The Theatre of the Society, this was its original name, was first opened in the 1809 Carnival season. It was born at the time of a competition between the upper town and the lower town: it should have competed with the Riccardi Theatre (the actual Donizetti Theatre) to give back to the upper town that supremacy that the new theatre in the lower town was undermining. Built thanks to the intervention of a large group of Bergamo aristocrats, the Teatro Sociale was kept active, with changing fortune, up to the 1920s. What happened to it later was a reflection of the Upper Town’s decline as the propelling centre of Bergamo’s social and cultural life. The restoration and the recovery of the theatre to its original destination testify today of the Upper Town’s new centrality, and of the finally reached integration of both town entities: the old city and the suburbs expanded downhill.
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Leopoldo Pollack, Piermarini’s pupil, was put in charge of the project for the new theatre. Pollack decided in favour of an Italian styled theatre with different orders of boxes, intended to meet the public visibility demands of the aristocratic classes and their hierarchic standing. As to the stalls disposition, Pollack chose not to repeat the horse-shaped disposition which was predominant at the time, opting instead for a more elaborate and elegant oval shape in the French style. The adoption of this shape together with the verticality of the boxes constitutes perhaps the most original aspect of the project.
The 86 boxes are distributed on three layers with a gallery at the very top. Pollack designed the boxes wooden banisters following a continuous line, as Piermarini did for La Scala; it makes the horizontal dimension of the box orders stand out (against the vertical one which on the other hand stands out in the balcony-styled sectioning in accord with Bibiena’s model), and confers to the shape of the hall as a whole an harmonious uniformity of a classic flavour. The wooden banisters were rich in multi-coloured decorations, often gaudy, as the colours of the inside walls decorated at times also with marble imitations, and in contrast with the humble flooring materials and the whitewash vaults.
Pollack could only adopt the new strategies getting popular in those years only partially: prevented from giving the building a monumental front, portico, colonnade or whatever would have made the theatre identifiable at a glance because of the narrowness of Corsarola street – and the example is again Piermarini’s La Scala – he had to be satisfied with an elegant front, yes, but without the solution of continuity with the buildings adjacent to it. Only those decorative elements, typical of the world of the theatre arts, showed its status as a place meant for public performances.
The Sociale’s difficulties, towards the end of the nineteenth century, became the symbol on the Upper Town ones. The rare apertures only gave the appearance “of that past life, that an uncontrollable, overpowering force has pushed elsewhere”, as the local paper glossed in that December of 1878. Already during the Austrian years the building of the Porta Nuova propylaeums and of the Ferinandea Road, but above all of the station and the related railway connection with Milan (1857), represented as many stages of the Lower Town emancipation, crowned in 1872 with the Town Hall being moved. The opening of the funicular railway, in 1887, will improve the relations between the two parts of the city, but the Sociale’s fortunes will tend to decline all the same. A significant sign of that decline was the Sociale’s marginal role at the Donizetti celebrations of 1897 that had in the Riccardi and the Lower Town their centre and background. Around 1900 and in the first ten-year period of the new century the hall (gone through a restoration in 1902, visible in the 1903 season, then in 1907, for the 1908) will open to new kinds of shows like the light opera (1898, from 1908), or even to exhibitions of modern technology such as the gramophone (1898) and the cinema (from 1908) that, if in other situations could represent signals of an opening to novelties, in that life context increasingly difficult appear as a withdrawal towards less engaging programs. Good seasons will come back, in 1915, and less sporadically in the first part of the Twenties (1921, 1922 and 1924): but that for the Sociale has begun a new era of prosperity, it was a short-lived illusion. Music was played up to 1929; the last shows go back to 1932. The history that followed is only marked by demolition projects, rash thoughts of re-using it and a long sequence of title transfers. All this while the decaying process is getting more and more a source of great concern, at least until the property is acquired by the Commune of Bergamo (1974) and its structure worked on and made safe between 1978 and 1981. Since then, the facility has hosted mainly art exhibitions and various displays, until its definition and the beginning of its restoration thanks to the joint initiative of the Commune and the Superintendence starting from the year 2006.
The restoration works, completed in May 2009, delivers to the city a historical theatre completely recovered. They proceeded with the remaking of the flooring of the foyer, to the restoration of the walls, of the ceilings and of a variety of details not yet seen to, and of the new access door. Light integrative interventions have been brought to the boxes wooden banisters, fixing, retouching and protecting the decorations. They restored the first three orders of boxes (with a total of about 550 seats), the remaking of the flooring, the application of a steel structure to strengthen the old wooden one, the sectioning of the orders in boxes by the addition of new partitions, in accord with the original plan, the strengthening of the banisters, the restoration of the wood and painting of the pillars and of the false ceilings, the installation of heating, cooling and fire-fighting systems, and the remaking of the electrical and lighting systems, on top of the prearrangement of adequate sanitary facilities. As to the forth order, the gallery at the top, the static reinforcement has been foreseen, in order to make it in the future, by means of simple finishing operations, easily available to public access. The Sociale come-back to its original vocation as a theatre has also meant the setting up of a modern stage machine, with a new stage and rush matting, while the orchestra pit has been provided with a mechanical platform that can go up three levels. To end with, three new levels of dressing rooms have been built to the right of the stage.