BMCR 2004.03.25

The Theatre at Butrint: Luigi Maria Ugolini’s Excavations at Butrint 1928-1932. Albania Antica IV. BSA Suppl. 35

, , , , The theatre at Butrint : Luigi Maria Ugolini's excavations at Butrint 1928-1932 (Albania antica IV). Supplementary volume ; no. 35. London: British School at Athens, 2003. xvii, 270 pages : illustrations, maps ; 31 cm.. ISBN 0904887448. £72.00.

This volume presents the publication of the excavation of the theatre at Butrint by the Italian Archaeological Mission to Albania. The theatre was excavated between 1928 and 1932, and the text of the excavation report was largely completed by 1934. But it was never published until now. This book does not claim to be anything other than the publication of the results of the Italian mission, but commentaries and essays have been added to provide background to the circumstances of the research conducted by the Italian Archaeological Mission, as well as to give an updated framework for interpreting the structure.

This volume follows the final report on the excavation by the Italian Mission of the theatre at Leptis Magna in Libya, which appeared in 1987, some 50 years after excavation (G. Caputo, 1987, Il teatro Augusteo di Leptis Magna: scavi e restauro 1937-51. Rome). The publication of someone else’s excavations is an onerous task, and the commitment to such an undertaking should be commended. Gilkes’ format for presenting an old excavation report is an excellent one and should serve as a model for future projects of this sort. The organization of the volume preserves the integrity of the original report but also situates it in modern scholarship. The texts by Ugolini are presented in Italian and have only been lightly altered. The additional commentaries and essays are in English.

Part 1 (pp.1-72), entitled “Luigi Maria Ugolini and the Italian Mission to Albania,” sets the political and social context for the excavation of the theatre at Butrint and provides detailed archival information. Chapter 1 (Luigi Maria Ugolini and the Italian Mission to Albania, by Oliver J. Gilkes) is an examination of Ugolini and circumstances that had a bearing on his work in Albania. Chapter 2 (Ugolini and Aeneas: the story of the excavations of the theatre at Butrint, by Lida Miraj) tells the story of the excavation of the theatre through evidence in the Albanian State Archives. Chapter 3 (The Ugolini manuscripts in the Museo della Civiltà Romana, Rome, by Anna Maria Liberati) sketches the ideology behind the opening of the Museo della Civiltà Romana and elucidates how the documentation of the excavations came to be hidden in Rome for 50 years. Chapter 4 (The documentary evidence) is in two parts. The first part (the Ugolini Archive, by Oliver J. Gilkes and Lida Miraj) is a catalogue of relevant archival material. The second part is a bibliography of the Italian Archaeological Mission (compiled by Oliver J. Gilkes and Barbara Polci).

Part 2 (pp.73-252), entitled “Luigi Ugolini’s Excavations in the Theatre at Butrint,” presents Ugolini’s work and an architectural analysis of the theatre. Chapter 5 (Gli scavi del teatro, by Luigi Maria Ugolini) is Ugolini’s original text, with a few alterations highlighted in bold. The individual sections and paragraphs of the text have been numbered, which allows for easy referencing in the summary and commentary by John Wilkes. In some cases, problems with Ugolini’s text could not be resolved with surviving evidence. Chapter 6 (The Greek and Roman theatres of Butrint: a commentary and reassessment, by John Wilkes, with a contribution by Oliver J. Gilkes) provides a current interpretation of the structure. Paragraphs are cross-referenced to Ugolini’s text, and each summary is followed by a commentary on that section. Illustrations accompany Wilkes’ rather than Ugolini’s text. Also included is some discussion of subsequent work, such as restoration, that continued at the theatre after Ugolini’s report was written in 1934. Chapter 7 (The theatre at Butrint: parallels and function, by Frank Sear) is also intended to update Ugolini’s discussion by examining the theatre at Butrint in relation to other classical theatres in the east. Chapter 8 (The sculpture from the theatre, by Luigi Maria Ugolini, with an introduction and commentary by Iris Pojani) is in two parts. The first part is the catalogue in Italian by Ugolini; the text is highlighted and numbered in a similar fashion to Chapter 5. The second part is an English summary and an updated catalogue in English by Pojani. The volume finishes with a glossary, references, and index.

Part 1 will be of limited interested to scholars whose primary concern is the architecture and finds relating to the theatre. But Chapter 1 is a lively account, which succeeds in capturing a sense of the times during which the excavations were conducted. Accounts of intrigue over stolen statues (p.14), publication pressures under a Fascist regime (p.15), and personal rendez-vous with Mussolini (p.20) make for captivating reading. Chapter 2 will primarily be useful for those seeking to clarify the chronology of Italian activities at Butrint. Chapters 3 and 4, which provide an account of the movement of public and private archives, even listing their contents, will direct scholars seeking the whereabouts of these resources. The bibliography of the Italian Archaeological Mission in chapter 4 includes newspaper accounts and press notices as well as scientific papers and books and will be helpful for those interested in social aspects of archaeology.

The first two chapters in Part 2 comprise the core of this publication. Ugolini’s report (Chapter 5) comprises a chronicle of the excavations, followed by detailed architectural descriptions of the cavea, orchestra, Roman modifications, Roman scaena, parodoi, structures east of the cavea, concluding with a discussion of the Greek cavea. Unfortunately no section drawings of the stratigraphy have been included in this publication, despite the mention of “rough section drawings that accompanied the actual report” (p.9). Wilkes’ Chapter 6 provides a systematic English summary of each section of Ugolini’s report, though it is not clear why section H on the Greek theatre is discussed out of sequence, between sections C and D. In the commentaries, Wilkes offers some re-interpretation of the architectural phasing, including the relationship of the shrine of Asclepius to the western vomitorium (pp.145-150). Wilkes also presents discussions of the Greek and the Roman phases of the theatre, placed in the context of the history of the site (ancient Bouthroton). Fig. 6.72, entitled “Vitruvian geometry for the design of theatres”, is meant to provide generic representations of the principles. Wilkes claims that the Greek design follows Vitruvian principles for the design of Greek theatres, particularly in regards to the distance of the front of the stage from the centre of the orchestra (p.167); a drawing of Vitruvian principles applied to the Butrint plan thus would have been useful. In his discussion of the Roman theatre (p.172), reference to “eastern” and “western” types of stage building is outdated, and must be based on E.R. Fiechter (1914, Die baugeschichtliche Entwicklung des antiken Theaters, Munich); many examples of “western” stage types are now known in the east. Wilkes also outlines the Vitruvian principles of Roman theatre design (pp.169-172), but fails to clarify how this relates in particular to the theatre at Butrint.

Sear’s discussion of architectural parallels and function (Chapter 7) begins with the Hellenistic theatre and its principal elements, followed by the Roman theatre and its principal elements, and finally places the theatre at Butrint within the broader context of theatres in Greece and western Asia Minor; included is a map of sites discussed (p.183). Changes in the Roman period are described as “typical of the changes made to old Greek theatres at this time” (p.190). There is a useful discussion of the addition of tribunals in Roman caveae (p.187), a phenomenon which is now quite widely attested but whose purpose has not yet been explained adequately. Sear makes the important point that rectilinear stage fronts are often found in smaller theatres and odea (p.191); to the examples he provides may be added the two theatres at Gerasa (Jerash), where the large theatre in the south sector of the city is fitted with a curvilinear niches while the odeum in the north sector of the city is fitted with a rectilinear scene building. Sear cites several parallels for the association between theatres and the cult of Asclepius (p.192). Finally, he broaches the thorny subject of distinguishing between theatres and odea on the basis of evidence for roofing (pp.194-196). He concludes, contrary to R. Meinel (1980, Das Odeon, Frankfurt), that the theatre at Butrint was not roofed.

Portions of up to 22 statues, plus fragments of reliefs, were recovered from the excavation of the theatre. Discussion of the sculpture (Chapter 8) begins with an introduction by Pojani listing the statues and outlining some of the problems in studying them. This is followed by Ugolini’s original manuscript, which includes an extensive discussion of the possible original placement of the statues. Ugolini distinguished between two groups of statues according to their scale; five of the six large statues were found face down in front of the niches in which they presumably once stood, providing unusually secure evidence for their original placement. The likely arrangement of the large statues in the scaenae frons is illustrated in fig. 6.78. Pojani provides a commentary, but several of the entries involve only the current location of the statue. It is unfortunate that the brief paragraph entitled “A note on the arrangement of the statues in the scaena” (p.248) is not more fully developed. This contribution to the volume is disappointing in its lack of depth, as Pojani does not attempt an interpretative treatment of the sculptural program as a whole.

The omission from this volume of epigraphic material is explained by its separate publication (P. Cabanes, 1974, “Les inscriptions du théâtre de Bouthrotos,” in Actes du colloque 1972 sur l’esclavage, Paris, 105-209; L. Morricone, 1986, “Iscrizioni del teatro di Butrinto,” La Parola del Passato 41:161-425). The votives deposits and other materials recovered from the associated Temple of Asklepios are also published separately (L.M. Ugolini, 1942, Albania Antiqua III, l’acropoli di Butrinto, Rome). Ugolini’s cursory handling of material remains other than sculpture and inscriptions, as noted by Wilkes, ruled out the identification of ceramics or coins from individual stratigraphic layers (p.178).

This volume successfully accomplishes its goal of presenting Ugolini’s report in an updated framework. It is amply illustrated with black and white photographs, most of which were taken by the Italian mission. Part 1 provides more detail than most readers will seek for background to the theatre, but it is a valuable study in its own right of the Italian Archaeological Mission. Part 2 is an elegant solution to the problems posed by publishing a site report 70 years after excavation; the format allows the integrity of the original text to be preserved, without it being outdated. Wilkes’ commentary on Ugolini’s architectural report is more thorough than Pojani’s commentary on the sculptural report, which falls short on analysis. Sear’s detailed comparative study helps to situate the theatre at Butrint within the architectural development of the region. The volume naturally lacks the coherence of a monograph conceived by a single author; if anything else is missing, it is a general overview tying together the discrete studies, which could have been presented as concluding chapter by the editor.