This month’s masterpieces from Hadrian’s Villa are the larger than life-size marble theatrical masks that once decorated the scaenae frons (stage-front) of the odeon of the villa.
The theatre and theatrical performances were particularly popular in Graeco-Roman art. We find many depictions of theatrical scenery, actors and masks in almost all kinds of works of art, from sculptures to mosaics, frescoes, reliefs, jewels and everyday objects (see my Flickr set The Art of Ancient Greek & Roman Theatre).
These theatre masks were carved in marble and in a larger size than those worn by the actors during performances. They were used throughout the Greco-Roman world in the ornamentation of public buildings, including theatres, as decorations of the scenae frontes (stages) and the façades.
At Hadrian’s Villa, they decorated the Odeon, a small theatre that could held around 1,200 people and located at the southern end of the villa. Eight marble statues depicting seated muses were also unearthed in the odeon (see post here). Theatre masks of this kind were often found in the villas and gardens of wealthy Romans, where they evoked an atmosphere of Greek culture and proclaimed the sophisticated intellectual interests of their Roman owners.
In Greek theatre all of the performers, with the exception of musicians, wore masks. Comedy masks often presented grotesque, exaggerated expressions, whereas tragedy masks showed facial features distorted in emotional pain.
In antiquity there were three specific varieties of theatrical performance; tragedy, comedy and satyr play. Each performance was masked. The rhetorician Pollux, writing in the 2nd century AD at the time of Commodus, catalogues in his Onomasticon (lexicon) some twenty-eight masks for tragedy, forty-four masks for comedy, four satyr masks and other special masks divided into different categories (old men, young men, male servants and women).
As well as monumental theatrical masks, protomes were also used to adorn theatre buildings. Two protomes of Attis were found at Hadrian’s Villa. They must have also decorated the scaenae frons of the odeon. Attis was associated with pantomime and with the theatre of Rome through the scenic games of the Magalesia, a festival celebrated in honor of Cybele, the Magna Mater, as explained by G. Wootton in her study of the “Mask of Attis Oscilla”.
In addition, three mosaic panels in opus vermiculatum recovered from the Imperial Palace complex, in a room known today as the Sala a Tre Navate (Hall of Three Aisles), show theatrical marks. One depicts four masks representing Greek and Latin comedy and Greek and Latin tragedy, along with a lyre and a broken amphora. Another shows a mask on a pedestal with the attributes of Apollo; a griffin, lyre and bow a quiver. The third mosaic represents a mask on a rock, surrounded by the attributes of Dionysus; a thyrsus, a kantharos and a leopard gnawing at the strap of a tympanun.
Today these mosaic panels are on display in the Musei Vaticani in a room named after the mosaics and known as the Gabinetto delle Maschere (Cabinet of the Masks). The mosaic with the four masks is likely to date from the late Republican era. It probably decorated an older villa and was reused in Hadrian’s Villa more than 150 years later.
“And in the theatre he [Hadrian] presented plays of all kinds in the ancient manner and had the court-players appear before the public.”
Historia Augusta – The Life of Hadrian
Hadrian, a former Archon of Athens, presided over the contests of the Great Dionysia, a festival held in March in honour of Dionysus. At least three days were devoted to tragic plays in the Theatre of Dionysus. Each day a playwright presented three tragedies and one satyr play. During the festival Hadrian sat in the front row of the ima cavea, the lowest part of the cavea alongside the judges. He also restored the Theatre of Dionysus and built a monumental scaenae frons with reliefs depicting the life of Dionysus. Twelve statues of Hadrian were set up in the Theatre of Dionysus by the twelve Attic tribes, one statue by each tribe.
- The Art of Ancient Greek Theater by Mary Louise Hart (2010, J. Paul Getty Museum)
- In scaena. Il teatro di Roma antica, Savarese Nicola (2007, Electa)
- A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, edited by William Smith, Charles Anthon (1843, New York : Harper & Brothers)
- A Mask of Attis “Oscilla” as Evidence for a Theme of Pantomime, Glenys E. Wootton Latomus, T. 58, Fasc. 2 (AVRIL-JUIN 1999), pp. 314-335
- The development of the mask as a critical tool for an examination of character and performer action by Mary Anne Mitchell (1986)
Originally published at Following Hadrian; republished with permission.