Luigi Pirandello, Sagra del signore della nave (1924)


The one-act play Sagra del signore della nave is particularly significant within Pirandello’s production because it was chosen for the debut of the 'Teatro d’Arte', the theatre company directed by Pirandello and funded by the regime. It was performed in the small theatre of Palazzo Odescalchi, which had been acquired by the company, on 2nd April 1925. The play stages two connected events: the festival that accompanies the first slaughter of pigs, in autumn, and the celebration of the ‘Lord of the Ship’ (in Italian, Signore della nave), embodied by a huge, bloody crucifix that is carried around the streets in a procession, to save the lives of sailors.

Main Principles

  1. The ‘arte di Stato’: Modernity and Modernization

  2. The Boundaries of Realism: Constructing Collective Subjectivities


The experience of the 'Teatro d’Arte' had originated from the initiative of Pirandello’s son Stefano Landi and writer Orio Vergani who aimed at establishing their own theatre. Landi and Vergani got Pirandello involved, who soon assumed the leadership of the project, and other important figures of the cultural scene like Bontempelli and Lamberto Picasso. The company is also known as the ‘Compagnia degli Undici’, from the number of its founding members. Pirandello aspired to become the director of a ‘teatro di stato’ (state theatre) which, it was believed, Mussolini wished to found. He obtained the support of Mussolini, who in 1924 received the company’s members at Palazzo Venezia and informed them the regime would contribute Lire 250.000 towards their project; he then got a Lire 50.000 note out of his own wallet and gave it to the group. In an interview a few months later, Pirandello claimed that Mussolini had funded ‘the birth of an Italian theatre’.

The company called the Futurist architect Virgilio De Marchi to renovate the theatre of Palazzo Odescalchi. De Marchi had worked as the main set designer at Bragaglia’s Teatro degli Indipendenti, one of the most important Italian avant-garde theatre experiences of the fascist period. This choice was indicative of the modernist approach of the group, which however refused the ‘avant-garde’ label; as Bontempelli explained, they aimed to produce artworks that would be less ‘tentative’ and more ‘accomplished’. The 'Teatro d’Arte', chiefly through the work of Pirandello, effectively brought about a profound renewal and modernization of dramaturgy, in both its dimensions of dramatic composition and theatrical performance. This crucial modernizing process was produced within the context of an ‘arte di stato’ which is emblematic of the relationship between the regime and the arts that Mussolini pursued in all fields of artistic production. Pirandello and the Teatro d’Arte did not produce or perform propaganda plays, but they received state funding and operated under the auspices of the regime, fulfilling Mussolini’s expectations of excellent, modern, and internationally recognised artworks, rather than explicitly political ones. Pirandello was also a vocal supporter of the dictatorship and during Teatro d’Arte’s international tours he carried out, in his own words, a ‘direct political action’, by celebrating the regime in interviews and conferences.

For such an important debut, Pirandello chose Sagra del Signore della Nave, a play characterised by a choral, spectacular performance, involving no less than 120 actors. The scene was set in a square dominated by a church, and it was animated by all sorts of picturesque characters: villagers, merchants, sailors, buskers, harlots, and drunks who joined in the revels. As in the plays of the ‘theatre within the theatre’ trilogy, Pirandello removed the ‘fourth wall’ ideally separating the actors from the audience, plunging the public into the performance. The most spectacular scenographic novelty was a ‘staircase’ that connected the stage and the stalls, and the actors entered this expanded scenic space from a door located behind the audience, moving around using the staircase and the corridors. In a sensational final scene, all the 120 actors gathered on the stage and then walked back through the stalls and the foyers, holding a big crucifix. The profane and religious motives intertwined in a captivating, enthralling performance, with a strong visual and sound impact. The audience responded enthusiastically, and many critics, including Bontempelli and Alvaro, praised the play and the performance for its innovativeness. Mussolini also attended the premiere, and probably appreciated it, as he was seen again attending shows of the 'Teatro d’Arte' at Palazzo Odescalchi.


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Laura Pennacchietti