For nearly 150 years, the Cressoni Theater hosted some of the greatest operas to come through northern Italy — but its final curtain call came years ago. In 1997, the building in Como was turned into a movie theater. Now, it's being gutted to make way for the lakeside city's newest luxury apartments.
But as crews worked to tear down one piece of history last week, they happened upon another piece of Italy's past.
In the basement of the theater, inside a cracked, two-handled jar made of soapstone, workers found hundreds of gold coins dating to 5th-century Rome.
Photos from the Italian Cultural Heritage and Activities Ministry showed the cracked amphora, the same muddy gray color as the surrounding earth it sat in.
But inside, gold coins gleamed.
Luca Rinaldi, the local archaeology superintendent, told the Times of London that the discovery stood out because of the large number of coins and how well preserved they are.
“We are talking about an exceptional discovery. . . . It’s practically an entire collection, unlike anything else ever found in northern Italy,” he said. “Sometimes coins that are found are stuck together but these are all separate, it was like opening a wallet.”
In a news release, Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli called the find “a discovery that fills me with pride."
"We do not yet know in detail the historical and cultural significance of the find, but that area is proving to be a real treasure for our archaeology," he said.
The coins have been transferred to a restoration laboratory in Milan, where archaeologists hope to get a better sense of where the money fits in the historical record.
Centuries before that particular plot of land became the Cressoni Theater, it stood close to the Novum Comum forum, a market center during the Roman Republic. The coins date to the Roman Empire's decline.
Researchers don't know who the coins belonged to or why that person decided to bury them on land that would ultimately become the theater.
Maria Grazia Facchinetti, an expert in rare coins, said at a Monday news conference that the coins were “stacked in rolls similar to those seen in the bank today.” They had engravings about emperors such as Valentinian III and Libio Severo, suggesting they were minted before A.D. 474, she told CNN.
The coins from Como join a spate of recent finds of artifacts from the Roman Empire. In 2016, archaeologists unearthed a rare 2,000-year-old Roman gold coin in Jerusalem with the face of the Roman emperor Nero, according to CNN. Also that year, archaeologists uncovered a trove of Roman and Ottoman coins from a castle in Okinawa, Japan. The Roman coins were from about the same period as the coins found in Como. Archaeologists speculate that those coins got to Japan via trade routes linking the West to Asia.
The coins in Como didn't travel nearly as far. The Novum Comum forum was a principal marketplace in a Roman colony established by Gaius Julius Caesar, according to Inquistr.com.
The find a millennium and a half later has had one more effect: It has provided a stay of execution of sorts for the Cressoni Theater. Crews have suspended construction work while authorities search to find out whether anyone else has left any other 1,600-year-old antiquities lying around.