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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Teatro La Fenice in Venice

What is the Teatro La Fenice?

The Teatro La Fenice is a neoclassical theatre in Venice that was founded in the late 18th century and has been rebuilt multiple times over the years.

Teatro La Fenice interior

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Teatro La Fenice History

As you approach the tall portico of this glorious Neoclassical building, you’ll see a bird with wings outstretched, carrying a plaque bearing the name of this great institution: La Fenice (or ‘The Phoenix’). As you might have guessed, the straining creature is indeed a depiction of the mythical phoenix. The immortal bird, referenced in Egyptian, Greek and Islamic sources, supposedly lived for 500 years before burning itself on its own funeral pyre. At which point, it would rise from the ashes reinvigorated, ready to live another cycle.

Just like the mythical bird, La Fenice itself rose from the ashes – more than once. In the mid-18th century, an intimate theatre called the San Benedetto was constructed by the aristocratic Grimani family just 200 metres north of here. In the 1770s, the popular venue, which was one of seven theatres in Venice at that time, sadly burned down. Although it was rebuilt soon afterwards, it became the subject of a bitter dispute between the box-owning stakeholders in the new building and the noble Venier family, who held the freehold of part of the land on which it was built. After a protracted legal battle, the Venier family forced the box owners to sell them the San Benedetto, which was promptly renamed Teatro Venier. Spurred on by their loss, the box owners’ consortium decided to commission a rival theatre, one that would eclipse the Teatro Venier both in size and splendour. In order to symbolise the brilliant revival of their theatrical enterprise and its regained strength, the new opera house was named ‘The Phoenix’.

Of the 29 designs that were presented in competition for the commission, the plan of Giovanni Antonio Selva was chosen: a towering Neoclassical design fronted with grand Corinthian columns. Selva’s building was inaugurated in 1792 and was the first theatre in Venice to be fronted by a small public square – all the others were entered by inconspicuous doors set in side streets and alleyways.

Teatro La Fenice

La Fenice was an enormous success, standing out as one of the greatest opera houses in Europe. However, that run of good fortune was to be short-lived. On a cold December night in 1836, the theatre caught ablaze and was utterly destroyed. One year later, in the spirit of its namesake, La Fenice rose from the flames once more, graceful and elegant, sympathetically reconstructed by Giovanni Battista Meduna. In the following century, the reborn theatre hosted some of the leading lights of the operatic world, including Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, and Luciano Pavarotti.

Meduna’s reconstruction included the decorations you see today, statues and symbols befitting such a place. Above the portico, in two niches, stand the muses of tragedy (on the left) and dance (on the right). Just above them are corresponding masks, Tragedy with an almost startled expression, and Comedy bearing a wry smile. Between them, you’ll see the company’s insignia along with another phoenix rising from the flames.

Amazingly, La Fenice suffered the same wretched fate once more at the end of the 20th century, destroyed by a fire in 1996. Again, the beloved Venetian institution was rebuilt on the very same spot. The modernised version of La Fenice had a triumphant comeback in 2003, ready to welcome the next generation of Venetians and tourists alike.

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