La Scala Opera House: History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The La Scala opera house is one of Italy's most famous buildings. In this lesson, we'll explore the history and influence of this building, and consider what it means to Milan today.

La Scala

There are few places as associated with pure, refined class as La Scala. The name itself evokes an immediate sense of artistry. Why? Milan's famous opera house has become one of the most famous monuments to the art form of opera, which is about as important to Italian culture as La Scala itself. This structure has catapulted obscure musicians into fame, defined legacies, and set the tone for European performance arts. For this, La Scala is one of Italy's most venerated structures. It's a celebrity in its own right.

La Scala
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History of La Scala

The Teatro alla Scala (as it is known in Italy) was founded in the late 18th century, back when Milan was under the authority of the Austrian imperial family. In 1776 (while Americans were busy with their revolution) the people of Milan watched in horror as their beloved opera house burned down. This structure, the Royal Ducal Theater, had caught fire during Carnival celebrations.

Milan had to have an opera house, and the aristocratic families who owned boxes in the old theater wrote to the Austrian royal family for help. Empress Maria Theresa of Austria came up with a plan. She oversaw the deconsecrating of an old church, which was demolished to provide space for a new opera house. The name of that church was Santa Maria alla Scala. The funds for the new La Scala opera house would be raised by selling the rights to the boxes. The aristocrats quickly bought up the new boxes, and construction began. Finally, La Scala opened to the public in 1778. Their first performance was Antonio Salieri's L'Europa riconosciuta, which he had composed specifically for the opera house's grand opening.

Design of La Scala

La Scala was designed by neoclassical architect Giuseppe Piermarini (who had been recommended by the Archduke of Austria). Piermarini set about creating an opera house with a neoclassical façade, popular in the time period, built with columns, pilasters, pediments, and Classical geometric ratios.

When it was first built, La Scala was on a tight street, not an open plaza
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Italy is a nation of incredible buildings, and considering this many people actually find the façade of La Scala to be a little underwhelming. It's a nice arrangement of neoclassical motifs, but it doesn't capture the grandeur many people associate with the opera house. There's a reason for this. We have to remember that when Piermarini designed La Scala, the opera house was only one structure on a street of buildings. It was never meant to be the primary visual focus of the square, but was designed to fit into the urban landscape that once surrounded it.

The interior, however, has always been as grand as you'd hope. Originally, it was built with 6 tiers of boxes. The parapets of these boxes, as well as the ceiling of the opera house, were designed and decorated along a uniform aesthetic by two artists named Levanti and Reina. However, when aristocratic families purchased their box, they also got the rights to design the interior of that box however they wanted. Going to the opera was a chance to show off your wealth and sophistication, so these families hired some of the top designers and artists in Europe to ornament their boxes with paintings, gilded woodcarvings, and other decorations.

Unfortunately, few of these original boxes survived beyond the mid-19th century. In 1848, the Milanese overthrew the Austrian royalty as part of Italy's move towards unification. With the rejection of the nobility, many of the grand boxes were destroyed and rebuilt to symbolize an opera house that was not only for the aristocracy but for all Milanese people. It was a nice gesture, even if attendance at the opera remained almost exclusively a privilege of the elite for years to come.

The interior of La Scala has always been characterized by its elegance
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