The Roman Theatre of Orange
Located in the heart of the Rhône Valley, the Roman Theatre of Orange is without doubt one of the finest remnants of the Roman Empire. Exceptional evidence of Ancient Rome and part of the UNESCO World Heritage list, it is the best preserved theatre in Europe.
It owes its fame in particular to its magnificent stage wall, amazingly well-preserved and unique in the Western world. A venue for shows in Roman times, it continues in this role today, to the delight of music lovers the world over.
The exterior façade or postscaenium
“The finest wall in my kingdom”. This was how Louis XIV described the imposing façade of the theatre, 103 metres long, 1.80 metres thick and 37 metres high
The exterior façade is divided into three levels. The first comprises three doors which open out onto the stage and secondary doors which open onto the corridors or rooms that do not have access to the interior. On the second level, the wall is bare of any decoration. You can see the stone corbels which supported the roof structure and a deep groove, the remains of the anchoring for the tiles on the roof.
A blind arcade on the wall embellishes the third level. With the exception of the central arch and the arches located in line with the basilicae (towers positioned each side of the stage), each has a cavity that lets light in to the passage located inside the wall. At the top, there are two rows of 43 corbels which supported the velum, a large canvas canopy that protected spectators from the sun and the rain.
The stage wall, the frons scaenae
The stage wall was very important as it helped to properly project sound and comprised the only architectural décor in the theatre. During the performance it did not change, but some mobile items and props were installed to create the illusion of movement, space and perspective.
Its original height of 37 metres has been entirely preserved. The wall was richly decorated with slabs of multicoloured marble, statues in niches, friezes and columns. In 1931, excavations under the stage enabled the columns currently in place to be restored to their original position. Originally there were 76 of them.
The stage wall is also arranged in three levels. At the centre of the first level is the Royal Door or valva regia. Reserved for the principal actors, it was topped with a frieze decorated with centaurs, the remains of which are on display at the Museum of Orange. This door is surrounded by niches which were adorned with statues. The central niche houses the imperial statue of Augustus measuring 3.55 metres in height. This niche almost certainly contained a representation of Apollo and it is likely that the triumphant emperor was only substituted at a later date. The statue is dressed in a general’s coat, the paludamentum imperatoris, and is holding his staff. It serves as a reminder that to preserve peace throughout the Roman Empire everyone must respect its laws.
Narrower, the side doors called “hospitable” doors were used for the actors’ entrances and exits. The second and third levels, comprising columns, are purely decorative.