Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Theater of Pompey

Today's photos:


1. A reproduction of Pompey's Theater, including the location of the Temple of Venus.

2. The second-century A.D. statue of Hercules.

3. One of the two statues of satyrs found in the theater.

4. The second satyr. See how they mirror each other.

5. The river god with the two satyrs on the sides.

6. The statue of Pompey.

7. The lower dining-room in the restaurant Da Pancrazio.

8. Remains of a column in the dining-room of Da Pancrazio.

9. Via di Grotta Pinta and the building follow the curvature of the cavea of the theater.

10. The view from Campo dei Fiori.


Elsewhere in this blog we wrote about the Theater of Marcellus, planned by Julius Caesar and constructed in 11 B.C. by Augustus who dedicated it to his nephew, Marcellus. Caesar's plan for the theater was inspired by a preceding and much grander structure: the Theater of Pompey.




But who was this man Pompey (106-48 B.C.)? He was a great Roman general who in the beginning was allied with Julius Caesar. For example, he was married to Caesar's daughter, Julia, and he was also part of the first triumvirate with Caesar and Crassus. But all did not go smoothly in their relationship, and eventually there was a brutal civil war between the two generals, which ended in the murder of Pompey.




In 61, while Pompey was still at the height of his power and popularity, he decided to have a theater built, but it would be unlike any other theater ever built in Rome, both in size and in building material.


A curiosity


Before Pompey's time theaters in Rome were temporary buildings, made of wood. The stage would be assembled for a performance and then torn down immediately after the performance. There were no seats, so the spectators just stood or sat on the ground.


Pompey would dramatically change this custom by building the first permanent theater in Rome, made of stone. Work began in 61 and was completed in 55. It was enormous; estimates of the permanent seating capacity range from 18,000 to 27,000 spectators. (The truth probably lies somewhere between the two extremes). It became one of the wonders of Rome. Pompey even had a temple built onto the theater (photo 1); he dedicated it to Venus Victrix (Triumphant Venus) to recall his military victories.


Pompey would be pleased to know that his theater lasted for centuries, continuing to operate until the first half of the fourth century. Several emperors sponsored restorations of the theater, including Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Diocletian. It would not, however, survive the Middle Ages as it became a stone quarry used to supply material to build other structures.




However, several works of art from the theater have survived to our times, the most important of which are four statues preserved in museums in Rome. One of these is to be found in the Vatican Museums: a magnificent, colossal bronze statue of Hercules, thirteen feet tall (photo 2), a Roman work of the second century A.D.


A curiosity


This statue, discovered in 1864, had been purposely buried with great care, contained between two slabs of stone to protect and preserve it. The story is that the statue was struck by a lightning bolt hurled by Jupiter, then immediately buried on the spot in such a way as to preserve it forever. And in fact, you can see even in the photo that the statue has come down to us perfectly preserved.




The Capitoline Museums in Rome can boast of two first century A.D. statues from Pompey's theater (photos 3 & 4). They depict two satyrs representing Pan, the god of flocks and shepherds; they can be seen on the ground floor of the Palazzo Nuovo (the left side wing of the museum), one on either side of an enormous statue of a reclining river god (photo 5). Look carefully at the two arms of each of the satyrs and you will see that they are mirror reflections of each other. They are believed to have been used in the theater as permanent supports for some other structure.




But perhaps the most exciting survival from the theater is to be found in the museum of Palazzo Spada. It is a large first century A.D. statue of Pompey (photo 6) discovered in the ruins of the theater in 1555. In front of the theater was a large courtyard containing 100 columns, at the end of which was another building called the Curia of Pompey. This was an assembly hall where the Roman Senate would occasionally meet, located directly across from Largo Argentina, site of the four Republican temples.


A curiosity


We know that Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 B.C. in the Curia of Pompey. He was attacked by 23 senators, each of whom stabbed him one time. A tradition says that Caesar fell at the feet of the statue of Pompey whom he had defeated in the civil war. If you look carefully at the statue in Palazzo Spada you will see a reddish stain near the bottom of the statue. The blood of Caesar???


Unfortunately, it is not easy to get in to see this famous statue. Although it is in Palazzo Spada, it is not in a part of the building normally open to the public. A guided tour which includes the statue is offered once a month, and reservations must be made well in advance.




Some important remains of the theater itself can be found in two unlikely places: a restaurant and a hotel. In the restaurant Da Pancrazio, the lower level dining room has been built into the visible ruins of Pompey's theater (photo 7). I have had the pleasure of dining there several times, including last summer with a group of students and professors from the University of New Orleans. It is really a unique experience. In addition, there is in the restaurant a small model of the theater complex which gives you an excellent idea of what the place really looked like and of its enormous size. The restaurant also exhibits part of a marble column (photo 8) from the theater. You can also see remains of the theater in the nearby Hotel del Teatro di Pompeo where the lower level dining room is totally surrounded by the ancient walls of the theater.


You can get a good idea of the size of the theater from the little street, Via di Grotta Pinta (photo 9), which curves, following the curvature of the cavea (orchestra and seating area) of the theater, as does the enormous building now on the site and which faces the street. In addition, if you stand in the middle of the nearby Campo dei Fiori, to the right of the statue of Giordano Bruno and look in the opposite direction from where the statue is facing, you will see on the third level of the building two small columns embedded into the wall on either side of a window (photo 10). Those two columns, as well as the two pilasters on either side of them belonged to Pompey's theater.




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