I am standing in Museo Teatro Romano in Lecce, Italy. But it is the 21st Century, not the 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 that includes stays in Matera, Ostuni, and Bari, Italy. Today is a free day so I can explore Lecce at my leisure.
Nicknamed the Florence of the South, Lecce is an ancient Roman town. It is famous for its two cathedrals, its amphitheater located in the town center … and its outdoor theatre.
British novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote that “the name of Italy has magic in its very syllables.” The name of Lecce conveys loveliness, elegance, and culture.
“Bequeathed with a generous stash of baroque buildings by its 17th-century architects, the city has a completeness and homogeneity that other southern Italian metropolises lack.”Lonely Planet
The city’s origins seem to date back to the 5th century BC, “but a legend attributes its foundation to around 1200 BC by Malennio, immediately after the destruction of the city of Troy. The conquest by Rome ensured a strong economic and building development,” according to www.italia.it.
Lupiae hosted the Roman Games, a drama festival held to honor Jupiter, king of the Roman gods as well as other 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.
“The series of nine theatrical masks from the Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli is of great scenic effect.”Commune of Lecce
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 them. 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.
In comedies, costumes represented the actor’s gender. A male actor wore a white gown made of wool. Women dressed in a long gown with a stole. Slaves wore a short gown with a belt. A slave’s mask showed a mouth twisted in a grimace. It also had raised eyebrows and red hair.
The outdoor theater is attached to an archaeological museum, which was set up by the Memmo Foundation. The museum 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 the last century. They 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.
Roman actors performed the plays during the Ludi Romani (or festival games). The Roman religious festivals typically included dramas and comedies.
The venue features some oddities. The museum exhibits large grey rocks from Via Appia. This was the stone road which linked Rome to Brindsi.
It was also known as Regina Viarium. Construction started in 312 B.C. and it was completed by 190 B.C.
“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 until Brindsi, where they embarked to reach the Holy Land,” according to the museum’s signage.
If you love the theater, you should consider Museo Teatro Romano as the #1 place to visit in Lecce. When I stood outside on the steps of the ancient Roman theater, I thought of Caesar’s admonition.
“It is better to create than to learn! Creating is the essence of life.”Caesar
Visiting the Museo Teatro Romano gave me a powerful lesson about the role of the writer in the lives of ancient Romans.
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JennJuly 9, 2022 at 12:37 pm
This looks like a cool spot to check out. I love these ancient Roman theaters and ruins such as this! Thanks for sharing!
TerriJuly 9, 2022 at 1:28 pm
I also love to see old Roman sites (and ruins) when I travel in Europe. It is such fascinating history.
AnitaJuly 9, 2022 at 12:57 pm
Museo Teatro Romano in Lecce looks awesome. So much history in it! It’s a great opportunity to learn more about performances played so many years ago. Thanks for sharing!
TerriJuly 9, 2022 at 1:29 pm
Before the pandemic, the Teatro Romano also stages live plays in the amphitheater. I would love to experience a production.
DanielleJuly 9, 2022 at 2:22 pm
This is a part of Italy I’ve never been to!
TerriJuly 9, 2022 at 2:24 pm
I highly recommend visiting Puglia in southern Italy. It is gorgeous. But don’t go in July during a heatwave!
Andrea CannonJuly 9, 2022 at 3:44 pm
This looks like a great place to explore! So much history.
HeatherJuly 9, 2022 at 4:44 pm
Looks like you had a great time. As I travel through Europe I’m fascinated at all the Roman history. I know I’ve read it in history books but seeing it live is much more interesting.
TerriJuly 9, 2022 at 5:43 pm
I agree. I love to see the ancient Roman structures in other countries, such as England, France and Croatia.
JasminaJuly 9, 2022 at 4:45 pm
It looks like a great place to explore! I love places with so much history. Thank you for sharing it!
TerriJuly 9, 2022 at 5:44 pm
Leece is a gorgeous city due to its history and its architecture.
KatyJuly 9, 2022 at 5:55 pm
I’d love to visit Museo Teatro Romano. The nine masks look very interesting!
TerriJuly 9, 2022 at 9:18 pm
I just wish I had taken photos of all 9 masks!
JulieJuly 9, 2022 at 8:07 pm
I’ve been really drawn to traveling in Italy lately. I”m thinking I would love to return there and explore the country in more depth. You’ve given me another idea for my future trip.
TerriJuly 9, 2022 at 9:18 pm
I am obsessed with Italy. I have my next trip booked for 2023 to Sicily. Enjoy!
ErinJuly 9, 2022 at 9:52 pm
I have been to Italy a few times, but never to Lecce. This totally looks my speed, since I absolutely love museums! I’m always impressed with your adventures, and hiking would be fabulous too!
TerriJuly 10, 2022 at 5:31 am
I wish I had read more about Lecce’s history because I visited it. I’d love to know more about the Baroque architecture and the palaces. I guess I need to visit again!
ChantelleJuly 10, 2022 at 12:11 am
Oh, wow~ This looks like such a great place to visit! I’ve never been to Italy, reading this makes me excited to visit!
TerriJuly 10, 2022 at 5:30 am
You must visit Italy! Prioritize it. You won’t regret it.
SueJuly 10, 2022 at 6:55 am
What a great museum! I especially love those masks although they do look a little sinister. I live in. a town with lots of Roman history but still never fails to fascinate me when I go travelling.
TerriJuly 10, 2022 at 7:50 pm
I am always fascinated to see what the ancient Romans built as that expanded into new regions too!
KristaJuly 10, 2022 at 9:06 am
This is such a unique museum! I love the different style of masks on show. It reminds me of a theatre in southern Spain that I walked by.
TerriJuly 10, 2022 at 7:49 pm
I just wished I took photos of all 9 masks!
BrittanyJuly 10, 2022 at 11:26 am
Those masks are so neat! I love how well they captured different emotions in each mask. This looks like such an interesting museum to visit. Thanks for putting it on my radar!
TerriJuly 10, 2022 at 7:49 pm
I hope you get to visit the museum and the Puglia region if you travel to Italy. Fascinating!
CristinaJuly 10, 2022 at 3:26 pm
This is the type of museum I would love to visit. I’ve never been to Lecce, so I am saving this for the future!
TerriJuly 10, 2022 at 7:48 pm
It was fascinating! I loved learning how the ancient Romans produced dramas and comedies. I would love to see a play performed at their amphitheater.
ANUKRATI DOSIJuly 11, 2022 at 2:13 am
Interesting read! Loved reading about the masks.
TerriJuly 16, 2022 at 7:59 am
The masks fascinated me too!
PamJuly 11, 2022 at 7:55 am
I love visiting places like this – it gives a unique glimpse into the life of Ancient Rome and how people lived. Very interesting
TerriJuly 16, 2022 at 7:58 am
Italy is such a treasure trove to explore the life of Ancient Rome.
AnnieJuly 11, 2022 at 8:22 pm
This place looks incredible! Adding it to my list for the next time I’m in Italy. Thanks for all the great info!
TerriJuly 16, 2022 at 7:58 am
You definitely want to spend at least 3-4 days in southern Italy. There is so much to see – Matera caves, Roman amphitheatre in Lecce, plus the incredible beach.
NatalieJuly 11, 2022 at 9:32 pm
I’ve never heard of Lecce, but you really know how to make me want to visit a new place I’ve never heard of. Amazing post!
TerriJuly 16, 2022 at 7:57 am
I am so glad that my post motivated you to visit Lecce if/when you visit Italy.
KarlaTypesJuly 13, 2022 at 3:32 pm
I loveeeee Italy. On my way to Rome this weekend but I’m adding Lecce to my list!
TerriJuly 16, 2022 at 7:51 am
I hope you enjoy your Italy trip. I am jealous.