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.
“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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