Arciliuto Theatre History


The Arciliuto theatre is situated inside Palazzo Chiovenda, an old residence in Piazza di Montevecchio, dating from the fifteenth century. The building was designed in the 1450-60 and incorporated pre-existing house structures following a plan by the architect Baldassarre Peruzzi (a follower of Raphael’s). This building rests on the ancient walls of a Roman villa from the II century BC whose remains are still visible underground. During the Renaissance, when Rome was rising again in all its splendour after centuries of decline, it was not unusual for architects to use the the ruins of ancient Rome as foundations of new palaces for the noble families of the time. And so did Peruzzi, using the refined columns of valuable marble to support the cross-vaulted ceiling of the Salotto Musicale (the Music Room): these columns are precious finds from the Roman period, coupled with new travertine capitals made in the cinquecento style. A legend says that the palace was the Roman residence of the Lords of Montevecchio, who came from Urbino, and afterwards, it became Raphael’s first home in the city of Popes when the artist (also from Urbino), still very young and already famous, went to work for Pope Giulio II after leaving his native town. An attractive theory which might be confirmed by this detail is that the rooms on the underground of Palazzo Chiovenda, facing Piazza di Montevecchio and illuminated through a square opening, house a small fresco showing a Madonna with Baby Jesus which can definitely be assigned to the school of Raphael.

The above-mentioned rooms – today the Salotto Musicale of the Arciliuto theatre – have always been known in the area as the “artist’s small studio”. No wonder that someone even goes so far as to call it “Raphael’s studio”. This is the legend.

The historical truth, however, is another matter. What is sure is that between 1516 and 1517, Raphael (together with Peruzzi) worked on the decoration of the nearby Church of Santa Maria della Pace. However, at the time, the artist couldn’t stay as a guest with his aristocratic fellow-citizens. In fact Piazza di Montevecchio doesn’t take its name at all from the family of the Dukes of Montevecchio who, in all likelihood, maibe never set foot there. In fact the “Monte” we are talking about is the Monte di Pietà (the pawnshop building), established by Pope Sisto V in the Ponte neighbourhood and later transferred elsewhere. In 1752 when Clemente VIII wanted this charitable institution to be moved close to the Gianicolense Bridge, the little square delimiting the place where the old Monte di Pietà used to be, became known as “Piazza del Monte Vecchio” from which came “Piazza di Montevecchio.”

The palace designed by Peruzzi, which had never been the residence of the Dukes of Montevecchio and was probably not used for Raphael’s studio, had a large number of owners through the centuries. It passed on from hand to hand in the course of time, following the different fashions and styles of the many and various lords who lived inside its walls. The last family, the Chiovendas, sold the palace in the first half of the twentieth century. After that, the property was subdivided and the premises used for the most varied purposes, from an ice-cream parlour to a restorer’s shop.

In October 1966, a poet and modern ballad singer of Neapolitan origin was looking for a place in Rome where he could cultivate his art in serenity and put down roots at long last, after travelling around the world.

This is how Enzo Samaritani describes his arrival at Piazza di Montevecchio.

We crossed Piazza Navona bathed in sunshine…

We walked down Via di Tor Millina. We stopped for some minutes in Piazza della Pace to allow a handcart dangerously overloaded with junk to go forward.

The wonderful church of Santa Maria della Pace was nearly dazzling in that sun, giving the odd feeling of looking at a backcloth hanging in space.

We turned into a winding lane, Vicolo dell’Oste. The sun was playing with the corners of the roofs, casting triangles of shadows on the ground. We passed the Trattoria del Carbonaro and some ramshackle buildings blackened by time. On the left, the former court house of Sisto V and, next to it, another narrower building, with a nameplate announcing “House of Pietro Baronchelli”. Then, another building with its loftier architecture and dimensions, gave the name to the wide stretch of road where we arrived: Piazzetta di Montevecchio, from the family name of a house of dukes.

That was the place! Very strange. Fifteen or sixteen years had passed since I last walked along that route. I remembered the lively small market of fruit and vegetables which appeared before Vicolo dell’Oste. At the time I had arrived by chance right in that Piazzetta di Montevecchio and had stopped to look at that building as I was just doing now with Paolo. I strongly felt as if it was fate that I found myself again in that very place.

That palace determines the shape of the square, with three portals on the ground floor which follow the sloping lane leading to Via dei Coronari and gently slides toward Tor di Nona. Here, a long time ago, small fishing and tourist boats used to come ashore before the walls of the Tiber embankment were built. Not only did those three portals represent a logical architectural style, but they mostly showed the organizational aspect of the social life of 15th century Roman nobility. The smallest portal, which now houses a furniture restorer’s workshop, used to be the private entrance of the dukes. Through a corridor with a barrel vault, it led either to the staircase for the “piano nobile” or to the central “impluvium” of the palace. The next larger portal led to the main lobby which used to be opened for great receptions and the last portal, even bigger – now a garage for the present condominium – was originally a garage for coaches and a stable. All that does not look to have changed much in 500 years: the contemporary middle class houses are built with the same criteria: double entrance, a main entrance for the owners and a service door, a cellar and a parking space.

Paolo took me into the restorer’s shop. A long corridor overburdened with old tables and frames leaning against the walls, moulds for inlay work, wood-cutting chisels, jointer planes, jack planes, hammers, with much sawdust and many shavings everywhere. The craftsman, a short, thin, lively-eyed man explained to us that this shop was all he had, but he added that beyond the far wall there were two very large additional rooms occupied by a carpenter. We went to find the carpenter.

This time we went in through the main entrance. In the lobby, we heard the droning of a circular saw coming from a small door on the left. We went in. The first things I saw were three Roman columns buried under skeletons of pieces of furniture and planed boards. They held round arches and groin vaults. On the left, a wide window had an ancient grating framed by travertine. We moved forward with difficulty amongst pieces of furniture to get to the other room, guided by the noise of the saw. A series of fanlights adorned the lowered vaulted roof. On the left, a wide arch propped up by pillars opened onto a large niche choked by raw timber boards and pieces of wood. The carpenter welcomed us showing a certain relief.

“I’m fed up with this job” , he said. “You earn too little and work too hard. And then, I’m alone. I’ve got no one who I can leave my workshop to”, he added.

So, would you be willing to let out these premises?”, Paolo asked. The man opened his arms wide: “Well, if you give me a pension …”.

We went out again into the sun. I was simply bursting with joy. We could manage! That building was perfect. After searching for so long, I felt for the first time that I could create my own garden with music-flowers and poetry-trees; a garden with well-trimmed hedges and lawns, with flowerbeds of roses, pansies, primroses and sunflowers; a public garden, where anybody could go and take a breath of fresh air.”