The Heaven Machinery
in the Florentine Theatrical Tradition
Mostly built inside churches, such machines were made of wood and had a large round aperture that opened upwards revealing a dome containing the nine circles of Heaven.
Attached to the lower end of a movable Mandorla, was a small platform, covered with wadding, on which a holy character could stand as if he or she was on a cloud.
Sometimes, other little platform-clouds would be added to the sides, supporting more angels.
This woodcut, dating to c. 1500, is the first graphic record of the Heaven Machinery
This woodcut represents two moments of the story in chronological sequence:
1 In the background Gabriel is descending from Heaven on a cloud
2 In the foreground, he is announcing his message to the Virgin Mary
While the Heaven Machinery was anchored to the beams of the ceiling, the portico where the Virgin Mary was, surprised by Gabriel’s arrival, was located on scaffolding built for the occasion. Since women were not allowed to act, both the parts of the angels and the Virgin Mary were acted by young boys.
The Annunciation Feast has been documented in Florence since the mid of the 15th century. However, such traditional feasts most probably started long before their first appearance in the records. It is possible that the Annunciation play had already been performed in Florence at the start of the 15th century, or even earlier.
The heavenly dome, imbedded in a rigid, wood-like blue sky, includes the nine angelic hierarchies. Botticini’s panel is the first known example in which Heaven is represented in such a manner.
For this reason, it has been considered as quite a straightforward example of the influence of religious drama on figurative art.
The same majestic opening revealing Heaven represented in the woodcut of the Annunciation and in Botticini’s Assumption, is present in the Mystical Nativity, painted by Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510) around 1500.
Ricordi intorno ai costumi, azioni, e governo del sereniss. gran duca Cosimo I. scritti da Domenico Mellini di commissione della serenissima Maria Cristina di Lorena ora per la prima volta pubblicati con illustrazioni, Firenze 1820.
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Roberta J.M. Olson, “Brunelleschi’s Machines of Paradise and Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity”, in: Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 123, 1981, pp. 183-188.
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Ludovico Zorzi, “La scenotecnica brunelleschiana. Problemi filologici e interpretativi”, in: Filippo Brunelleschi, la sua opera e il suo tempo, Florence 1980, pp. 161-71.
Title: The Heaven Machinery in the Florentine Theatrical Tradition
Author: Alessandra Buccheri (Accademia di belle Arti di Palermo) firstname.lastname@example.org
English Translation and Proof Reading: Alessandra Buccheri, Alexander McCargar
Web Design: Kunsthistorisches Museum – Visual Media, Vienna
Photographic Sources: Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze (images 1, 2), Chiara Buccheri (image 3), National Gallery London (images 4, 5).