One could hardly imagine that in via Vittorio Emanuele, one of the main streets of Catania, stands a Roman theatre built in the first century A.D. on a pre-existing Greek structure from the fourth century B.C. The theatre for its structure – in part perfectly preserved and not visible from the street – leaves stunned both the tourists and the citizens of Catania.
The Roman theatre is located above the southern slopes of the Montevergine hill, which became the location of the Greek acropolis, between via Vittorio Emanuele II (South), via Teatro Greco (North) and Piazza San Francesco d’Assisi (East).
According to Roman and Greek sources, during the past centuries many scholars speculated about the existence of a Greek theatre in Catania; only at the end of the XIXth century, under the ruins of the Roman theatre, two blocks of white stone were discovered and on them the Greek inscription, “KAT”, confirmed the information reported in the sources.
After the IVth century A.D., the theatre was abandoned: people raided its marbles, its architectural decorations, the statues that adorned the scene (in Greek σκηνή), and the wall of the pulpit.
Parts of the theatre were used to build houses and also a butchery in the area of the orchestra (animal bones emerged: from bovines, poultry and, according to recent archaeological excavations, even camel bones). Until the XVIIITh Century, the monument had been affected by the city’s construction industry. We can mention, for example: the “Casa del Terremoto”, built inside the third ambulacrum, a covered walking corridor, so called because at the moment of its discovery, all the rooms were full of the stone collapsed from the walls during the 1693 earthquake. We can also remember the “Casa Liberti”, a bourgeois house of the 1800s, now restored and turned into museum: its collection comprehends materials found during the excavation such as lamps, ceramics and pottery. Moreover, from the terrace we can also admire the entire theatre and the overlap of the modern buildings.
The Sovraintendenza of Catania took care of the situation only after the demolition wanted by one the owner of a palace located inside the structure. At first, they start with an operation of expropriation and demolition of the buildings, and then they started excavation campaigns during the 50s and 70s of the last century and, more recently, in the early 2000s.
Inside the theatre we can admire a large semicircular cavea (from which, at one time, the sea was visible) of 98 meters and built on three levels; it was able to host about 7000 spectators. Then, in front of our eyes, an orchestra covered with inlaid marble decorations, often flooded during the centuries by the water of the mouth of the river Amenano; and a pulpit, decorated by marble.
The different archaeological excavations revealed many architectural decorations and marbles, now exposed in the antiquarium, the museum placed at the entrance of the theatre (we can access it from the ruins). Among the findings we remember: the fragmented sculpture group “Leda col cigno”, Roman copy of a 360 B.C original, from the roman artist Timotheos; we can also mention a white marble slab, recently discovered, where a dolphin is illustrated: and which was likely a separating wall in the cavea aimed to indicate the forum reserved to the honourable public.
To conclude, we have to remember another small theatre, the odeion, which arises in to the west side of the theatre: a semicircular plan built by the Romans between the end of the Ist and the end of the IInd Century A.D.. The name ᾠδείον, from the Greek word ᾠδή, singing, tells us about its function: it was usually destined to singing performances such as musical competitions or auditions. As the larger theatre, the odeion was covered by lava stone, especially in the orchestra whose pavement was made by; coloured marbles, giving a spectacular polychromic effect caused by its interaction with the red of the bricks and the black of the lava stone.
Written by Luana Indelicato
English Translation curated by Giulia Cusumano