Theater of Herculaneum, a revolutionary discovery

by Echo of the Sirens

In 1710 the Theater of Herculaneum, one casual discovery which opened a window on the past and began the excavations of the city buried by the eruption of Vesuvius of 79 AD. An immersed treasure that still today, after more than 300 years, continues to give great emotions.

Colonna ritrovata nel teatro di Ercolano
Column found in the theater

A casual discovery

It all started one day, apparently normal, of the 1710 in the city of Resina. A farmer named Ambrogio Nucerino, said Enzechetta, he was digging a well, when between one pick and the other he realized that instead of water he had found ancient remains. Herzechetta had unwittingly made a sensational discovery, had found the theater of Herculaneum and the well he created was transformed into a time machine capable of transporting in a few minutes to the ancient buried city. Soon the news reached the Prince of Elboeuf, Emanuel-Maurice of Lorraine, who conducted the excavations in the area at his expense for nine months.

From the well, precious materials began to be taken, such as ancient marbles and statues, which the prince used to embellish the villa he was building on the port of Granatello in Arcades. The discovery of the theater of Herculaneum started an intense excavation activity and marked the starting point of themodern archeology.

Eco delle Sirene Tour

Theater structure

The Herculaneum theater had a capacity of about 2500 people. It was built at the time of Emperor Augustus by the will of the duoviro Lucio Annio Mammanio Rufo on a project by the architect Publio Numisio. The shape of the theater is the typical Roman one with the horseshoe-shaped cavea divided into three orders: ima, media and summa cavea. People took places in the different sectors based on social status, the lowest area being the most prestigious. In the upper part of the cavea, three small temples were found which must have housed statues of emperors. Above the exit passages, placed on the sides of the auditorium, were the court, a sort of boxes of honor reserved for vip of the time. In the two tribunals of Herculaneum, marble inscriptions have been found, one dedicated to Marco Nonio Balbo, benefactor of Herculaneum and the other to Appio Claudio Pulcro, a member of an important family in Rome.

The front scene it looked like one facade of a classic building: divided into two orders, decorated with colored columns and statues inserted in niches. It had the three classic openings: the door direction in the center and the two lateral ones hospitales, which allowed the actors to enter the scene. The theater was in the open air and the only cover was the velarium, large sheets that were opened on hot days to protect spectators from the sun.

iscrizione marmorea dedicata ad Appio Claudio Pulcro ritrovata nel teatro di Ercolano
Marble inscription dedicated to Appio Claudio Pulcro

Visit the ancient theater today

The theater is located outside the archaeological park of Herculaneum and is located in 25 m deep with respect to the road surface. It was reopened, after twenty years of closure, in June 2018. The structure can be partially visited since most of it is still buried in the pyroclastic mass. Visitors who go to the site at the beginning of the tour are provided with helmet, flashlight and raincoat to ensure maximum safety. The tour begins with the descent into the theater by means of a eighteenth-century staircase, the same used by the many men traveling during the Grand Tour. Once in depth we continue with the exploration of the tunnels dug in the Bourbon period that cross the inside of the theater. It starts from the top in the area of the summa cavea and goes down to the point where there was the orchestra. The most exciting moment is for sure the one in which the eyes rise and the well is observed from below excavated by Erzechetta.

Pozzo scavato da Erzechetta, dal quale iniziarono gli scavi del teatro di Ercolano.
Well dug by Erzechetta

Visiting the theater is a unique experience and it is certainly one of the things we recommend doing at least once in your life.

Info for one guided view to the excavations of Herculaneum contact Eco delle Sirene tour

Info on tickets for the theater of Herculaneum here

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