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It is likely that very few theatres have the luck of being praised in the way that the prestigious French publication Mercure Galant did in 1683. “The biggest, most beautiful and richest theatre in the city”. That is how the Malibran Theatre was described, which in its early days was called the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo, due to its location near the church of the same name.
The fact is that today, beneath the shadow of the magnificence of La Fenice, this opera house is still outstandingly important.
Opened during the carnivals of 1678, it was a project by Tommaso Bezzi for the Grimani family, who already owned two theatres in Venice. Initially conceived as a private place for entertaining the aristocracy, it was not intended to be used for public audiences.
As a curiosity, you may be interested to know that the theatre was built on a site where previously the palace of the family of Marco Polo had stood. Two commemorative plaques recall this fact.
Surprisingly, the theatre, founded without any other aspiration than to serve the nobility, became, overnight, the most prestigious theatre in Venice due to its prolific opera production, a genre that had been flourishing in Italy during the previous years.
San Giovanni Grisostomo surpassed the other auditoriums in Venice due to its luxury, lavishness, architectural magnitude and decorative elegance. Moreover, for the first time in the city, anyone could attend an opera performance, on the condition that they could afford to, something that before had been the reserve of the aristocratic circles only.
Extravagant and with extraordinary details, the hall had five floors of boxes supported by caryatids, and painted with all kinds of motifs. The stage was separated from the stalls by means of a balustrade, and the arch of the stage was headed by the coat of arms of the Grimani family.
Although it is true that the democratisation of the opera occurred in this theatre because it was open to whoever could afford the price of entry, they did no make it quite so easy. For years they kept the entry prices high, while the other theatres lowered theirs in order to increase audiences. Bringing the best works and singers, the prestige of the Grimani family rapidly grew. They were not bothered about having fewer spectators as long as they were the select audience.
In the 18th century, the prestigious poet Carlo Goldoni headed the theatre and introduced new genre and singing styles, among which featured the Neapolitan school of the castratti or the representation pf tragicomedies.
Midway through the 18th century, one of the Grimanis’ theatres burnt down, and they moved their entire San Giovanni programme, which extolled it even more. However, this rise in prestige would soon end, because the Grimanis’ ambition led them to build a new theatre in San Benedetto, which took away the hegemony that the San Giovanni Grisostomo enjoyed and it fell into decadence. Acrobats, mime artists and even horses came to occupy the theatre stage, and San Giovanni practically disappeared from the chronicles of the time.
In 1819, Giovanni Gallo, who was somewhere between an entrepreneur, a patron and an artist, bought the theatre from the Grimani family with the noble aim of returning to it its earlier splendour. He completely restored it and managed to arrange for one of the most famous singers of the time, the Spanish María García Malibran, to come and sing in the theatre, in a return to the lyrical art. As a sign of gratitude, Gallo renamed the theatre in her name.
During the 19th century, the new Malibran Theatre experienced many changes. It passed from one owner to another: first, Gallo’s son and later, a company of well-off Italians that remained as owners until just a few years ago. Furthermore, remodelling works of all kinds have been undertaken in the theatre until now, from the inclusion of Egyptian motifs in the hall or the restoration of the roof, through to the enlargement of the galleries.
When a terrible fire destroyed the grand theatre of La Fenice in 1996, the Malibran played a very important role, since it hosted many of the performances that were held there.
Throughout its history, the Malibran Theatre has been able to preserve its privileged position in the Ventian lyrical panorama. For this reason, and although La Fenice is still ahead in your list of tourist attractions, do not miss visiting it.
Gran Canal (1A)
Chiesa di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (22)
Palazzo Ducale (6)
Ponte dei Suspiri (10)
Santa Maria della Salute (42)
Basilica de San Giovanni e Paolo (36)
Columns of Saint Mark and Saint Theodore (8)
Palazzo Grassi (26)
Ponte dell’Accademia (3)
Torre dell’Orologio (9)
Basilica di San Marco (5)
Ca’Vendramin Calergi (19)
Fondaco dei Turchi (17)
Palazzo Labia (16)
Ponte di Rialto (2)
Chiesa dei Gesuiti (33)
Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo (41)
Statue of Colleoni (38)
Calle del Fumo (30)
Chiesa del Redentore (47)
I Gesuati (43)
Malibran Theatre (35)
Palazzo Mocenigo (25)
Calle Larga XXII Marzo (14)
Chiesa della Madonna dell’Orto (31)
La Giudecca (45)
Mercato di Rialto (18)
Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni (39)