The Italian Opera House

This paper explores the gendering of space through consumption, display and exchange, making specific reference to the Italian Opera House in early nineteenth-century London. This opera house was a place designed to enhance the pleasure of looking. This occurred in a number of different ways. The location of the building in London’s exclusive district of St. James’s and its pivotal position in John Nash’s plans for the development of the urban vicinity required that the architecture be beautiful to look at. Certainly the grand scale of the external elevations and their lavish decorative treatment suggested the importance of the opera house as a spectacle within the city – an object of visual delight. Internally, the spatial layout of the saloons, foyers, auditorium and green room provided a series of places for public promenade and display. Each space was designed to encourage various kinds of ‘looking’, and this paper examines the gendering of these relationships.

This paper looks at how the Italian Opera House was represented as a site of sexual pursuit in a particular form of urban literature – the ramble. It specifically discusses how this opera house figured as a desirable destination for ramblers in a few key early nineteenth-century rambling texts. In the ramble, the Italian Opera House is represented as a place where visual pleasure is experienced through the exchange of looks between performers and audience within the auditorium – boxes, gallery, pit and stage – as well as in the performer-only spaces, such as the green room, and audience-only spaces, such as the lobby and saloon.

This paper was published as Jane Rendell, ‘The Italian Opera House’, Visual Culture in Britain (2000), v. 1, n. 2, pp. 1-24.

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