Roman Theatre (Mérida)

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UNESCO World Heritage Site
Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida
Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List
Merida Roman Theatre1.jpg
Roman theater in Mérida.

Location Mérida, Extremadura
Type Cultural
Criteria iii, iv
UNESCO region Europe and North America
Coordinates 38°54′55.4″N 6°20′18.6″W / 38.915389°N 6.338500°W / 38.915389; -6.338500
Inscription history
Inscription 1993 (17th Session)

The Roman Theatre of Mérida is a construction promoted by the consul Vipsanius Agrippa in the Roman city of Emerita Augusta, capital of Lusitania (current Mérida, Spain). It was constructed in the years 16 to 15 BCE.

The theater has undergone several renovations, notably at the end of the 1st century or early 2nd century CE (possibly during the reign of Emperor Trajan), when the current facade of the scaenae frons was erected, and another in the time of Constantine I (between 330 and 340) which introduced new decorative-architectural elements and a walkway around the monument. Following the theatre's abandonment in Late Antiquity, it was slowly covered with earth, with only the upper tiers of seats (summa cavea) remaining visible. In local folklore the site was referred to as "The Seven Chairs", where, according to tradition, several Moorish kings sat to decide the fate of the city.

Enclave[edit]

The Roman theatre in the 19th century, before the archeological excavations. Photo by J. Laurent

The theatre is located in the archaeological ensemble of Mérida, one of the largest and most extensive archaeological sites in Spain. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993. The theatre was located on the edge of the Roman city adjacent the city walls. Some of the seating was built into a hill called the Cerro de San Albin.

Structure[edit]

Constructed in faithful accordance to the rules of the treaties of Vitruvius, the building corresponds to the typical Roman model. The structure exhibits similarities with the theatres of Dougga (Tunisia), Orange (France), Pompeii (Italy) and Rome.

Stands and orchestra

The semicircular shape of the grandstands cavea is incorporated into the gradient of San Albin hill. In its time it had a seating capacity of 6,000. The diameter is about 86 meters (282 feet). The stands are divided into three areas: the innermost ima cavea, (22 rows) media cavea (5 rows) and summa cavea, the latter being severely deteriorated today. The first rows ima cavea, where the wealthier social classes were seated, is divided into five radial sectors cunei, delimited stairs, a horizontal level, and a corridor praecinctio that separates it from the upper bleachers. Six doors at the top give access to a corridor covered by a semicircular dome ring that serve as entry and exit doors at the two extremities. The middle and upper caveas have five rows of seats each and are supported by a complex system of arches and barrel vaults. In total, thirteen outside doors facilitate access and entrance to the theatre. The orchestra is a semicircular space paved with white and blue marble intended for the chorus. It is surrounded by three tiers of honour for authorities and separated from the stands by a marble parapet, of which fragments remain. In the front there is a low wall with alternating straight and curved sections and separated from the stage.

Stage

Stage

The leading edge of the stage proscenium was stone and the rectangular platform pulpitum was originally covered in wood. It has holes in the floor that in antiquity served to place scenic backdrop posts and other infrastructure. The downstage setting porticus post scaenam (frons frons) is the most spectacular feature of the theatre. It is 7.5m wide, 63m long and 17.5m in total height. It consists of a base of red marble paved stones, upon which stand Corinthian columns with blue-veined marble as the shafts with white bases and capitals. These columns support an entablature with architrave and richly decorated friezes and cornices. A large marble wall encloses the back of the stage scaenae frons. The décor of this part is completed by provisional sculptures between columns- the originals are kept in the nearby National Museum of Roman Art. They are the goddess Ceres, Pluto, Proserpina and other characters with togas and armour that have been interpreted as imperial portraits. Three doors allow the entry of actors onto the stage, one central valva regia and two lateral valva hospitalium. On the sides and back are several units that were used by the performing actors and technicians. It is unknown how the original stage front was, as the present one seems to have been built under Emperor Trajan.

Peristyle

Behind the stage is a garden area surrounded by columns and a quadrangular portico. The peristyle was used as a recreation area. At the bottom of this garden, on axis with the main door of the stage, there is a small room dedicated to the imperial cult, as reflected in the finding of a sculptural portrait of the emperor Caesar Augustus dressed as Pontiff Maximus. In the northern corner of the peristyle, high above the garden, there are latrines and to the west the remains of a house built after the abandonment of the theatre. This residence features a courtyard surrounded by columns and pilasters and several rooms, some topped with an apse and most with murals depicting life-size human figures.

Excavation and restoration[edit]

One of the statues on the theatre stage.

Until the late 19th century, the only visible remains of the theater were the so-called "Seven Chairs", remains of the tops of the bleachers and a formed concrete base covered with granite blocks that made up the façade of the building. The excavations of the theater began in 1910, directed by archaeologist José Ramón Mélida. Having limited resources and methodology was not conducive to the reconstruction progress, which delayed excavation until the late nineteenth century, when most of the building was excavated, documenting numerous columns, cornices, statues and other building materials, especially the front stage.

In the 1960s and 1970s the front stage was rebuilt under the direction of the architect and archaeologist José Menéndez Pidal y Álvarez.

Current use[edit]

Besides being the most visited monument in the city, it has been home to the development of the Festival de Mérida (Festival of Classical Theatre of Mérida) since 1933. The Mérida Classical Theatre Festival is the oldest of its kind celebrated in Spain, thus it has returned to its original function, transcending the mere ornament.

See also[edit]

Coordinates: 38°54′55.4″N 6°20′18.6″W / 38.915389°N 6.338500°W / 38.915389; -6.338500

References[edit]

1. The museum where the original statues are housed http://museoarteromano.mcu.es/index_en.html

2. Reconstruction criteria of archaeologist José Menéndez Pidal y Álvarez http://institucional.us.es/revistas/arte/25/vol_II/art_15.pdf

3. Mérida Classical Theatre Festival information in English http://marcaespana.es/en/educacion-cultura-sociedad/cine-artes-escenicas/destacados/73/merida-classical-theatre-festival

4. Official website of the Mérida Classical Theatre Festival http://www.festivaldemerida.es/