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History of the Theater


The Theater in Antiquity - I

The Theater in Antiquity - II

The Theater in the Middle Ages

The Theater in the Early Modern Era

The Theater in the Modern Era

The Theater in the Middle Ages

By Kristin Triff

While the fortunes of the Theater in the early Middle Ages are unknown, it appears to have retained its architectural integrity for several centuries.  Since the Einsiedeln Itinerary (a late eighth-century pilgrim’s guide to Rome) refers specifically to a theatrum near the Church of San Lorenzo in Damaso, some of Pompey’s buildings may still have been intact at that time.  By the eleventh century, however, the theater had been partially converted to other uses. 

Santa Maria di Grotta Pinta (deconsecrated, with seventeenth-century façade)

These uses include the two churches that occupy parts of the site, the 11th  century church of Santa Barbara (now Santa Barbara dei Librai, or Saint Barbara of the booksellers), located near the southern extremity of the cavea, and the church of Santa Maria di Grottapinta (“Holy Mary of the painted grotto”) just above the midline of the cavea.  This ancient church, whose earliest surviving documentation dates from 1186 C.E., was named for the rooms below the church itself, which were probably the part of an original access corridor to the cavea.  Although the orientation of the church was reversed in the seventeenth century and thus the current façade dates to this period, the footprint of the church remained essentially the same from the Middle Ages through its deconsecration in the early twentieth century. 




Santa Barbara dei Librai (seventeenth-century façade)

By the mid-twelfth century, at least two sources still identified the Theater by its ancient name, while another cities it only as the “Temple of Cneus (sic) Pompey,” a possible reference to the remains of the Temple of Venus Victrix which was incorporated into the current Palazzo Pio on Piazza Biscione.  Ten years later (1150 C.E.), the archives of the Orsini family indicate that “Iohannes de Ceca,” the prior and financial officer of the church of Sant’Angela in Pescheria (“prior et yconomus venerabilis Diaconie S. Angeli”), sold part of a “trullum” to Bobone di Bobone and his heirs.  In medieval Latin, “trullum” derived from the Latin turris, or tower, and possibly incorporated the Latin trulla, or round structure.  Bobone was a direct ancestor of the Orsini family, one of Rome’s most powerful feudal families, and this sale marks the beginning of a long association between the Orsini and the remains of Pompey’s Theater.

View of Palazzo Pio looking east from the Campo  de’ Fiori towards the  torre dell’ orologio (Antonio Tempesta, 1606)

By the end of the thirteenth century, the Boveschi-Orsini had consolidated their holdings in the southern half of the Theater through numerous property acquisitions, which included the large torre dell’orologio, or clocktower built directly atop the foundation of the Temple of Venus Victrix.  The most frequently cited landmark in the area until its partial destruction in the seventeenth century, this tower dominated the area around Campo de’ Fiori and was the heart of the Orsini stronghold at this site.  The Orsini palace at Pompey’s Theater was an important link in the chain of fortified Orsini family properties in the Tiber bend area of Rome that controlled traffic across the river during the factional conflicts of the later Middle Ages and Renaissance.

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