italy.

Reconstruction of La Fenice Theatre

In the film Senso, by Luchino Visconti, it is at the Fenice that the Italian nationalists claim their will to put an end to the Austrian occupation. In this opening scene, the euphoric opponents of the third act of Verdi’s “Trouvere” throw leaflets. They shout “Viva Verdi” to show with an acronym their attachment to Vittorio Emanuele, King of Italy. Fortunately, these images of the Italian director become all the more precious because they will serve to faithfully reproduce this mythical setting.

After the outrage over this stupid crime, it’s time for supporters. As management and the city announce three years of reconstruction, states, associations and citizens around the world are mobilizing to provide financial assistance.

The reopening is scheduled for December 1999 with a concert directed by Riccardo Muti. The Impregilo company wins the tender for the construction site. But after a few weeks of work, the Holzmann-Romagnoli company, second classified in the competition, appealed to the administrative court. The project would not consider an annex to the theater. Works are therefore suspended pending the ruling of the court. The Holzmann-Romagnoli has finally won the construction site by decision of the Council of State.

The architect in charge of the project, Aldo Rossi, will not even know the news because in the meantime he died in a car accident. So people have to adapt to Rossi’s new project, but time passes and the Venetians’ desire to see their theater recover has not yet been fulfilled. In 2000 it was therefore the new mayor of the city, Paolo Costa, who decided to speed up the project. The public body takes over the site and entrusts it to a new company, with the obligation to finish it by November 2003. Sacaim finishes the work in 630 days.

The inauguration and the new La Fenice Theatre

La Fenice reopened on 14 December 2003 with an inaugural concert by Beethoven, Wagner and Stravinsky. The first opera staged was a production of La traviata, in November 2004.

In addition, from 1 January 2004, to celebrate the rebirth and reopening of the theater, La Fenice hosts the New Year’s Concert, during which arias and opera pieces are performed. This concert is broadcast live by Rai in various countries and on a deferred basis even in Japan and Latin America.

The critical response to the reconstruction of La Fenice was mixed. A music critic of Il Tempo, Enrico Cavalotti, is satisfied. He found the colors a bit bright but the sound was good and compact. However, for colleague Dino Villatico from La Repubblica, the acoustics of the new room lacked resonance, and the colors were painfully bright. He found it “kitsch, a false imitation of the past”. He said that “the city should have had the courage to build a completely new theater; Venice has betrayed its innovative past by ignoring it”.

I personally love La Fenice. Maybe because Venice is where I spent my years of “crazy and desperate study” or maybe because I know all the nearby bars and restaurants to have an aperitif before going to the theater. I love this theater above all because La Fenice has given me and continues to give me many emotions, with the barbiere di Siviglia, Madama Butterfly and Faust, the last work that the Zoa Studio team saw

This reminded me to go and visit the Theater website: and look for the next emotion. I already see that they will play Mozart…



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