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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 October 2007, 08:45 GMT 09:45 UK
Rome celebrates its stage history
By David Willey
BBC News, Rome

Colosseum in Rome
The Colosseum now has a lift to take visitors to the exhibition
The first exhibition devoted entirely to Roman theatre has opened in the ruins of the Colosseum in Rome.

The ruins of more than 1000 ancient theatres are scattered over the territories of the former Roman empire from North Africa to Northern Europe and from the Near East to Spain.

The Greeks and the Etruscans were the first to hold public theatre performances of tragedies and comedies in arenas scooped out of a hillside, or in temporary wooden structures.

But it was the Romans who first developed mass entertainment on the grand scale in huge purpose-built theatres built of stone on flat sites.

The development of this illustrious theatre tradition is the focus of a special exhibition in the ruins of the Colosseum in Rome - the biggest and most impressive amphitheatre of them all.

Statues, mosaics and painted vases, together with fragments of wall paintings depicting actors and their masks, dancing girls, musicians, acrobats and jugglers are on show in the Colosseum's upper galleries.

Dancers mosaic
Ancient mosaics show how theatre has always been part of Roman life

A newly installed lift with glass doors will take you to the exhibit situated above the thousands of tourists who every day throng Rome's most popular archaeological site.

Most of the plays of antiquity have disappeared but the exhibition's curator, Professor Nicola Savarese of Rome University, says the life of the Roman Theatre extended for some nine centuries.

"It began when Etruscan actors or histriones [which passed into the English language in the word histrionic] first arrived in Rome in 364 BC with their masks [personae which became persons in English]," says Professor Savarese.

"It ended only in the 6th Century AD after Christian councils condemned strolling players as immoral, and barbarian invaders sacked and destroyed many of the theatres."

Special effects

Spectacle and entertainment were as important then as they are today.

A Greek author writing of the 2nd Century BC listed 44 types of actors' masks designed to reveal the temperament of the character represented.

Among them, half-closed eyes indicated a mild, good natured character and a hooked nose was a sign of rapacity.

Satyr mask
Masks were used to help audiences understand characters

Theatre performances were usually held during the day, there were no floodlights available, only blazing torches, and fragile oil lamps made of clay.

But sometimes there were special effects. The Roman writer Lucretius describes the use of a huge colourful awning, or velarium, over the audience - the Roman equivalent of the stage curtain.

When a show was going to use awnings it was advertised in advance to attract a bigger audience.

There was no naturalistic scenery on the Roman stage, simply three ordinary doors, through which the actors came and went.

Stage props were also rudimentary, sometimes including a ladder or a window frame to represent an upper floor.

Music and dance were an essential component of Roman theatre. No notations of ancient music have survived in readable form so we have to imagine the sounds produced by flautists, percussion instruments and various sorts of squeeze boxes.

A small portable organ powered by bellows and played by a boy is shown at a funeral concert depicted on a Roman tomb on show at the exhibition.

Professor Savarese says he believes that ancient Roman music had more in common with contemporary Asian musical techniques than those subsequently developed in the West.

The exhibition will remain open until 17 February 2008.

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