Study of Theatrical Stage Lighting

Michael S. Clivner, Colby College


Modern stage lighting took its roots in the theatres of the Italian renaissance where it was considered an integral part of theatrical productions. In 1537, the Italian painter and architect Sebastiana Serlio (1475-1554) devoted a part of his Second Book of Architecture (translated to English in 1611), to stage lighting. In it are the following accounts of his ideas on stage lighting: The stage is adorned with innumerable lights, great, middle sorts and small, cunningly set out to counterfeit precious stones... You place a great part of the lights in the middle, hanging over the scenes, and to add to the brilliance of the spectacle the windows of the lath and canvas houses of the tragic and comic scenes should contain glass or paper and have lights set behind them. Colored lights are contrived by filling glasses or bottles with colored liquids and placing "Great Lamps" behind them, or for extra brilliance-torches with barbers basins behind them for reflectors. *(L) In the 1560's, a lighting specialist would usually insist upon the careful placing of candles and lamps, upon the necessity for concealing most of the lights, and upon reducing the amount of light in the auditorium. He would render the stage as bright as possible using reflectors behind his lights and by reducing to a minimum the amount of light in the auditorium itself. Bright lighting helped to engender a mood of gaiety. Experiments were made with the contrasts between light and darkness to create atmosphere and mood. Leone di Somi (1527-1592) won universal praise from his audiences when during a production, he had all the lights not focused on a tragic scene being played, extinguished in order to help convey the mood of the scene.