Recreating Pompey for Modern Eyes

Humanities Magazine, DC
July 14 2004

Recreating Pompey for Modern Eyes
By Cynthia Barnes

In 55 B.C.E., Romans applauded the debut of the world’s first modern
entertainment complex, a mammoth structure constructed by Gnaeus
Pompeius Magnus–better known as Pompey the Great, military conqueror
and rival to Julius Caesar. The showy consul named the theater for
himself. Today, using archaeology, three-dimensional modeling,
virtual reality technology, and digital research, architecture
experts are slowly raising the curtain on the Theater of Pompey.
“It’s shockingly enormous,” says James Packer, a Northwestern
University professor. “The scale is just astonishing.”

Crowds of between twenty-five and forty thousand people flocked to
see the latest spectacles played out on the 260-foot-wide stage.
Modern sports fans would recognize the curved stadium seating, the
barrel vaults, the VIP balconies–everything but the lack of
advertising–and feel right at home.

Pompey also had a curia constructed for meetings of the Senate. It
was here that Julius Caesar met his death, assassinated before a
statue of the theater’s namesake.

The Theater of Pompey became the model for all theaters throughout
the Roman Empire, says Packer. The plan for its seating areas and
fa├žade served as models for the amphitheaters that inspired the
design for many contemporary sports venues.

Packer is directing the excavation of the theater as part of a
research project begun in 1996 with Richard Beacham of the University
of Warwick (U.K.). In 2002 Packer joined with archaeologist Cristina
Gagliardo, architect Dario Silenzi, and engineer Massimo Aristide
Giannelli to undertake the first excavation of the theater since

Until the end of the Roman Empire in the West, the Pompey Theater
remained the preferred venue for theatrical representations in the
capital. Yet, despite its renown and architectural significance, the
Theater of Pompey’s structure almost completely disappeared through
the centuries.

Today, the fa├žade of a movie theater conceals the entrance to a
fortress and the piazza known as the Campo dei Fiori subsumes the
remains of the theater. The inner curve of the theater’s orchestra
survives in the Palazzo Pio’s curved fa├žade along the Via di Grotta
Pinta. Its outer curve can be seen in the Via dei Giubbonari, the Via
Della Biscione, and on the Piazza Pollarola. These outlines hint at
what the theater once was. Leisure gardens were enclosed within the
Porticus Pomeianae, a rectangular colonnade. An elaborate temple
honored Venus Victrix, or Venus the Victorious. Galleries displayed
rare works of art from throughout the Roman world. A bronze statue of
Hercules–now in the Vatican Museum–probably adorned the stage
building or the Porticus Pompeianae. The story goes that the statue
was struck by lightning, removed from its original position, and
buried next to the south foundation walls of the Temple of Venus
Victrix, outside the theater, where it was found.

Built on the marshy “Field of Mars” beyond Rome’s seven hills, the
theater’s design took advantage of new techniques in vaulted concrete
architecture with sloping barrel vaults, which supported the internal
seats and a curved stone fa├žade. Two imitators–the Theater Marcellus
and the Theater Balbus–were quickly constructed, and the design was
widely copied throughout the Mediterranean basin. The grandeur of the
theater and the sumptuous occasions held there astounded contemporary
Romans. Dio Cassius reported on the reception Nero gave the Armenian
king, Tiridates I:

Not merely the stage but the whole interior of the theater round
about had been gilded, and all the properties that were brought in
had been adorned with gold, so that the people gave to the day itself
the epithet of “golden.” The curtains stretched overhead to keep off
the sun were of purple and in the center of them was an embroidered
figure of Nero driving a chariot with golden stars gleaming all
around him.
After the fall of Rome, the Pompey Theater remained in use until
medieval times. It was repaired around 500 C.E. by Theodoric, king of
Gothic Italy. In the ninth century C.E., it was included in the
Einsiedeln itinerary, a document listing the sights of Rome written
for Christian pilgrims during the reign .of Charlemagne. By that
time, flooding from the Tiber and continuous occupation had taken its
toll, but the structure was still recognizable as an ancient theater.

By the year 1100, two Christian churches had been built on the site,
and the transformation of the theater into other structures had
begun. The church of Santa Maria in Grotta Pinta was built into one
of the vaults under the semi-circular seating area called the cavea,
and houses were built into the theater. Beginning about 1150, the
powerful Orsini family began buying out and combining these houses,
creating a powerful fortress from which they controlled the road to

The assimilation continued. Pompey’s masterpiece was built into and
buried under the buildings near the Campo dei Fiori. The structure
became integrated into the medieval neighborhood. Archaeological
excavations by Victoire Baltard, a French architect working in the
first decades of the nineteenth century, and Pietro Righetti, then
owner of the Palazzo Pio, cleared and reburied only part of the
monument. Their reports detailed the plan of the curved lower section
of the fa├žade of the seating area and the circular corridor behind
it, and Righetti reported fragments from the upper storeys of the
Temple of Venus Victrix.

Most medieval and ancient remains from the theater are unaccounted
for. The city is awash in archaeological treasures, and fragments
uncovered before today’s strict accounting methods often were not
tagged or labeled as to their origins. “There are storerooms
throughout the city filled with piles of capitals, slews of column
shafts, fragments of friezes. In earlier times, all these things were
put in storerooms,” says Packer. “When they were transferred, no
information was transferred with them. So we know that there were
pieces from Pompey. They are mentioned in earlier records, both
published and unpublished. But we haven’t been able to find these
things. We don’t know what’s become of them.”

Stripped of their archaeological context, the fragments are reduced
to pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. From 1996 through 2001, Packer
collaborated with Beacham to document the accessible surviving
remains of Pompey’s theater.

Choosing new spots to excavate is no easy task. The modern streets
that pave over the site present both political and practical
problems. Disrupting traffic and rerouting underground electrical and
sewer utility services from the neighborhood is not feasible. Cellar
rooms under the theater’s cavea are accessible from Ristorante Da
Pancrazio–the arched barrel vaults of the old theater now make a
cool and cozy ceiling for diners enjoying Roman specialties such as
roast lamb with potatoes, spaghetti alla carbonara, and ravioli
stuffed with artichoke hearts.

But because these cellar rooms were filled with concrete, they cannot
now be excavated without damaging foundations and subjecting
residents to the sound of the pneumatic drills required to cut
through the fill. Extensive excavation could weaken the foundation of
centuries-old buildings like the Palazzo Pio, an archaeological and
architectural treasure in its own right.

The research in 2002 took place in one of the Palazzo Pio’s cellar
rooms, a part of the theater’s ambulacrum–the walkway, or circular
passage immediately behind the fa├žade–adjacent to the foundations of
the stairs that led through the cavea to the Temple of Venus Victrix.
At the beginning of the excavation, researchers found that the room
had been filled with rubble from excavation in 1865 and from
post-World War II construction at the adjacent restaurant.

Removal of this detritus cleared the top of the medieval
archaeological strata that filled the excavation area and yielded
fragments of ancient, medieval, and eighteenth-century pottery. A
medieval wall closed one end of the ambulacrum. In a hole cut through
it were blocks of stone and an ancient impost block, which the
excavators temporarily left in place at the end of their season.
Rubble was hand-carried in plastic bags up a steep and narrow
staircase. “It was quite a chore,” Packer says. He and his colleagues
plan to install a small conveyor belt for the next excavation.

Packer is gathering information for a multi-authored monograph. The
Pompey Project will feature a computerized online database that spans
the entire history of the site. Virtual reality renderings of the
theater, acoustical renderings and sight lines, all known textual
references, plans of modern structures along with detailed plans of
the ancient remains, and digital photographs of all artifacts and
remains recovered at the site will be included.

It is the virtual reality modeling that may give the theater an
audience undreamed of in ancient times. By rebuilding the theater
three-dimensionally in cyberspace, any person on the planet with
access to the internet can stroll the gardens, admire the stage, or
marvel at the travertine marble-clad grandeur of Pompey’s monument.
They can examine the ornate temple where Venus received her
offerings, or even stand in the portico where Caesar met his end.

Cynthia Barnes is a writer in Columbia, Missouri.

Northwestern University received $35,000 in NEH support for the
excavation of the Pompey Theater.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress