France, The Roman Empire

The best Roman Theatre in Europe

Provence has much to offer history buffs interested in the Roman Empire. Several monuments are as beautiful as they are well-preserved. Pont Du Gard overlooking the Gardon River, Arles Amphitheater, the Mausoleum of the Julii and Triumphal Arch at Glanum outside Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and The Roman Theatre of Orange are some of the most magnificent Roman buildings anywhere in the world.

The Roman Theatre from the 1st century CE is a great example of this incredible state of preservation and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Located in the heart of the Rhône Valley it’s particularly known for the still remaining stage wall, a feature usually lost making it the best-preserved Roman theatre in all of Europe. The original roof and marble plaques covering the structure are missing along with damages in the wall from erosion through the years but the impressive stage wall still stands. It gives a unique perspective on what these theaters would actually have looked like. The stage wall formed the backdrop for comedies, farces, musical works and tragedies during antiquity, and the theatre is still used for concerts. Its comparatively superb condition is in fact owed to that its been kept in continuous use throughout the ages.

”La plus belle muraille de mon royaume.” 

Louis XIV once described the postscaenium or the exterior facade as ”the finest wall in my kingdom.” The wall is 103 metres long,  37 metres high and 1.80 metres thick and the interior side is divided into three levels. The first comprises three doors which open out onto the stage and secondary doors which open onto the corridors or rooms without any access to the interior. On the second level, the wall is bare of any decoration. You can see the stone corbels which supported the roof structure and a deep groove, the remains of the anchoring for the tiles on the roof. A blind arcade on the wall embellishes the third level. With the exception of the central arch and the arches located in line with the basilicae (towers positioned each side of the stage), each has a cavity that lets light into the passage located inside the wall. At the top, there are two rows of 43 corbels which supported the velum, a large canvas canopy that protected spectators from the sun and rain.

In 1996 several tons of rubble were cleared and since then only a few large blocks have collapsed, caused by the constant flow of rainwater which hollow out deep fissures in the wall, damaging the stage floor as well. The first attempts at restoration began in the 19th century, and a new stage roof was later added to protect the site preserving its authenticity: sheltering the facings threatened with ruin, while strenghtening it in the more fragile parts.

It became a fortress in the Middle Ages when the town took possession of the buildings and built dwellings there. It was not until the 19th century that the Theatre was restored to its former glory thanks to major clearance and restoration works undertaken by the State. By 1869 it was ready to stage events again and function as originally intended.

The original stage roof was destroyed by fire in the 4th century, and the wooden roof was designed to protect the stage and the stone towers and walls from the elements. Rather than pay for an approximate reconstruction of the original wooden roof, a decidedly contemporary form of protection was chosen, making it possible to protect the unique facing of the wall. A project to reduce the impact on the ancient structures as far as possible was composed of a main beam 60 metres long, supporting most of the load of the rectangular 16.7 metres wide roof. A glass covering on the roof with a fine metallic fabric dressing under the roof.
The stage wall, the frons scaenae was important as it helped to properly project sound and comprised the only architectural décor in the theatre. During the performance it did not change, but some mobile items and props were installed to create the illusion of movement, space and perspective. Its original height of 37 metres has been entirely preserved. The wall was richly decorated with slabs of multicoloured marble, statues in niches, friezes and columns.

 In 1931, excavations under the stage enabled the columns currently in place to be restored to their original position. Originally there were 76 of them. The stage wall is also arranged in three levels. At the centre of the first level is the Royal Door or valva regia. Reserved for the principal actors, it was topped with a frieze decorated with centaurs, the remains of which are on display at the Museum of Orange. This door is surrounded by niches which were adorned with statues. Narrower, the side doors called “hospitable” doors were used for the actors’ entrances and exits. The second and third levels, comprising columns, are purely decorative.

The central niche houses the imperial statue of Augustus measuring 3.55 metres in height. This niche almost certainly contained a representation of Apollo and it’s likely the triumphant emperor was only substituted at a later date, replacing an original statue of Apollo. Augustus is dressed in a general’s coat, the paludamentum imperatoris, and is holding his staff. It serves as a reminder that to preserve peace throughout the Roman Empire everyone must respect its laws.

The Song in the film is ’Principles, My Ass’ by Hands Of Doom. Some images made using Google earth and illustrations by jeanclaudegolvin.com

Journey Thru History, Perseus Records ® 2016

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