Winning essay - Cristina Castiglioni Roversi Prize

Paolo Scheggi: the theatre of illusion. 1968-1969 by Davide Silvioli

"Most contemporary texts are born tied to the scenic space of illusion and ancient texts, born in conditions of a different sense of theatre, are vulgarly adapted to the theatre of illusion" (Rusconi, 1969). Synthetic and exhaustive at the same time, this statement by Paolo Scheggi could correspond to a declaration of poetics, useful for understanding the vision that first triggered and then supervised his relationship with the theatre. The artist apostrophises traditional theatrical practice as "theatre of illusion", since it is totally detached from the existential experience perceived in the first person, since "in the theatre of illusion the set designer only fills a space that the spectator cannot experience" (Rusconi, 1969), relegating the spectator to a gregarious, static, passive, alien role. It could be argued, therefore, that all the research in the theatrical field pursued by the author starts from this act of awareness, which triggers an experimentation, with a gradually more and more interdisciplinary vocation, aimed at introducing the aesthetic sense of theatre in the middle of the unfolding of life. After having been, at the beginning of the 1960s, one of the protagonists of the so-called "exit from the picture" following Fontana's example - together with, among others, Manzoni, Castellani, Bonalumi and Dadamaino - it seems that Scheggi, towards the end of the decade, as a physiological result of his way of working, ventures into what could be called a progressive but incontrovertible "exit from the stage" more usual, supporting his already evident predisposition to subvert paradigms. So, from this perspective, to go beyond this illusion in order to heal, through art, the gap between theatre and life means for him "to enter reality, to transform virtual space into real space, to move real space into visible and liveable time, to reject contemplation for action, the static for the dynamic" (Rusconi, 1969).

As is well known, his first contact with the theatre canonically dates back to 1968. This date is motivated by a double reason, which perfectly aligns the evolution of Scheggi's research with a broader sensitivity. Indeed, if on the one hand 1968 is the year in which he created the participatory work Interfiore, which, structured as a "true staging of scenic interaction between mobile elements, light and the public" (Barbero, 2016), sanctions the disciplinary incipit of the artist's interest in theatrical practice, on the other hand it coincides with the year of the French May, which launched a wave of political and social struggles.

Indeed, confirming the importance of the two-year period analysed here, its "last three years" coincide with the revolutionary turmoil of the student movement in Europe and Italy. The happening and the performance became for many young creatives the most effective expression of their protest. Scheggi was at that time attracted to theatrical action, which he tackled first as a set designer and then as a director" (Bortolotti, 2007).

Motivated by the intention of "involving the spectator in a more active and direct way, the theatre was potentially the closest vehicle" (Rusconi, 1969) for this purpose, launching a line of research that the author would continue until his premature and sudden death.

Scheggi's introduced awareness, which from now on will influence his next steps, seems to be the natural offspring of his way of going beyond the category of the surface, according to an articulation "that constitutes an integrating element of habitable space, which can therefore be valid as a modulator of a dimensional situation" (Dorfles, 1966)[1]. 1] By dilating the dimension of the work in space beyond its respective physical limits and to the point of incorporating the factor of time into it as an authentic material component, he moves from the two-dimensional work to the three-dimensional environment that can be experienced by the viewer.

Thus, applying this principle, "the work extends, stretches, opens up and abandons itself to the space, it becomes space: it envelops and involves the individual who can no longer simply admire it: he has to live it, experience it, experiment the different optical, perceptive, physical and sensorial sensations arising from his encounter with theenvironment" (Bignotti, 2011).

This seems to be the phase of experimentation, the intuition or the aesthetic need - or rather, to confront space-time - that led Scheggi to make that fundamental expressive step which, shortly afterwards, would lead him to abandon the traditional exhibition space and move on to the places of ordinary life, to the real urban and collective reality, passing through the theatre.

Indirectly, moreover, this demonstrates how his path proceeded in unison with the most innovative and experimental international artistic dynamics, which - Fluxus above all - at that time used theatre and performance as a means of aestheticising the social and existential. The artist's metabolization of this tendency and the relative reformulation in the codes of his personal research not only expand his creative horizon but, more against the light, justify, on the one hand, the increasing frequency - from this moment onwards - of Scheggi's work trespassing into the theatrical sphere and, on the other, pertinently configure his activity within the boundaries of a much wider cultural context[2].

It is no coincidence that Interfiore [Fig.1] was conceived and presented during the event Il Teatro delle mostre (The Theatre of Exhibitions), at Plinio de Martiis's historic Galleria La Tartaruga, in Rome, in the above-mentioned year. It is a cardinal work in the artist's activity, in which "circles suspended in the dark like luminous flowers induce the spectator to wander among them in a perceptively indefinite space" (Corà, 2007). From now on, Scheggi would begin to import the characteristics of his previous research into the theatre, treating it as a privileged place for interdisciplinary experimentation[3].

Paolo Scheggi, Interfiore, 1968 (fig.1)

Moving on, his Interventi plastico-visuali (Plastic-visual interventions), also from 1968, are a fitting example of this inclination, since the "plastic experimentation of the space-environment of the theatre is connected, by extending them, to certain possibilities already studied for the Intercamere plastiche. The opportunity to extend this research to the space of the theatre has made it possible to realise and functionalise, in contact with an articulated and interchangeable public, experiments usually relegated to the restricted sphere of the galleries" (Scheggi, 1968).

Elaborated for Giuliano Scabia's theatrical text, Visita alla prova dell'Isola purpurea (Visit to the purple island), they thus accentuate Scheggi's entry into the physical space of the theatre, as well as demonstrating the direct and immediate proximity that he establishes between visual art, installation practice and set design.

Based on these assumptions, and having had the opportunity to work on projects structured on an urban and social scale, 1969 emerged as the year in which Scheggi totally oriented his artistic research towards the possibility of establishing an indissoluble union with theatrical practice, convinced by the desire to erode any presumed demarcation between these two domains. The author, in such a quadrature, seems to hold the performative action, declined as an event, as a medium to express his own feeling, using the stage - initially the theatrical one but then more frequently the urban one - as a support where to confer new opportunities of shape and sense to the matter, in this case to the human matter.

The year opened with the theatrical action Oplà-stick, Passion according to Paolo Scheggi [Fig.2], held - for the first time - at the Galleria del Naviglio in Milan.

Paolo Scheggi, Oplà-Stick passione secondo Paolo Scheggi, 1969 (fig.2)

In addition to its aesthetic value, this operation is fundamental because it saw Scheggi, for the first time, work with the theatre in the round, handling the writing, direction and scenography of the work. While in the Milanese version four actors perform movements inspired by the text recited by an off-screen voice, handling and moving white letters placed on a black board behind them, in the Florentine version[4] Oplà, action-reading-theatre [Fig.34] Oplà, azione-lettura-teatro [Fig. 3], a few months later, the letters O, P, L, A, enlarged as if on a theatrical - or monumental - scale and carried on the shoulders of some characters, come out of the Galleria Flori, invading the streets of Florence and joining the common people. It is this last aspect that demonstrates how Scheggi's research was driven by the underlying "necessity of the artistic operation to project itself more and more into a dynamic that proposes itself as life" (L. Vinca Masini, 1969).

Paolo Scheggi, Oplà action-reading-theatre, 1969 (fig.3)

With the same intensity, this attitude, aimed at the overlapping of art and life, is confirmed, within the ranks of the conception of an increasingly total work of art, in Autospettacolo. Atto unico del tempo; an action presented in Caorle, in 1969, during the exhibition Nuovi materiali, nuove tecniche [Fig.4]. Urbanistically invasive, it envisaged the affixing of a thousand posters in areas of the Venetian city, some of which were placed inside designated booths and others on special panels. In addition, microphones and loudspeakers scattered at various points along an ideal route transmitted dialogues, sounds, voices and noises of the artists/actors inside the Municipal Theatre, as well as, vice versa, those of the citizens who came across these devices, setting up a link of total transitivity between the interior of the theatre and the exterior of the city, between the public and the actors on stage. The aim was "to make the visitor, the author, the casual participant in an osmosis of performance-act-time" (Scheggi, 1969).  

Paolo Scheggi, Manifesto dell'Autospettacolo, 1969 (fig.4)

After experimenting with Oplà, action-reading-theatre and Autospettacolo. Atto unico del tempo, the search for osmosis alluded to by Scheggi returns in a convincing and radical way in the performance, directed, written and scenographically constructed by the artist, Marcia funebre o della geometria, processione secondo Paolo Scheggi.

Opening a parenthesis, it should be noted that the operation in Como mentioned above, which testifies to the fact that Scheggi's theatrical and performance research was by then mature and capable of fully combining art and human experience, was preceded by a few months by the design of the white Scenoplastica; that is, the scenographic apparatus for the show, directed by Roberto Lerici at the Teatro Durini in Milan, called Materiale per sei personaggi (Material for six characters). Although in this circumstance, as in the first approaches, he acted exclusively as a set designer, the work identifies an important passage to grasp the changing of the artist's activity in an increasingly interdisciplinary key, synchronously and in response to the development of the binomial art and life. Well, at this particular juncture "Scheggi uses a wall of theIntercamera plastica [of 1967] on which videos and images are projected" (Bignotti, 2016), proving that he knows how to open his own work, even that of his predecessors, to contaminations of various kinds.

Returning to Marcia funebre o della geometria, processione secondo Paolo Scheggi (Funeral March or Geometry, Procession according to Paolo Scheggi ) [Fig.5], as can be deduced from the title, this is a theatrical piece with a profound rituality, staged in Como - again in 1969 - during the Campo Urbano event. Interventi estetici nella dimensione collettiva urbana, curated by Luciano Caramel. 

Paolo Scheggi, Funeral March or Geometry, 1969 (fig.5)

The performance translates into "sculptural and lived action the geometric elements at the basis of its visual, plastic and environmental investigation, now verifying their resistance in becoming voice, body, action, spiritual viaticum" (Bignotti, 2016); in becoming an existential and transcendental entity at the same time. Transmitted by recorders, a female and a male voice recite excerpts of biblical readings, pastiches of stage texts, lyrical fragments, accompanying the procession of the volumes of six basic solids - the cube, the sphere, the pyramid, the cone, the cylinder, the parallelepiped - carried above the heads of the actors who parade in the public square of the Lombard city, breaking into the regular course of community life.

Autospettacolo. Atto unico del tempo and Marcia funebre o della geometria, processione secondo Paolo Scheggi (Funeral March or Geometry, Procession According to Paolo Scheggi), with regard to the absolute congruence achieved here between the human subject, artistic practice and exhibition context, represent - in the logic of the discussion now drawing to a close - the cases in which the argued intention to connect art and life has been expressed by Paolo Scheggi to the highest degree of permeability, constituting its ultimate goal. Moreover, in these two operations in particular, he proves that he has assumed the never taken for granted maturity of knowing how to move between operational classes, without lacking in coherence of investigation, linguistic relevance and speculative quality; a lesson for so much contemporaneity.


[1] In the essay written for the exhibition Object painting in Milan. Fontana, Bonalumi, Castellani, Scheggiheld at the Galleria Arco d'Alibert art studio in Rome in 1966, Gillo Dorfles introduced the successful term 'Painting-object'. 

[2] In order to adequately convey how much theatrical experimentation, in these years, was gaining importance in the transformation of European culture, perhaps even to the point of influencing the direction of research in other disciplinary sectors, it should be remembered that in 1968 there was a performance by the Living Theatre at the Milan Polytechnic, and that its group of actors, four years earlier, had moved from the United States to Europe, establishing itself "as one of the canonical representations of Sixty-eight" (De Marinis, 2000). Moreover, the same year saw the publication of a collection of essays by director Jerzy Grotowski For a Poor Theatrewhich - briefly described - preached a theatrical practice devoid of scenographic frills, in order to favour an immediate contact between the public and the actor's expressiveness. Logically, we do not have the elements to determine the existence of a direct link between these different circumstances in the disciplines and geography, but, nevertheless, appealing to the fact that they shared the same chronology and that we do not even have the data to assert with certainty the contrary, it would be improper to consider them completely unrelated. Probably the only legitimate thing to affirm is that, like a karstic river, the idea of aestheticizing existential experience meandered through Europe, as already noted by contemporary scholars, probably as a consequence of a critical attitude towards issues related to the individual-society relationship, to which Scheggi was not insensitive.

[3] In order to frame Scheggi's application of a deliberately interdisciplinary modus operandi, mention should be made of his numerous collaborations with professionals from other fields such as, in addition to Scabia, "musicians such as Franca Sacchi, directors such as Raffaele Maiello and critics such as Franco Quadri" (Corà, 2007).

[4] For justification, in addition to Milan and Florence, it is recalled that Oplà-stick was also performed in Zagreb, again in 1969, in the setting of Nove Tendencije 4.



2016 M. Barbero, La complessità originale di un percorso tra arte e vita, in L. M. Barbero (ed.), Paolo Scheggi. Catalogo ragionato, Skira, Milan, 2016.

2011 Bignotti, Paolo Scheggi: dall'Intersuperficie all'Intercamera. L'opera oltre la parete, al di là del muro: per vivere uno spazio, per agire il tempo, in Ricerche di S/Confine. Artistic/cultural objects and practices: I muri, vol. II, no. 1, Parma, 2011.

2016 Bignotti, Biografia, in L. M. Barbero (ed.), Paolo Scheggi. Catalogo ragionato, Skira, Milan, 2016.

2007 Bortolotti, Paolo Scheggi. Dal quadro-oggetto all'ambiente vivibile, in B. Corà (ed.), Scheggi: ferri-tele-carte. 1957-1971, Edizioni Il Ponte, Florence, 2007.

2007 Corà, Paolo Scheggi: lo spazio davanti al buio, in B. Corà (ed.), Scheggi: ferri-tele-carte. 1957-1971, Edizioni Il Ponte, Florence, 2007.

2000 De Marinis, Il nuovo teatro: 1947-1970, Bompiani, Milan, 2000.

1966 Dorfles, Pittura-oggetto a Milano, in G. Celant, G. Dorfles, Pittura oggetto a Milano. Fontana, Bonalumi, Castellani, Scheggi, Arco d'Alibert studio d'arte, Rome, 1966.

1969 Rusconi, Paolo Scheggi: Riempire un tempo come tempo di teatralità, in Sipario, n. 276, Milan, 1969.

1968 Scheggi, Note for Plastic Interventions, 1968.

1976 Scheggi, L'autospettacolo. Nota critica, in D. Farneti Cera, F. Scheggi (eds.), Paolo Scheggi, Edizioni del Naviglio, Milan, 1976.

1969 Vinca Masini, Oplà - action - reading - theatre + modular intersurfaces, self-published, Florence, 1969.