Rebuilding The Colosseum

The Colosseum is like Rome itself. After all these centuries, it never runs out of surprises. One of the latest turned up on a second-tier corridor only a few weeks ago: an amateurish but detailed drawing scratched into the wall. The subject is a crouching gladiator armed with a bow and arrow. Experts say the graffitist was probably a fight fan (a teenager or a grown man, to judge from the picture's complexity and its height above the floor) passing the wait between bouts, 1,600 or more years ago.

As trivial as the discovery may sound, it's pure treasure to Roselle Rea. She's the chief archaeologist for an eight-year, $18 million restoration project currently underway at the mightiest of Rome's ancient monuments. When the overhaul is finished in 2003, visitors will be able to explore parts of the Flavian Amphitheater (the Colosseum's proper name) that have been out of public view for centuries--and a few that were off-limits even in the days of the emperors. Rea's enthusiasm is contagious. "Some days the light on a certain wall brings out a piece of ancient graffiti," she says. "Some days, depending on conditions, the discoveries and conclusions are awesome. Some days, things are clear that were mysteries for centuries."

The clearest thing was that the place was falling apart. The whole outer wall--what's left of it--was at risk, according to the project's chief architect, Giangiacomo Martines. The restorers had to mend a widening fissure that extended nearly the entire height of the north face. The foundation needed stabilizing, and some of the exterior arches had to be shored up with supplementary barrier arches. Huge blocks of marble and ancient concrete were coaxed back into alignment, millimeter by millimeter. Since the completion of that phase last year, workers have begun scouring away centuries of soot from the outer walls to expose the monument's original golden tinge.

Big changes are continuing inside. Until the project began, only 15 percent of the Colosseum was open to the public. Now visitors can tour some 35 percent. Two years from now, when the scheduled renovations are complete, 85 percent will be accessible, including underground sections where animals were caged and gladiators prepared for battle. The topmost tier will be open again, too, giving tourists a panoramic view of the city for the first time in almost 1,500 years. Meanwhile, Rea and her team keep digging up more surprises. Earlier this year they uncovered a secret passage, elaborately decorated with mosaics and plaster carvings, that was built to let Emperor Commodus (177-192) slip away from angry mobs.

The restorers have added a few improvements to the old ruin. The biggest of them are a giant wooden stage at the east end of the arena and a wooden gangway that spans the stadium. The platform, covered with sand like the arena's original floor, is supposed to protect the subterranean levels from weather damage and serve as a performance space. Last year a drama group used the stage to put on the arena's first public spectacle since the sixth century: an enactment of Sophocles's "Oedipus" trilogy for a sellout crowd of 700. The seating was awkward, says Rea, and the acoustics were terrible. "The Colosseum wasn't built for the arts," she says. "It was built to showcase animals and man in other ways." The Culture Ministry thinks the arena might still prove to be a good place for events like Rome's invitation-only fashion-week shows, held each January and May.

This year an indoor museum was opened on the second tier, not far from the bowman on the wall. The directors still aren't saying what will replace the current "Blood and Arena" exhibit of gladiator art and artifacts when it closes in January. The answer could depend on what the archaeologists turn up before then. A few weeks ago Rea's team of scientists began digging beneath the amphitheater's lowest levels. The Colosseum was built on the ruins of Nero's vast Domus Aurea--the "golden palace" that Emperor Vespasian ordered destroyed after he took power in 69 A.D. One year later he began construction of the Colosseum. Although most of its treasures were probably exhumed and looted long ago, the Colosseum has protected the ground directly under it for nearly 2,000 years. Rea thinks it's worth checking out.

At present the Roman landmark still has stadium-size room for improvement. You can stand in line two hours or more, without a trace of shade, just waiting to get in. (The Culture Ministry is thinking of setting up a system so visitors can make reservations.) For people too old or infirm to climb the treacherously steep main stairway, an elevator has been installed--but good luck finding it. The refreshment stands are overpriced, and the restrooms are inadequate. And always watch your wallet: despite the best efforts of police to keep a close eye on the place, a day never passes without at least one purse snatched or pocket picked. On bad days as many as 40 such petty crimes are reported.

Far bigger problems may be on the way. The Colosseum remains first on the city superintendent of archaeology's list of Rome's most endangered monuments. It was built over an underground stream whose waters have undermined it ever since. Over the centuries the building has survived three major earthquakes, a disastrous fire and the fall of Rome. Medieval Romans used it as a garbage dump and as a quarry for the builders of St. Peter's Basilica and other churches. Today the amphitheater marks one of the busiest intersections in the city, and a subway roars a few meters outside. The abuse adds up. At the current rate of deterioration, Martines warns, some walls will need to be totally rebuilt within 10 years.

Some forms of wear and tear can only get worse. Last year some 2.5 million people toured the Colosseum, and the renovation is sure to attract even more. Every footstep wears away a little more of its marble floors and stairways. But that's one problem that doesn't give Martines any qualms. "Keeping an old monument closed to visitors is like locking a vintage car in a museum," he says. "It may be nice to look at, but if you try to start its engine, it won't work. Tourists are good for the Colosseum. They make us keep it in working order." Just please don't draw on the walls.

Join the Discussion