Renaissance art co-stars in a play at the Walters


GLOWING paintings by Raphael and other masters, a majestic marble sculpture of Apollo Victorious by the Belgian artist Pietro Francavilla, exquisite religious artifacts and handsome Gothic art works are among the stunning Renaissance museum pieces in a new living history play at the Walters Art Gallery.

"Of Courts and Courtship: Scenes From the Renaissance" incorporates exhibits from the Walters' permanent collection in a blending of historical fact and fictional romance. The 60-minute comedy, written and directed by Gus Kaikkonen, is being performed in the museum's Renaissance Sculpture Court and Renaissance Paintings Gallery selected Sundays (2 p.m.) and Wednesdays (12:15 p.m.) through June 1991.

Kaikkonen's script, written in the formal, lyrical style of 15th century Italy, involves four individuals commenting on the skills of the time's brilliant artisans, the meaning of their works as well as social topics such as the pros and cons of marriage and a woman's rightful place in the Renaissance.

Swathed in colorful period costumes designed by Henry Carter Shaffer, the characters (played by local actors) are: Averardo Salviati, a noble Florentine banker in desperate need of funds, which he hopes to obtain through his granddaughter's arranged marriage; the independent granddaughter, Clarice, who is vehemently opposed to marriage; Lena, the philosophical servant who acts as narrator and arbitrator between all parties; and Carlo da Porto Thiene, the --ing suitor determined to win Clarice's reluctant heart.

Kaikkonen also scripted and directed the museum's first living history production, "Echoes of the Middle Ages" (1987-1988), which focused on the Walters' extensive medieval collection.

The concept for this unique program comes from Diane Brandt Stillman, director of education at the gallery. Stillman received a $49,000 grant from the Getty Foundation to produce the play and a video of the show (for eventual viewing by schools and public television audiences).

"The paintings in our exhibits made for marriage chests actually stimulated the whole idea," said Stillman, referring to the museum's delicately crafted terra cotta marriage plaques depicting Madonna and Child.

"The action takes place in an Italian palace, the Palazzo Salviati in Florence in the year 1599," said Stillman. "Our 1904 building is based on an Italian palace with courtyard and is a perfect setting for the show.

"It is wonderful the way the playwright conceived a believable story that cleverly weaves in information about the art works," she said. "To give the play authenticity, the costume designer created fabulous ensembles of brocades, velvets, fur and pearls."

There are no seats or stage for this production. The audience is on foot constantly, following the players, who roam around the vast courtyard, shout from the balcony above and climb the broad marble steps leading to the Red and Green Galleries containing priceless Renaissance art.

As the performers move along they take turns offering entertaining monologues on the background of various paintings and sculptures. Often the theme of a particular piece will spark a debate among the characters.

Lurid tales of intrigue and murder among the members of the ruling Medici family of Florence (crimes committed for political power and royal favor) are told with gusto by the troupe as they pause before an impressive portrait of Maria Salviati and Cosimo de' Medici painted by Jacopo Carucci (called Pontormo).

Upon viewing the "Adam and Eve -- Garden of Eden" della Robbia workshop terra cotta wall sculpture, Clarice becomes upset when she sees that the head of the snake bears a likeness to Eve. She then cynically points out those paintings of women ruined by men.

Pausing before the "Myth of Io" by di Giovannia, Clarice tells of the princess, "once a happy girl," who was turned into a clumsy heifer by Zeus.

Carlo quickly guides Clarice to the breathtaking "Madonna of Candelabra" by Raphael where he, by virtue of gentle persuasion and humble demeanor, finally persuades the defiant young woman to marry him.

As the audience applauded the four actors -- Wallace Bruce as Salviati, Amy Wieczorek as Clarice, Carol Mason as Lena and Jim Shanklin as Thiene -- Stillman said, "We wanted to find a way to interpret Renaissance art for the public that is informative and enjoyable. Judging from the viewers' reaction, I think we have done just that."

Performances of "Of Courts and Courtship" are free with admission to the Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St. The cost is $3 for adults and $2 for senior citizens. Admission is free to anyone under 18 years of age, museum members and students.

Museum hours are: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. For dates of performances, call the Walters at 547-9000.

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