I am standing in a Roman teatro (theatre). The year is 2018, not 2nd Century AD. If I put on a long white toga and don a face mask, I might believe that I have been time transported back to Lupiae, a Roman colony now known as Lecce, and acting in a comedy.
Instead of a plane, train or time travel, I arrive at Fundazione Memmo Museo Teatro Romano as part of a 7-day hiking tour in Puglia. Nicknamed the Florence of the South, Lecce is an ancient Roman town. It is famous for its two cathedrals, its amphitheatre located in the town center … and its outdoor theatre. Lupiae hosted the Roman Games, a drama festival held to honor Jupiter, king of the Roman gods, as well as other religious festival (ludi) of pagan gods.
The theatre was discovered during excavations in the 1920s. It is now the home of Museo Teatro Romano, which visually tells the ancient story of play acting through artifacts, statues, costumes and scripts.
The museum prominently displays a series of nine theatrical masks from the Villa Adriana in Tivoli. Actors would place these full-faced and often open-mouthed masks over their heads when they acted in plays.
The Greeks created the masks for theatre and the Romans adopted it. The masks helped the audience to recognize different players as well as amplify their voices. For instance, female roles were represented by white masks and played by male actors. Male genders were represented by dark masks. Tragedies required a mask while it was not obligatory for comedies.
“The mask of the tragedy presents a big mouth and eyes and the hairdressing with big corkscrew curls and the mouth open like a cherry,” according to signage in the museum.
The outdoor theater is attached to an archaeological museum, which was set up by the Memmo Foundation. It bears the name of its predecessor as this prestigious 17th century palace once belonged to the Romano family.
If you are a fan of theatre, ancient Roman history or archaeology, you must visit this museum. It features discoveries from excavations made in the first half of last century, which are displayed in collaboration with the Archaeological Superintendence of Rome and the Archaeological Superintendence of Puglia.
The wealthy citizens or the state paid for Roman theatre productions. Managers of a theatrical company organized the production. “The first Roman stage plays were mounted as part of both political and religious celebrations and followed on from earlier Greek culture. Roman drama was acted out on stage during the ludi or festival games. The Roman theatre is therefore often associated with religious festivals of pagan gods,” according to the museum.
The museum features some oddities. Big grey rocks from Via Appia—the stone road linking Rome to Brindsi—are exhibited. This road was known as Regina Viarium. Construction started in 312 B.C. and it was completed by 190 B.C. The may be the most famous Roman road. “La Via Appia was not used for a long time because of the decline of the Roman Empire . . . [until it] became the way of the pilgrims who visited the catacombs and as well went on till Brindsi, where they embarked to reach the Holy Land,” according to the museum’s signage. Eventually the road was abandoned.
But for me, the greatest triumph is to stand in the theatre and ponder the playwright’s history in ancient Rome. To quote Caesar, “it is better to create than to learn! Creating is the essence of life.” Visiting the Teatro Romana gives me a powerful lesson in the role of comedy and tragedy in the lives of Romans.