Built in neoclassical style, which was in vogue at the end of the Eighteen Hundreds, the Politeama Theatre illuminates the Piazza which shares its name. Designed as a "polytheama", or performance space for a variety of shows, its role in Palermo was to be as central to social life then, as cinema is now.
Equestrian exhibitions, gymnastics, acrobatics, operettas, plays, and social festivities were to be held and seen there. Just before the Politeama was built, moral in Palermo was low after an epidemic of cholera. The city needed a boost, and the authorities, already in favour of building a people's theatre, encouraged construction despite budget restrictions. In fact it was completed thirty years before the operatic, more aristocratic Theatre Massimo.
Following the ancient theme of entertainment for the masses, the Politeama is structurally reminiscent of Greek and Roman traditions: circular, with ambulatories supported by Doric and Ionic columns, originally made for open air shows.
The outside is decorated with a frieze depicting circus performers. The façade is deigned like a Roman (or Napoleonic) triumphal arch, echoing the Hellenic design of the theatres of Pompeii. A bronze horse drawn quadriga driven by figures representing artistic Talents, by Mario Rutelli, gallop across the theatre roof; Rutelli was also known for the Naiads Fountain in Piazza della Repubblica in Rome.
The theatre's construction did not run smoothly. Economic, municipal and administrative setbacks hindered building, which, for a while, was completely suspended. At its final inauguration in 1874, the theatre was still roofless. However, by 1891 it was complete, with a seating capacity of 5000, and a truly inspirational roof, facilitating fantastic acoustics, even if, by the original project, the theatre was designed to be uncovered.
Now the top floor is a museum: the Modern Art Gallery "Empedocle Restivo", used to exhibit the works of artists from the Eighteenth and Nineteenth century.