On your next visit to Rome don’t be surprised to see the Colosseum, one of the most visited monuments in Italy, covered by scaffolding. It took almost 34 months of appeals and judgements but finally the first comprehensive restoration in 73 years, of what started out as the Flavian Amphitheatre, is on its way. The Colosseum is still considered one of the greatest works of Roman architecture and engineering, a masterpiece even by modern standards. It is 189 meters by 156 meters and covers an area of 24,000 square meters. Its elliptical shape could seat up to 50,000 spectators, mostly packed like sardines in a tin, to watch gladiatorial contests, mock sea battles, executions and mythological dramas.
The Colosseum “breathes all the majesty of ancient Rome” to quote Stendhal, but in the last decade the neglect of this “ruined battlement” became hazardous. For years chunks of masonry and stone have fallen off (mainly on the Celio side of the Colosseum arena) and the air pollution and the vibrations from traffic and a nearby subway line did not help either. Something had to be done to save the third most visited cultural landmark in Europe. Italy is chronically short of funds to maintain, protect Italy’s artistic and archaeological heritage. That’s why in 2010 the Ministry of Heritage and Culture and the Municipality of Rome decided to use private sponsorship to realise the much needed restoration they could not afford themselves.
Diego Della Valle, owner of up-scale shoe and bag manufacturer Tod’s, offered to fund the 33 million dollar or 25 million euro restoration project in return for the exclusive rights to use Italy’s most famous landmark for 15 years in Tod’s advertising. The lack of public funding to carry out the massive restoration was in itself already controversial, but private funding by a company? Specialists and consumers rights associations raised doubts about the quality of the restoration work or were afraid that Diego Della Valle might try to commercialize the restoration.
The restoration of Rome’s most famous monument will take anywhere from 2 to 4 years to complete. It involves restoring the north and south façades and the underground areas and also includes a new service area with a bookshop. 25 % more of the Colosseum area will be open to visitors after the restoration, particularly the underground network of tunnels, storerooms and cages.
The building of the Flavian Amphitheatre, named after Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus, began in 72 AD until Titus finished the job in 80 AD. The inaugural festivities seemed to have lasted 100 days and included combat between gladiators and wild animals, gladiator and gladiators, convicted criminals, Christians, hunters, dwarves and even women. All kinds of weapons were used like swords, nets, tridents, daggers and offensive shields.
Fifty years later, around 128 AD, Emperor Hadrian gave an order for the transfer of a huge, 30 metres tall, bronze statue to a location near Flavian Amphitheatre. The statue, the work of the Greek sculptor Zenodorus, was made especially for Nero’s private palace the Domus Aurea or “Golden House” and that’s how it became known as the Colossus of Nero. It was probably this statue that provided the name for the Colosseum, a later addition of early medieval times.
The transfer of the statue in itself seems to have been an admirable feat. The story goes that Hadrian used 12 pairs of elephants to get the transfer of the statue done, in upright position no less. The statue probably was demolished by the end of the 7th century, although historians believe that part of the pedestal still exists; it is located between the Colosseum and the temple of Venus and Roma.
The Flavian Amphitheatre was damaged several times by fire and earthquakes but was continually restored until the end of the 5th century. Gladiatorial combats were outlawed by the Christian emperor Honorius in 407 AD and fights with wild beasts were banned in 523. After this, the arena went out of use and fell into disrepair. In the centuries afterwards Romans freely helped themselves to the arena’s stones in order to build their houses until the 18th century, when Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58) declared the Colosseum sanctified by the blood of early Christian martyrs.
After some 1,500 years of neglect everybody agrees that the facelift of Rome’s ultimate architectural icon is urgently required. There are alarming reports that the Flavian amphitheatre is leaning (similar to Pisa’s tower), the south side of the Colosseum is now around 40cm (16 inches) lower than on the north. Diego Della Valle emphasises the urgency of intervention too when he said the Colosseum had to be taken care of because “it does not only belong to Italians but to every citizen of the world.”
The Colosseum remains open to the public during the restoration.