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Excavations and Early Studies


By James Packer

The Renaissance

The neighborhood around the Theater was densely inhabited, and most of the early excavations started as construction projects. As noted in Flavio Biondo’s  guidebook to Rome, Roma instaurata, first published in 1482, “Angelus Pontianus,” an attorney ( iureconsultus), while his workmen  were digging a deep wine cellar near the Church of S. Lorenzo in Damaso, found a sizeable squared square stone with an inscription in large-scale letters (litterae... cubitales) that read “Genius of the Theater of Pompey” (genivs theatri pompeiani). In 1525, a pit for the foundations of the church of Santa Maria in Grotta Pinta produced a marble block with the name of Venus Victrix. In 1716,  a great marble fragment with a cornice that came from the corners of some large structure (probably a part of the scaenae frons) was uncovered in digging the foundations of a house “near the end of the vicolo Chiavari where the street widens” and some years later (1744), excavation for the foundations of a house on Via Giubbonari revealed a giallo antico shaft, inscribed with a quarry mark: “Cn. Pompei.”  By the mid-eighteenth century, students of Roman topography had identified these remains as those of Pompey’s theater.

Canina, Sections of the Theater of Pompey: top, looking west toward the cavea and the Temple of Venus Victrix; bottom, looking east toward the scaenae frons (Canina 1848, vol. 4, Pl. 155)

Canina, Restored plan of the Theater of Pompey


Early Studies

To assemble a theoretical reconstruction of that monument, Luigi Canina, a famous Roman architect and antiquary of the first half of the 19th century, then combined these ruins with Vitruvius’ well known description of a Roman theater (5.3).

Baltard, Archaeological Plan of the Theater of Pompey

Baltard, drawing of the facade section excavated in the Largo dei Librari



Baltard, Plan of 1835 excavation of part of  the Theater facade in the Largo dei Librariargo

Baltard, Plan of 1835 excavation of part of the Scaenae frons in the Piazza dei Satiri

Victoire Baltard, a French Architect on a grant at the French Academy in Rome, partially confirmed and revised that reconstruction, and, as required by his grant, made a new reconstruction of the theater in 1837.

Basing his work on Vitruvius, on fragments of the Forma Urbis, the early third century C.E. marble plan of Rome, and on the earlier study of Canina, Baltard also undertook two excavations in the Largo dei Librari and the Piazza dei Satiri that clarified the extent and architectural character of the Theater.  The first cleared part of the facade; the second uncovered the east apse of the scaenae frons and confirmed its plan on the Forma Urbis. First published in the early 20th century, his drawings have served as the model for all subsequent reconstructions of the Theater.

The Theater of Pompey on the Forma Urbis



Baltard, restored  plan of the Theater and  peristyle of Pompey   

Baltard, east-west section of the Theater of Pompey, looking  south

Baltard, north-south section of the Theater of Pompey, looking east to the scaenae frons

The south foundations of the Temple of  Venus Victrix photographed by Antonio Colini (c.1933)


During the three decades after Baltard, finds from the Theater of Pompey were, with one exception, largely unrecorded, but, in 1865, there was a second large-scale excavation. While Pietro Righetti, then owner of Palazzo Pio, was excavating the foundations for a new wing in the NE court, his laborers, working at a depth of  7.14 m, found, parallel to the north facade of  the court, part of the south exterior wall of the Temple of Venus Victrix. Of  peperino blocks, it consisted of the lower section of an arcade decorated with engaged half-columns.

Adjacent to the wall lay the remains of a street, a fine marble pavement of porta santa and cipollino,  and the gilt thumb from a colossal bronze statue.


The Hercules Righetti as discovered in 1865

Directed by Architect Luigi Gabet, Righetti's workers made further major discoveries. Excitedly increasing the size of their excavation, Gabet and his workmen laid bare the rest of the statue, a colossal Hercules (known today as the "Hercules Righetti"). It lay on its back partially submerged under an ancient shelter of travertine slabs at the SE corner of the foundations of the Temple of Venus Victrix. The excavators raised it, and Righetti later sold it to Pope Pius IX, who subsequently transferred it to the Sala Rotonda in the Vatican Museums where it stands today.