The Greek Theatre in Syracuse examines history through art

10.04.2017 - Siracusa (Italy) - Patrizia Cecconi

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The Greek Theatre in Syracuse examines history through art

This has been a unique year for one of the most ancient Italian cities; it is as well one of the Italian towns with the most fascinating past, both for the myths concerning its origins and for the rich history that has passed through its stones.

This is Syracuse, the town of Archimedes, founded by the Greeks coming from Corinth in the eighth century BC and conquered by the Romans in 212 BC. They were in turn conquered by the artistic and cultural wealth of what was, according to Cicero, “the largest and most beautiful of all Greek cities”, so that the poet Horace later stated that Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit, with the unquestionable meaning that sharp-mindedness and beauty of arts have greater value than the power of weapons.

Unfortunately, after being conquered in 212 BC, the Greek town of Syracuse didn’t regain its former glory under the Roman Republic or the Empire of Augustus or, later, under the Eastern Roman Empire – while still maintaining its importance and becoming the capital of the Empire in the seventh century – or after the Arab conquest in the late ninth century, the Norman conquest of the eleventh century and the conquests that followed until the unification of Italy.

Yet, even in periods of peak abandonment, Syracuse remained “one of the most beautiful places in the world and offers one of the most magnificent and picturesque sights“, as Vivant Denon stated in his “Voyage en Sicile” two centuries ago. And it still is, so that, in 2005, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.

This is a unique year as it is the 2750th year since its founding as a Greek city, which still offers the world one of the greatest monuments of live art and culture, transmitted to people of all social classes: the Greek Theatre, built by Gelo of Syracuse about 2500 years ago, that still performs its classical shows once a year between spring and summer. The next one, beginning on 6 May and ending on 9 July, is the 53rd cycle of classical plays organized and promoted by INDA (the National Institute of Ancient Drama).

The press agent of the foundation, Gaspare Urso, says the forthcoming season will be much longer than the previous ones and will offer some very interesting changes, which make their creator Pier Francesco Pinelli, the Special Commissioner of the Foundation, deservedly proud.

Mr. Pinelli revealed only some of these changes, such as the translation into English, through a simultaneous acting voice, which is a real and extremely demanding innovation. Other innovations consist of including the festival in tourist itineraries connecting nature and culture, in enhancing tours in Italy, in increasing involvement of schools, so that young people, who already study classical authors, can cultivate their love for ancient theatre, and much more.  Yet, he doesn’t want to tell us about the changes in the cavea, which are a real worldwide innovation and will be a surprise to discover at the opening of the season, on 6 May, with a tragedy by Aeschylus.

The theatre as a monument” is very close to the Commissioner’s heart, as well as stage plays, and this includes the changes in the cavea mentioned above; this is part of his decision to “equip the theatre in the most respectful way possible“, for an optimal enjoyment of the plays performed in it.

Mr. Pinelli was appointed Commissioner in February 2016 under request of the Mayor of Syracuse and under appointment of the Minister of Cultural Heritage. He really cares to point out that he found “the Foundation blocked from a decision-making point of view, three months after the beginning of performances, so it was a miracle to be able to carry on with the 2016 season which, in the end, turned out to be the best season ever.”  He adds as well that “INDA is an absolute excellence” and explains he found “zero debt and 70% of revenues from its own activities, not from subsidies. In addition, while in the last 10 years the increase in theatre audience in Italy was around 3%, the Greek theatre in Syracuse has observed an increase of about 30%. “In view of this, and proud that Southern Italy can be mentioned also for its positive cultural successes, Mr. Pinelli says: “I wish there were many more places like Syracuse. We already have one in Northern Italy: the Roman Theatre in Verona, where Shakespeare’s plays are performed.”

Moving on to the plays that will be performed in the next season, Mr. Pinelli tells us what he thinks about their choice. As anticipated by the press agent, the subject of this year is “The theatre and the city” and for this reason “the choice of plays concerns two tragedies of the Theban Cycle that have much to do with the ‘city’, intended as a passion and as a contest”. Choosing to depict the same subject in two different tragedies, written sixty years apart by two very different authors in terms of stylistic choices, has an interpretive value both from a philological and a political point of view.

The third performance is not a tragedy, but a comedy. It is quite a rare event in the theatre of Syracuse, though perfectly in line with the thematic background. In fact, “The Frogs” by Aristophanes is directly connected with the previous works, respectively, “Seven Against Thebes” by Aeschylus and “The Phoenician Women” by Euripides, especially with the latter, given the aversion of the playwright Aristophanes towards Euripides. Anyway, as explains the Commissioner of the Foundation, “what I care about is to highlight the connection between power and democracy for the defense of the city“, originally intended as a polis, which, though, expands into a larger modern concept. And this connection is based on a precious and unique element: culture. Thus, the strong message conveyed by Aristophanes in “The frogs” through the journey of Dionysus tells us that a city, whose values are in decay, ​​still has a chance to be saved, but only thanks to culture.  That’s when the connection between the city and the theatre becomes a connection between the city and culture, and the “lessons” of two great personalities such as Eva Cantarella and Luciano Canfora, to be held on 22nd May and 28th June, will explain the importance and the richness of this connection.

The aim of all this, as stated by Mr. Pinelli, is to give a precise “conscious and structured” editorial line through a work of renewal based on “expressive signs and expressive figures, calling directors who know how to represent an expressive innovation”, and the choice of this theatre season seems to be its full expression. Essentially, the drama of the city of Thebes, the actions of men inside and beyond the lines of destiny and their self-destruction for power seems to tell the audience crowding into the theatre: “Here, acknowledge the tragedy we are living in our world in the performed tragedy.

For information on the days of performances, the details of the work carried out by INDA, the directors, the actors and their interesting statements, just visit the website

Closing the interview with Mr. Pinelli and talking once again to Mr. Gaspare Urso, who was born and raised in Syracuse and is a press agent of the Foundation, he reminds us that after the conquest and the sacking of the city by the Romans, the representatives of Syracuse had the courage to go to Rome to accuse the conquerors and demand the return of their property. Incredibly, the process wanted by the defeated people against its conquerors took place at the Senate of the third-century BC Roman Republic.

This is the power of culture; obviously, when culture is given its true value. The Theatre of Syracuse reminds us of this and turns to art in order to portray the tragedy with which human beings still fill their history.

Translation from Italian by Simona Trapani

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