The Romans are famous for a lot of things – building and conquering empires, trade, art, food – and don’t forget sex! Pompeii was excavated at the end of the 19th century and the archeologists who uncovered the city found themselves surrounded by erotic images at every turn. For more than a hundred years, there was a secret wing to a museum in Naples, where all the erotic art found in Pompeii was locked away, the doorway even bricked up at one point, and was only fully opened to the public in 2000. What the excavators found, and what was perhaps most shocking, was that these ancient people weren’t so different from us today. For my first solo international jaunt, I took “when in Rome,” very seriously. And so when I stumbled past a building advertising “sexy movies, adults only,” I did what any good Gen Z traveler would do – I googled it.
Rome, being an ancient city in which major monuments have been erected (pun not intended) and from which world domination was nearly achieved, feels like the kind of place one can learn a thing or two about the human experience. I wanted to know if the Ambasciatori Theater could teach this American a thing or two about living and pleasure. Only a 20 minute walk from the Trevi Fountain and nearly right next to the Roma Termini, you’ll find Rome’s last surviving adult theatre.
It would be of no surprise to anyone that this theatre is one of the last of its kind – streaming services seem to be slowly but surely sealing the fate of cinemas in general, and the takeover of free online porn has forever changed the distribution of erotic material. What was it about this place, that something so niche – so, dare I say vulgar, managed to survive the turn of time (and Covid)?
Here’s what I learned when I went: The Ambasciatori is more like a time machine. Movies play all day long but not always according to the time in which you paid to see them. Sometimes they show early, sometimes they show a little late. The theatre is freezing, at least in the colder months. The woman who sits at the ticket desk doesn’t speak or understand English, but she’s patient and helpful, pointing to show times if you tell her that you don’t speak Italian. Tickets are 10 euros.
You walk into a wide open white room. You can choose to sit upstairs or downstairs. To be honest, I was wondering how much traffic this place must get to have two levels, but I guess that’s the beauty of a retro gem. It was built for a time when people didn’t have smartphones and access to media every minute of the day. The theatre is built like a true movie house. The seats are the ones from another time. Vintage framed posters from the bygone years still hang on the walls; animated sultry stars, nipples bared to the world. It does feel like a lost art. Someone would have designed those posters by hand.
When you choose to go into the theatre (I chose upstairs), you will notice that it smells like cigarettes and if you’re a woman, you’ll also notice relatively quickly that you are more than likely the only woman. If you do find yourself visiting the Ambasciatori or another theatre like it, do go with a friend – especially if you are femme or femme presenting. The customers at the theatre do go to enjoy themselves and in some cases, may not always be respectful of personal space or public decency. It is advised to be prepared for exposure to people’s bodies. Despite this, I did enjoy the theatre and would go again, but likely only in the company of a male friend for my own feelings of safety.
The movie will start and it will no doubt be some vintage Italian classic you’ve probably never heard of. Here’s what I saw: The film was about a jewellery heist. At first, it’s men against women – men sleeping with women and stealing their jewels and in the second half, one woman sleeping with the men and stealing the jewels back. At first, the film was admittedly a little disturbing – or was it me adjusting to the experience of sitting in an adult theatre for the first time? But the feminist twist towards the end made it all the more exciting to watch.
What was so special about this viewing was that it was made on real film, split into two parts because there was more action than the reel had room for. The actors had real bodies, albeit still according to the beauty standard of that time (white and thin), but they weren’t airbrushed or hairless.
In the film, you not only see the crackles and pops of the recording, but you also see acne scars, imperfect scenes, awkward positioning. Not to mention, the content felt real – it felt creative, unlike anything we might be seeing made by the adult industry today.
This small forgotten theatre has managed to survive it all. Adult videos were once a thriving market that people were willing to leave the house for. The theatre is a reminder that there was a time when people depended on public spaces for access to the most intimate viewing experience. Rome used to be crawling with these theatres. Many other cities around the world had them too of course, but they have since seen the passing of time.
What makes the Ambasciatori so special? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. Some things just last with a bit of luck. Originally bought in the 1970’s, the owner has since passed and the business has been inherited by his children. The man who runs the projector has been doing it for over three decades.. The theatre is a place for regulars, mostly an elderly clientele who like things the way they were; for purists.