Ancient Theatre of Taormina

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Taormina’s Teatro Antico is certainly one of the most famous Sicilian monuments in the world. An authentic jewel both for its historical value and for the incredible view it offers. Since the 1950s it has been the venue for many events, including the Taormina Film Festival.

The history of the Ancient Theatre of Taormina

The construction of the Ancient Theatre of Taormina probably dates back to the 3rd century B.C. during the reign of Hieron II. In fact, on some of the steps is engraved the name of Philistides, the wife of the Greek tyrant. A temple was also built on the hill of the theater, perhaps dedicated to Apollo archaghètas, of which only the stylobate, that is, its basement, remains. From the first half of the second century, under the Roman Empire, the theater underwent several modifications and transformations to be adapted to an amphitheater. With the fall of the Roman Empire, the theater was gradually abandoned and in the Middle Ages part of the building was converted into a private residence. Some of its materials were also used in the construction of some of Taormina’s monuments. In 1860 the architect Saverio Cavallari carried out the restoration, during which the columns and part of the stage were rebuilt in anastylosis.

The Roman transformations of the Greek theater of Taormina

The present appearance of the ancient theater of Taormina is the result of the adaptations made by the Romans to the Greek architectural structure. These modifications were aimed at transforming the monument from a theater to an amphitheater. The orchestra area became an arena for gladiator fights, while the lower tiers were replaced by a corridor. This was connected to a hypogeum where some stage machinery allowed the “special effects” of the fights. In late antiquity, the portico was built behind the stage.

Architecture of the Ancient Theatre of Taormina

In the ancient theater of Taormina, elements of the original Greek theater coexist today with additions made during the Roman Empire. The combination of these architectural elements and the landscape that includes Capo Sant’Andrea, the Strait of Messina and Mount Etna make this one of the most fascinating and exciting sites in Sicily. It is also the second largest ancient theater in Sicily, after the Greek Theater in Syracuse.

The entrance to the ancient theatre of Taormina

The access to the cavea of the ancient theater of Taormina was through an external staircase called Règia or Principale. It consisted of three rotating ramps that became narrower as they climbed. The first ramp led to the entrance, from which one reached the lowest seats of the Cavea, reserved for the authorities. To increase the capacity of the theater, two large brick porticoes were built, the vaults of which supported a terrace. The second ramp led to the covered corridor, from which eight small doors led to the terrace reserved for the women. It was divided into several levels and had wooden seats. The third ramp led to the plebeian entrance, which had no fixed seats. A wide velarium allowed the spectators to be sheltered from the sun or rain.

The stage and the wings

The stage is the most important part of the ancient theater of Taormina and it has partially preserved its original form. However, nothing remains of the decorative elements. According to scholars, there were two architectural orders in the Corinthian style. The first order, almost leaning against the wall of the stage, consisted of nine columns arranged in groups of three. They supported an arched portico that served as a canopy over the stage. In the wall behind these columns were three doors for the artists to enter the stage, and in the same wall were niches where statues were placed. The second architectural order consisted of 16 lower columns at regular intervals. On both sides of the stage there were two large chambers (parasceni) that enclosed the boxes and prevented the passage of the audience. They were used as dressing rooms and for storing stage equipment.

The Cavea and the Orchestra

The Cavea or stalls of the ancient Taormina Theatre is completely dug into the rock, has a diameter of 109 meters and could hold up to 5,400 spectators. Five corridors divided the rows of seats horizontally, while eight staircases, made up of thirty steps, divided it into nine sections. The stairs started from the stalls and ended at the top, against the front wall, at the eight small doors that led to the covered corridor. Between each small door were niches with statues of famous authors of dramatic art. The covered corridor followed the entire semicircular perimeter of the cavea and had the function of closing the cavea on both sides. The floor was supported by the vault of the first portico below. Between the stage and the cavea was the orchestra, reserved for the players and the chorus. It was enlarged and surrounded by a protective podium, thus eliminating the stage.

The Antiquarium

Above the Cavea of the ancient Theatre of Taormina there is the Antiquarium, a small museum where archaeological finds from the Theatre and other monuments of Taormina are exhibited. You can admire fragments of sarcophagi, statues with young torsos, a biped centaur, small bronzes and ceramics. The most interesting finds are undoubtedly the epigraphs and inscriptions dating from 150 B.C. to the Roman Empire. Some of these tablets refer to the public administrators of ancient Tauromenion, among them tamiai, the administrators of the public treasury, hieromnamones, the keepers of the sacred things, and agoranomoi, that is, the police of the time.

The ancient theater of Taormina today

Since the 50’s the Teatro Antico of Taormina has been used as an open air stage for various forms of entertainment, from David di Donatello award ceremonies to symphony concerts, from opera to ballet, from plays to Greek tragedies. Over the years, artists such as Deep Purple, Elton John, James Blunt, Kasabian, Sting, Santana have performed there. Since 1983, the Teatro Antico has also hosted one of the most important cultural events in Sicily, Taormina Arte. It is a festival that includes several events divided into sections of music and dance, theater, exhibitions and cinema. The most important event is the Taormina Film Festival, an international film festival that awards the “Silver Ribbon”.

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