Ongoing renovations at the Renaissance-era Palazzo della Rovere just outside of Vatican City have led archaeologists to discover a long-lost private theater that has been referenced in a variety of Ancient Roman texts. According to an announcement last Wednesday, July 26, the ruins of 1st-century Roman Emperor Nero’s theater and associated artifacts were found beneath the palace’s back gardens as archaeologists were preparing the site for lease to the Four Seasons hotel company.

“It is a discovery of exceptional importance that would testify to an extraordinary building from the Julius Claudian age, the theater where Nero rehearsed his poetic and singing performances, known from ancient sources but never found,” Rome’s Special Superintendent of Archaeology, Fine Arts, and Landscapes Daniela Porro explained in a statement.

This Medieval glass chalice recovered from the dig site is considered a rarity that sheds light on the evolution of the venue’s use between its inception and the Middle Ages.

Nero’s theater was reportedly mentioned in texts by Pliny the Elder, Suetonius, and Tacitus. Now, only partial remains of the theater’s lefthand semi-circle seating, backdrop, and changing rooms were recovered from the site that has been under excavation since early 2020.

Emperor Nero was an infamous ruler who ascended to the throne at the young age of 16. Early in his reign, Nero was merely a puppet to his domineering and ruthless mother, Agrippina the Younger, who was rumored to have poisoned her second husband so that Nero could take the throne, and listened avidly to his advisor Seneca. While he was generally well received as an emperor in the beginning and was known for his passion for performing arts, his behavior became unruly and impulsive after he arranged for the murder of Agrippina the Younger. Nero was also criticized for banishing and calling for the execution of his first wife, Claudia Octavia, on the grounds of infertility and adultery, and killing his second wife, Poppaea Sabina, while she was pregnant.

Ornate marble columns recovered from the dig

Aside from the “sumptuous marble columns” and “refined stuccoed decorations with gold leaf” mentioned in the statement, the archaeological team unearthed a wide variety of ancient to Medieval glassware, cookware, ceramics, combs carved from bone, beaten roads, and rosary bead construction tools, yielding information about the activities onsite from theater productions and pilgrimages to the tomb of Saint Peter beneath Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

Though evidence suggests that the venue was only briefly used for performing arts, Nero’s theater was identified through its precise location within the Gardens of Agrippina as previously indicated in Pliny the Elder’s writing, as well as the refined masonry and decorative work throughout it. The assortment of ancient objects scattered across the ruins have been collected and sent for cataloguing before they can be shown to the public, Porro confirmed in the statement.

Some of the recovered artifacts including ceramic vessels and carved bone combs that will be catalogued before they are displayed

After thorough analysis, the theater ruins will be buried once again so that the construction of the Four Seasons can continue. The hotel is expected to be completed in time for the mass pilgrimage during the Vatican’s 2025 Jubilee.

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...