VITRUVIUS, BOOK V, CHAPTER 3:
On the site of the theatre.



l. Cum forum constitutum fuerit, tum deorum inmortalium diebus festis ludorum expectationibus eligendus est locus theatro quam saluberrimus, uti in primo libro de salubritatibus in moenium conlocationibus est scriptum. Per ludos enim cum coniugibus et liberis persedentes delectationibus detinentur et corpora propter voluptatem inmota patentes habent venas, in quas insiduntur aurarum flatus, qui, si a regionibus palustribus aut aliis regionibus vitiosis advenient, nocentes spiritus corporibus infundent. Itaque si curiosius eligetur locus theatro, vitabuntur vitia.

Translation

l. When the forum has been settled, a site as healthy as possible is to be chosen for the exhibition of plays on the festivals of the immortal gods, according to the instructions given in the first book for the healthy disposition of the city wall. For at the play citizens with their wives and children remain seated in their enjoyment; their bodies motionless with pleasure have the pores opened. On these the breath of the wind falls, and if it comes from marshy districts or other infected quarters, it will pour harmful spirits into the system. If therefore special care is taken in choosing a site, infection will be avoided.

2. Etiamque providendum est, nene impetus habeat a meridie. Sol enim cum implet eius rutunditatem, aer conclusus curvatura neque habens potestatem vagandi versando confervescit et candens adurit excoquitque et inminuit e corporibus umores. ideo maxime vitandae sunt his rebus vitiosae regiones et eligendae salubres.

Translation

2. Care also is to be taken, lest it be open to attacks from the south. For when the sun fills the circuit of the theatre, the air being enclosed within the curved space and not having the opportunity of circulating, revolves and becomes heated; hence it blazes, burns up, draws out and reduces the moisture of the body. Thus sites which are faulty in these respects are especially to be avoided, and healthy sites chosen.

3. Fundamentorum autem, si in montibus fuerit, facilior erit ratio; sed si necessitas coegerit in plano aut palustri loco ea constitui, solidationes substructionesque ita erunt faciendae, quemadmodum de fundationibus aedium sacrarum in tertio libro est scriptum. insuper fundamenta lapideis et marmoreis copiis gradationes ab substructione fieri debent.

Translation

3. If the theatre is on a hiliside, the construction of the foundations will be easier. But if they have to be laid on level or marshy ground, piles and substructures must be used as we have written in the third book concerning the foundations of temples. Above the foundations, the stepped seats ought to be built up from the substructure in stone or marble.

4. Praecinctiones ad altitudines theatrorum pro rata parte faciendae videntur, neque altiores quam quanta praecinctionis itineris sit latitudo. Si enim excelsiores fuerint, repellent et eicient in superiorem partem vocem nec patientur in sedibus suis, quae supra praecinctiones, verborum casus certa significatione ad aures pervenire. Et ad summam ita est gubernandum, uti, linea cum ad imum gradum et ad summum extenta fuerit, omnia cacumina graduum angulosque tangat; ita vox non inpedietur.

Translation

4. The curved level gangways, it seems, should be made proportionately to the height of the theatre; and each of them not higher at the back, than is the breadth of the passage of the gangway. For if they are taller, they will check and throw out the voice into the upper part of the theatre. Neither will they allow the endings of words to come with a clear significance to the ears of the people in their seats above the gangways. in brief the section of the theatre is to be so managed that if a line is drawn touching the lowest and the top rows, it shall also touch the front angles of all the rows. Thus the voice will not be checked.

5. Aditus complures et spatiosos oportet disponere, nec coniunctos superiores inferioribus, sed ex omnibus locis perpetuos et directos sine inversuris faciendos, uti, cum populus dimittatur de spectaculis, ne comprimatur, sed habeat ex omnibus locis exitus separatos sine inpeditione.
Etiam diligenter est animadvertendum, ne sit locus surdus, sed ut in eo vox quam clarissime vagari possit. Hoc vero fieri ita poterit, si locus electus fuerit, ubi non inpediantur resonantia.

Translation

5. Many and spacious stepped passages must be arranged between the seats; but the upper ones ought to be discontinuous with the lower. Everywhere, each passage (upper or lower) must be continuous and straight without bends; so that when the audience is dismissed from the spectacle, it may not be cramped, but may find everywhere separate and uninterrupted exits.
Great care is also to be taken that the place chosen does not deaden the sound, but that the voice can range in it with the utmost clearness. And this can be brought about if a site is chosen where the passage of sound is not hindered.

6. Vox autem ut spiritus fluens aeris, et actu sensibilis auditu. Ea movetur circulorum rutundationibus infinitis, uti si in stantem aquam lapide inmisso nascantur innumerabiles undarum circuli crescentes a centro, quam latissime possint, et vagantes, nisi angustia loci interpellaverit aut aliqua offensio, quae non patitur designationes earum undarum ad exitus pervenire. Itaque cum interpellentur offensionibus, primae redundantes insequentium disturbant designationes.

Translation

6. Now the voice is like a flowing breath of air, and is actual when perceived by the sense of hearing. it is moved along innumerable undulations of circles; as when we throw a stone into standing water. Innumerable circular undulations arise spreading from the centre as wide as possible. And they extend unless the limited space hinders, or some obstruction which does not allow the directions of the waves to reach the outlets. And so when they are interrupted by obstacles, the first waves flowing back disturb the directions of those which follow.

7. Eadem ratione vox ita ad circinum efficit motiones; sed in aqua circuli planitiae in latitudine moventur, vox et in latitudine progreditur et altitudinem gradatim scandit. Igitur ut in aqua undarum designationibus, item in voce cum offensio nulla primam undam interpellaverit, non disturbat secundam nec insequentes, sed omnes sine resonantia perveniunt ad imorum et ad summorum aures.

Translation

7. in the same way the voice in like manner moves circle fashion. But while in water the circles move horizontally only, the voice both moves horizontally and rises vertically by stages. Therefore as is the case with the direction of the waves in water, so with the voice when no obstacle interrupts the first wave, this in turn does not disturb the second and later waves, but ali reach the ears of the top and bottom rows without echoing.

8. Ergo veteres architecti naturae vestigia persecuti indagationibus vocis scandentis theatrorum perfecerunt gradationes, et quaesierunt per canonicam mathematicorum et musicam rationem, ut, quaecumque vox esset in scaena, clarior et suavior ad spectatorum perveniret aures. Uti enim organa in aeneis lamminis aut corneis echeis ad cordarum sonitum claritatem perficiuntur, sic theatrorum per harmonicen ad augendam vocem ratiocinationes ab antiquis sunt constitutae.

Translation

8. Therefore the ancient architects following nature's footsteps, traced the voice as it rose, and carried out the ascent of the theatre seats. By the rules of mathematics and the method of music, they sought to make the voices from the stage rise more cleariy and sweetly to the spectators' ears. For just as organs which have bronze plates or horn sounding boards are brought to the clear sound of string instruments, so by the arrangement of theatres in accordance with the science of harmony, the ancients increased the power of the voice.

COMMENT

This is the first of a series of chapters about theatre building. This part of the work finds his logic place here. Where until the previous chapter Vitruvius spoke about the official buildings as constituent elements of the city (temples, forum, basilica, curia) he now turns to the entertainment buildings (theatre, baths, palaestra). It is strange to see that he ommits certain building types as the odeon, the amphitheatre, the circus.

Praeneste, Fortuna Primigenia
And again he follows the same methodology as in the chapter about the location of the city. The theatre must be situated on a healthy spot, far from harmful marshy districts. It should be directed to the north, in a way that the spectators had the sun in their back.

But in the first place we must read these chapters in the light of the historical evolution of the building type. In Vitruvius' time, beginning of the reign of Augustus, the independent theatre was hardly known in Rome. Theatrical performances were held on temporary wooden structures. There were only a few theatres in Campania where builders found their examples in Greek theatre building of the south Italian Greek settlements. There builders took advantage of the presence of a slope to install the seating rows and the stage was an independent structure that had no link with the cavea or seating places. To illustrate this we can refer to the first phase of theatre of Pompeii.

In Rome we must wait until the days of Pompey to see the first freestanding stone theatre. Nevertheless there was a flourishing theatrical tradition in the capital during the 2nd century B.C. (Plautus, Terrentius and others). But there was an interdiction to construct a permanent structure for these performances. Reason for this interdiction might be sought in the fear of the aristocracy to let the plebs gather on a fixed place where they eventually could organise themselves. But at the same time these performances were a mean for the same aristocracy and the leader to assure themselves of the favor of the people. So they were competing to present the most magnificent and lavish temporary structures.

Tivoli, Hercules Victor
Pompey was the first to break with this interdiction in a very subtle way. His examples were the huge temple complexes of Hercules Victor at Tivoli and Fortuna Primigenia at Praeneste. In these huge landscape settings temples were built on top of stepped hemicycles in a way that we may assume that on these steps, against the background of a closing wall, religious performances were held. Pompey got round the interdiction by building an independent stepped hemicycle with on top a series of five temples of which the middle, the temple of Venus Victrix was the most important. The hemicycle was closed to the city and the Campus Martius (where the theatre was built) by a wall adorned with columns and exedrae in front of which a stage was devoloped. So by transferring an Italian model of temple with (eventually) theatre to the capital Pompey offered a theatre with a temple to the people of Rome. This theater was dedicated in 53 B.C.

This theatre was the start of a series of other theatre buildings the first of which was the theatre of Marcellus. This building was dedicated by Augustus 13 or 11 B.C.

Rome, Theatre of Pompey

Vitruvius certainly has seen these buildings and has realised that theatre building in Rome was in an experimental phase.
Rome, Theatre of Marcellus
His chapters about theatre design must be read in this context. It is nothing more than an attempt to create a basic system for the layout of a theatre. But, as we shall see later, his system has some defects. Vitruvius was also aware of the fact that his approach was only one possible method and that there could be many others. He clearly expresses this at the end of chapter 6 where he states "Nevertheless it is not in all theatres that the dimensions can answer to all the effects proposed. The architect must observe in what proportions symmetry must be followed, and how it must be adjusted to the nature of the site or the magnitude of the work."

As we shall see in the proposed examples of Roman theatres, there were no theatres that correspond to the Vitruvian description, with the exception of the theatre of Marcellus which was under construction in Vitruvius' time. Is his description of the theatre design a reflection of this building?

BIBLIOGRAPHY

A.Boëthius - J.B.Ward-Perkins, Etruscan and Roman Architecture, Harmondsworth, 1970
H.Knell, Vitruvs Architekturtheorie, Darmstadt, 1985
F.B.Sear, Vitruvius and Roman Theater Design, in American Journal of Archaeology, 94, 1990, pp. 249-258
H.P.Isler, Vitruvs Regeln und die erhaltenen Theaterbauten, in Munus non ingratum (ed. Geertman - J.J.de Jong), Leiden, 1989, pp. 141-153
P.Gros, Le schéma Vitruvien du theâtre Latin, in Revue Archéologique, 1994, pp. 57-80
P.Gros, L'architecture Romaine, 1. Les monuments publics, Paris, 1996

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