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A Carefully Protected Theatre

[image ALT: In the background of a meadow, some arched ruins. They are the much restored remains of the Roman theatre of Iguvium, modern Gubbio in Umbria (central Italy).]

Under their trim coat of grass, 22 intact rows of seats.

The theatre of Iguvium is thought to have been built in the 1c B.C. We know it was substantially improved sometime in the first quarter of the 1c A.D., because in the city's Museo Civico we have the proud inscription of the man who restored it, the quattuorvir Gnaeus Satrius Rufus. Unfortunately, the need for stone to build the splendors of medieval Gubbio, combined with our innate laziness, undid the monument to its present fragmentary condition.

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In the photo above you are looking NW, down the front of the stage. To your left, the audience: one dark green wedge (in Latin, a cuneus) of the bleachers can be seen towards the rear, a bit left of center; the prominent pier is the beginning of the two-tiered ring gallery around the back of the same bleachers. To your right would have been the actors; but of their stage, next to nothing remains.

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With this picture in front of you, you may be excused — just this once — for confusing the building with an amphitheatre: it is unusually large and the thickness of the piers supporting the gallery approaches that in many gladiatorial arenas. In fact, at 70 m in inner diameter and 112 m in outer diameter it's not much smaller than a football stadium.

Capable of seating 15,000 spectators, this was the second-largest theater in the Roman Empire, second only to the Theater of Marcellus in Rome.

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Excavations and restorations have followed one another since 1789. The Touring Club Italiano's Guide to Umbria says that exceptionally beautiful and well-preserved mosaics were found here, but no one else says peep about this, and I saw none in the Museo, so I'll call this a mystery for now. Every Italian reference in front of me states that this building is "ben conservato", but many theaters are in better shape; not only in the dry fastnesses of Africa, but in various places in Europe too. The fact of the matter is that much of what you see here is restoration: all the brick, for example, is out-and‑out modern, intended purely to hold up the Roman stone. She's a grand old lady, but she's had her share of facelifts.

The theater of Gubbio is still in use in the summer, and several modern doors have been added, probably to make electrical closets and so forth.

On my first visit to Gubbio, I was unable to visit the theater. So that you don't repeat my mistake, let me pass a tip on to those of you relying on buses and trains to get around in Italy: the theater is only open in the mornings, and the people in the title picture were an Italian television crew. No trains to Gubbio, but if you come on one of the early buses from Perugia, you'll make it in time if you go to the theater first.

As unkeen as I usually am on taking pictures of myself standing in front of things, a rather spectacular view of the theater, better than any on this page — beautiful Umbrian walking country, a large towered medieval city hanging on to its hill, and this splendid Roman monument in the foreground — provided me with an irresistible Web signature: if you've been inquisitive enough to click on my name in the title of my homepage you may already have seen it.

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Page updated: 16 Jul 03