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The Ancient Theatre

Is it Greek or Roman? A question which experts and critics have always debated at length. To dismiss any doubt about this, it is sufficient to remember that in its origin, Taormina was a Greek “Polis” and that every city in the ancient Greek world had its Theatre where there were recitals, just to name the most well-known: the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and the comedies of Aristophanes. The Theatre of Taormina is the second largest in Sicily, after that of Syracuse. Later on, and in their renowned mania for great things, the Romans enlarged the theatre which had been built smaller. And it has been calculated that decades were needed for its construction.

The actual size is fifty metres wide, one hundred and twenty long and twenty metres high and about a hundred thousand cubic metres of stone were removed to build it. Other proof that the theatre is of Greek origin is from the blocks of stone from Taormina, similar to marble and squared off, that can be found under the stage of the Theatre and that is a classic example of the way the ancient Greeks built. The theatre can be divided into three main areas: the stage, the orchestra (the ancient name for the part in front of the stage, for the chorus) and the auditorium. The stage is the part in front of the auditorium and, as it is easy to see, is where the actors acted. Today, this has a large split in the centre which is about ten metres long which is thought to have been caused by warlike events. Certainly, serious damage, but it has given the entire structure an evocative look due to the magnificent panorama that can be admired (Naxos Bay and Etna). According to reconstruction by experts, the stage was decorated by two rows of columns in Corinthian style and recognisable by the shape of the ornate capitals with acanthus leaves, a wild Mediterranean plant.

The ‘orchestra’ of the theatre was the level open space which is found in the centre and which practically divides the stage from the auditorium. This was the space for the musicians, but also where the choir and the dancers could be seen. Instead, the auditorium comprises the steps which go from the bottom towards the top, right to the top of the auditorium itself and where the spectators sat. The first semi-circular step at the bottom was 62 metres long, while the top one was 147.34 metres long.

The steps were cut out of the actual rock and where it was missing, were built up. The auditorium was divided into five passages which were called “diazòmata” by the Greeks, and “praecinctiones” by the Romans, being a fenced off area. These were the access passages for the spectators. It is thought that the theatre could hold a total of about 5,400 spectators once. Some sustain that it was built by the Greeks and therefore the period would be that of the middle of the third century B.C., at the time when Gerone II was the tyrant of Syracuse.

But there is also a theory that negates that the theatre was built, for its structural characteristics, by Roman engineers to serve almost exclusively Greek citizens. This would explain all the Greek inscriptions that are to be found on the inside of the theatre itself. Today the ancient Theatre is still one of the main attractions of Taormina. Perfectly working, after hosting for years the ‘David di Donatello’ prize awards, the most important cinema manifestation in Italy, it is today the site of Taormina Arte, an international festival which lasts all summer with cinema review, theatre review, ballet and symphony music.