The ancient Teatro di Marcello takes center stage
The Teatro di Marcello (Theater of Marcellus) is an antique monument that certainly competes for the prize of most spectacular building along with the Colosseum and the Pantheon. The theater is also central to an archeological itinerary that allows one to “read” the history of the city, from the Roman period through the Medieval and Renaissance transformation to Baroque and Classical Rome. It is a rare case of historic stratigraphy, documented by temples, houses, churches and fountains from epochs so different that they demonstrate the importance of this theater and the surrounding urban area.
The theater’s construction was begun by Julius Caesar and completed in 11 AD by Augustus, who wanted to dedicate it to the memory of Marcus Marcellus (son of Augustus’ sister Ottavia and husband of his daughter Julia), future successor to the throne who died just after turning 23. During the inauguration ceremony, the amused Suetonius recounts the story of how Augustus, loosening the ties to his chair fell to the ground in embarrassment.
The 15,000 spectators sat on the flight of steps. The lower part was for soldiers and patricians and the other part was for the commoners.
The actors performed on the stage and changed into their costumes behind it. A curtain came down after each act, just like in present-day performances. The audience needed to be large in order to participate in the theatrical performances or music and poetry contests, depending on the preference of the period.
The travertine exterior is scanned by two orders of 41 arches and 42 pillars trimmed with Doric semicolumns on the lower level and ionic columns on the upper level, while the third floor (probably Corinthian) was later demolished.
The theater fell into disuse over the following centuries and became like the Colosseum, a large quarry for construction materials, its ruins buried under an accumulation of earth.
In 1086 the Roman Jews left their historic location in Trastevere, and moved to the area around the theater, which was fortified by the powerful Pierleoni family. In 1368 it was passed on to the Savelli family, and the lower area became known as Monte Savello.
The second order was occupied by humble dwellings and by the workshops of butchers, who slaughtered the animals to be sold. In 1519, the Savelli family commissioned Baldassarre Peruzzi to build a residence over the second order of columns, similar to a crown resting on the pillars of the ancient theater. A few years later (1555) the Jewish ghetto moved into the Portico d’Ottavia area, while in 1712 the theater was sold to the Orsini family. The ruins spanning across two centuries brought the remains of the temples of Apollo Sosiano and Bellona to light.
The entire archeological area is part of a single monumental path, and is therefore of extraordinary historical interest: it was here that the triumphant post-victory military processions and the horses races were held. A few steps away from the theater, the Portico d’Ottavia contained the important complex made up of great temples and a vast library, while the people would pack into the Forum Holitorium, the antique vegetable market during the Republican Era, and the priests invoked the gods in the temples of Ianus, Spes and Iuno Sospita, whose columns are incorporated today in the striking church of San Nicola in Carcere.
It is, therefore, diminishing to consider it a case in itself because of its isolated location since it was an element which united the nearby monuments which extended all the way to the Arch of Constantine, the Arch of the Argentari and Circus Maximus.
The recent restoration of the theater, which includes the consolidation of the pillars (crushed by the massive Savelli Orsini building) and the cleaning of the facade, have given back to Rome one of its most significant monuments. The cultural restoration of the adjacent archaeological area, destined to host open-air symphonic concerts during the warm months, has furthermore remained faithful to the primary role of the theater, the only ancient theater still in excellent condition, to have survived throughout the centuries.