The Colosseum: A monument that has been in constant evolution for 2,000 years

André Forissier, translated by Hugo Sylvestre
7 Février 2015

The Colosseum has been the symbol of Rome’s greatness and eternity for 2,000 years. Built in 70 AD, it has resisted nature's anger and humanity’s hazards. The restoration of its frontage began a year ago in order to give it a second wind. The monument is now seeking a new future.

Credit André Forissier
Credit André Forissier
At the instigation of Diego della Valle, C.E.O. of shoe brand Tod’s, the most known of the Eternal City’s monument has been covered by scaffoldings in December 2013. What was the objective? To give back the Colosseum a near-white colour and the aspect it had during Roman Empire. Now that it has been cleaned, some members of the Renzi government suggest that the historic arena where gladiator battles took place should be rebuilt. 

A Rome’s symbolic monument

Requested by the Emperor Vespasian, the Flavian Amphitheatre –which is the real Colosseum’s name- has been standing in the Roman’s landscape since the second half of the 1st century AD. However, the origins of its nickname are uncertain. Indeed, some people suggest it’s called that because of its huge size while others tend to think that it comes from the near 30 meters high gigantic statue of the Colossus of Nero which was standing close to the building. 

Such as the Eternal City, the monument is a syncretism between the antique Roman civilisation and Christendom. The Pantheon, Roman temple built a century before Christ, has been replaced by a church from the 7th century. This is where is buried the “Father of the Country” Victor-Emanuel II. As for the Baths of Diocletian that are located on the Viminal Hill, they are now home to the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs and the grave of Marshal Armando Diaz who led Italy to victory through the Battle of Vittorio Veneto (1918) during World War I. Finally, before it becomes the end of the Stations of the Cross every Good Friday, the Colosseum saw gladiators fight each other.

Indeed, the monument has been a bystander to various events which have shaken the city during the last twenty centuries. For instance, it witnessed the persecution of early Christians even though only two out of them were killed within the monument, the Capture of Rome in 1870, the decline of the Roman Empire in 476, the downfall of the city in the Middle Age and its great revival through the Renaissance. 

However, those different chapters of History have weakened the Colosseum. The several earthquakes that have been hitting the Rome’s region Lazio have damaged the monument. The 1349 earthquake led to the fall of an entire part of its frontage in front of the plebs Aventine Hill. Time’s relentless passage also carried a bunch of inconveniences. A few years ago, a section of the monument fell. That was the trigger of the Colosseum’s restoration.

Private funds to work on renovation

Lately, Rome has been freshening up and several of its monuments got back their original aspect. For instance, the Bernini’s colonnades that are like guardians for St. Peter’s Square have been cleaned and the Fontana della Barcaccia located on the Piazza di Spagna is shining bright white again. Stuck between the Protestant cemetery and the Porta San Paolo, the Pyramid of Cestius is as noticeable as it was under ancient history. The Trevi Fountain is currently under an ongoing restoration to give it back its former glow. 

Nevertheless, Colosseum’s restoration has caused a certain disorder. Italy annually earns about €40 million by selling tickets to access the Forum and the Flavian Amphitheatre, but although renovation’s works cost half this sum of money, the State asked a private company, Tod’s, to finance the monument’s restoration campaign.

Furthermore, the Colosseum isn’t the only monument to be restored thanks to private funds. As a result, luxury brand Fendi is financing the Trevi Fountain’s renovation and jewelry brand Bulgari the church of the Santissima Trinità dei Monti’s one.

As for the Colosseum, it is as beautiful as it was 2,000 years ago. Pragmatics would say that the essential is done while skeptical ones would point out the surprising failing of the Ministry of Heritage and Cultural Activities maintaining the Bel Paese’s heritage.  With 47 UNESCO World Heritage sites, Italy can be proud to be the country with the most exceptional sites. Indeed, more than 60% of the world’s remains are located in the peninsula. 

However, the Colosseum’s isn’t the only monument that is poorly maintained and managed by public institutions. Since the early 2010’s, some houses in Pompeii have fallen down. Even worse, almost half of the site is in danger of falling down. In Rome’s suburb, the magnificent Hadrian’s Villa located in Tivoli is showing signs of weakness. A fresco of the well-known Uffizi Gallery in Florence is slowly disintegrating. Some people have therefore declared a state of “Cultural disaster” in Italy.

Herculaneum’s former mayor and member of Democratic Party, Luisa Bossa, claims that Berlusconi’s governments (2001-2006 and 2008-2011) are the culprits of all this mess. According to her, old satyr’s soldiers never considered culture, which is not entirely false. Indeed, in 2010, Minister of Finances Giulio Tremonti stated without shame that “you don’t eat with culture”. 

As a result, barely 0.20% of Italy’s budget is dedicated to culture and maintenance of heritage. Just to compare, almost 1% of France’s Government spending is dedicated to this, which is five times as much as Italy. Furthermore, the belt-tightening plan set by controversial seventy year-old man’s successors Mario Monti and Matteo Renzi does not make things better.

Therefore, Rome seems to be only the visible part of the iceberg. Indeed, as it is the Capital city, it is just a “showcase” of the whole peninsula and because tourists from all around the world come to visit it, it is spoiled and benefits from special maintenance works while some towns are left behind. As for the Colosseum, it seems to particularly benefit from recent years’ renovation and restoration campaigns.

The Colosseum keeps its eyes focused on the future

Credit André Forissier
Credit André Forissier
The restoration of the Flavian Amphitheatre’s frontage is probably the most important step of its revival. From the other end of Imperial Fora’s way, built under Mussolini to link the plurimillenary giant to the Piazza Venezia, nobody can miss the spotless Colosseum. 

At the end of 2014, the first step of renovation works was completed. The north frontage is now clean and works will begin on monument’s south side. All this process will be over by spring 2016. 

In the meantime, lots of efforts have been put within the Colosseum. In 2010, the « Death corridor » where beasts and gladiators used to be stacked before they entered the arena and Amphitheatre’s third floor have both been opened to the public.

Recently, even a part of the arena has been rebuilt. Tourists can probably feel similar emotions as ancient gladiators as they enter the arena. 

Current Minister of Heritage and Cultural Activities Dario Franceschini wants to go further and would like the arena entirely rebuilt. An idea that he shares with archeologist and teacher at Roma Tre University Daniele Manacorda who “doesn’t see any problem giving back tunnels their tunnel aspect”, adding that “the arena’s disappearance transformed the Colosseum into a surreal place. Rebuild it would let the giant get back its status of a monument that is not only home to mass tourism but of every contemporary life events so far as possible.”   

Be that as it may, the Colosseum looks back on its past to find its future. This Eternal City symbol will keep shining through the years and as has said English writer Byron “as long as the Colossus stands, so shall Rome; when the Colossus falls, Rome shall fall; when Rome falls, so falls the world.”