The Roman theatre of Spoleto, dating from the 1st century BC and with a cavea of seventy metres in diameter, despite being one of the city’s most distinguished monuments, was only ‘discovered’ recently, in 1891.
Although a Roman complex underneath the Ancaiani palace in today’s Piazza della Libertà has been known about for centuries, the process of bringing it to light is relatively recent.
It all began in 1891 when Giuseppe Sordini, leading archaeologist from Spoleto, found a drawing – now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence – by Baldassare Peruzzi, the great 16th-century architect and painter, to whom we owe, among other things, Villa Farnesina in Rome.
Studying the Sienese artist’s sketch, Sordini understands, also from the inscriptions accompanying the drawing, that the theatre near the ‘monastero di moniche‘ coincides with the large ancient structures visible in the area of the monastery of St. Agatha or in the basement of palazzo Ancaiani.
The memory of the ancient theatre had been lost over the centuries. First a deep fissure in the ground had contributed to jeopardising its use as a performance venue, perhaps since Roman times, then, in the Middle Ages, the construction of the church and monastery of St Agatha and of buildings belonging to the Corvi family definitively sanctioned its oblivion.
At the end of the 15th century, Severo Minervio spoke of the ancient remains as belonging to a second amphitheatre, while Bernardino Campello considered them to be part of a thermal building. For a long period of time, therefore, little or nothing was known about the Roman theatre of Spoleto, until Sordini came into the picture: “penetrating”, recounts Umberto Ciotti in the magazine “Spoletium”, “into the monument through an opening in the basement of Palazzo Ancaiani, the archaeologist from Spoleto was able to inspect part of the ambulatory (then buried about three metres deep), and draw the entrance arch to an area under the cavea”.
Sordini was therefore instrumental. Then in 1933, following a landslide that required the Genio Civile to carry out consolidation work on the then Sant’Agata prison and the Ancaiani palace, more systematic excavations were carried out. The project to recover and restore the complex began in 1954, after the Monastery of St Agatha ceased to function as a prison.
Today, the rooms of the former monastery house the collections of the National Archaeological Museum and the Roman Theatre of Spoleto is one of the city’s must-see monuments.
Umberto Ciotti, Spoletium, n. 10 , dicembre 1960
Carlo Pietrangeli, Spoletium, 1939