Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Theater of Marcellus

Today's photos:

1. The Theater of Marcellus. The apartments on the top floor, created in 1500, are still in use today.

2. This view of the theater includes the columns which were part of the Temple of Apollo.

3. A close-up of the columns of the Temple of Apollo. The great size of the columns is emphasized by comparing them to the people standing at the base.

4. Pons Cestius. In 370 A.D. this bridge was repaired with stone taken from the abandoned Theater of Marcellus.

5.  The Colosseum.  At first glance it really does resemble the Theater of Marcellus.


The Theater of Marcellus

Anyone who has ever seen the Colosseum or the Pantheon will certainly agree that the ancient Romans were master craftsmen and builders. But besides amphitheaters, like the Colosseum, and temples, like the Pantheon, they also exceled in the construction of theaters.

A curiosity

These two terms, "theater" and "amphitheater", as related to ancient Roman constructions, are often misunderstood. Just what is the difference between the two? The Roman theater is arranged in such a way that the seating area rises up in a semicircle, opposite which is a stage where the action of the performance takes place. The Roman amphitheater is similar to our large, modern athletic stadiums where rising rows of seats form a complete circle around a central arena where the action takes place.

Before the first century B.C. Roman theaters were temporary structures built out of wood. The first permanent theater, made of stone, was built between 61 and 55 B.C. by Pompey, the rival of Julius Caesar. A few years later Caesar himself planned a theater, also to be built of stone, perhaps to "challenge" that of his adversary. The theater was incomplete at the time of Caesar's assassination in 44 B.C., so like many other works begun by him and left unfinished at his sudden death, this one, too, was completed by Augustus who named it after his nephew, Marcellus, the son of his sister, Octavia.

Marcellus was a young man of great promise who had been adopted by Augustus and was married to the emperor's daughter, Julia. It was planned that Marcellus, now the legal heir of Augustus, would succeed him as emperor. It was not to be, however, because the young man died in 23 B.C. at the age of 19.

A curiosity

Marcellus was very popular, not only within the imperial family, but with the Roman people as well. His untimely death was considered a national loss and it caused great mourning throughout the Empire, especially in the city of Rome. The poet Vergil laments the young man's passing, as well as that of the boy's father, also named Marcellus, in a very famous and moving passage in the Aeneid (VI, 855-883). When Vergil himself recited this part of the poem to Augustus and Octavia, the emotion was too much for her and she fainted. Later she richly rewarded Vergil for this glowing tribute which he had written in memory of her son.

The theater, located near the Tiber Island, was dedicated by Augustus himself in either 13 or 11 B.C. It was the largest theater in Rome, capable of seating up to 20,000 spectators. It quickly became the model for other theaters built in all parts of the Roman Empire.

A curiosity

By the year 370 A.D. the theater was no longer in use, so some of its blocks of stone were taken that year to repair the nearby Pons Cestius, the first century B.C. bridge which connects the Tiber Island to Trastevere. This is another example of the Roman custom of recycling, a very common procedure of the very practical-minded Romans.

Even though the entire upper floor of the theater has been lost to us today, enough of the building survives to give us a good idea of its original splendor and grandeur. Its survival is due, in part, to the fact that it passed into the hands of several powerful Roman families over the centuries, such as the Savelli, the Orsini and the Caetani, all of whom built onto the ruins, incorporating them into their family palace.

A curiosity

Today, in fact, part of the construction of these palaces is still attached to the top floor of the ruins of the theater.  Not only that, the upper floor is still inhabited, having been divided into several smaller apartments which were originally created by Baldassarre Peruzzi in 1500 at the top of the curved façade.

Because of the curvature of the façade and the many arches of the first two levels, first-time visitors to Rome often mistake this building for the Colosseum, at least at first glance. Three white columns next to the theater today are what remains of the first century B.C. Temple of Apollo. During the summer months, classical music concerts are held within the ruins of the theater.


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