The Colosseum is, without doubt, the most popular ancient monument in Rome – a must-see sight for around four million tourists a year from all over the world. But they are often quite oblivious, or indifferent, to its function in the past as a slaughterhouse for both people and animals who were tortured and killed to amuse a large 50,000 to 80,000-strong audience.
With its deplorable propensity for regular, well-attended spectacles featuring gory gladiatorial contests and deadly fights between men and beasts, this amphitheatre represents the dark side of Roman mores. It was the central venue for a popular form of prolonged, violent ‘entertainment’ that cannot be brushed aside and conveniently forgotten in favour of a more palatable appreciation of Roman achievements.
So it is highly appropriate that, in recent years, the Colosseum has become a visible symbol of the international campaign against capital punishment – which was abolished in Italy in 1948. When a person condemned to death, anywhere in the world, has their sentence commuted or is released, or if a jurisdiction abolishes the death penalty, the colour of the light illuminating the Colosseum at night is changed from white to gold.
On another positive note, for Christians, the Colosseum is a place of pilgrimage, since many believe that early adherents to the faith were martyred there (although this has yet to be proven to the satisfaction of some Roman historians). Devout Christians are often overawed when they see the place where they believe martyrs deliberately chose death and, in the case of St Ignatius of Antioch, to be fed to the lions, rather than forswear their faith. A cross, dedicated to the Christian martyrs, placed in the amphitheatre in 2000 by Pope John Paul II, bears a plaque that reads: ‘The amphitheatre, once consecrated to triumphs, entertainments, and the impious worship of pagan gods, is now dedicated to the sufferings of the martyrs purified from impious superstitions.’ Each year, on Good Friday, the Pope leads a torch-lit Via Crucis (‘Way of the Cross’) procession, attended by thousands of worshippers, outside the Colosseum.
But, for most visitors, it is the sheer size of the amphitheatre, its architectural perfection and the fact that it has survived almost intact for nearly two millennia, that draws them inexorably into it. This huge oval building, the largest amphitheatre ever built by the Romans, could easily seat more than 50,000 spectators at a time. Known as Amphitheatrum Flavium (the Flavian Amphitheatre) because it was built from circa AD 72 by the first emperor of the Flavian dynasty, Vespasian (r AD 69–79), and completed in AD 80 under his son and successor Titus, (r AD 79–81). Further modifications were made under the last of the Flavians, Emperor Domitian (AD 81–96).
The root of the word, Colosseum comes from the Greek kolossos (first applied by Herodotus to enormous statues in Egyptian temples) and the Latin colosseus, meaning ‘gigantic’, and the building took its name from a colossal bronze statue of Emperor Nero that remained standing nearby long after the fall of the Roman empire, before probably being melted down during the Middle Ages.
Now, for the first time, this mighty edifice is, itself, the subject of an exhibition, entitled The Colosseum: An Icon, displayed in a special series of rooms carved out for this purpose on the second tier of the amphitheatre. Here, the life of the Colosseum is charted through the centuries following its closure as an arena for gladiatorial games in AD 523, after which it started to decay. Yet, despite increasing damage from earthquakes and stone-robbers in the Middle Ages, it was not abandoned. Its vaulted spaces supporting the tiered seating were used as dwellings, workshops and a market place, while a section was taken over by a religious order. It also became a fortress for a time.
It was, however, above all, a very convenient stone quarry, and this aspect of the building in post-Roman times is explored in the current exhibition using information provided by recent excavations and restorations. A major earthquake in 1349 caused the outer south side of the Colosseum to collapse and, over time, it was extensively stripped of stone, which was re-used elsewhere in Rome to build palaces and churches or, in the case of its marble facing, was burned to make quicklime. Even the bronze clamps, which held the stonework together, were pried or hacked out of the walls, leaving numerous pockmarks that still scar the building. Then, in the 16th and 17th centuries, Church officials sought an even more productive role for the Colosseum.
Pope Sixtus V (r 1585–90) planned to turn the building into a wool factory that would provide honest employment for Rome’s prostitutes, but he died before he could realise his proposal. Then, in 1749, Pope Benedict XIV (r 1740–58) decreed that the Colosseum was a sacred site, blessed by the blood of martyrs, and forbade its use as a quarry.
During the Renaissance the huge building fascinated artists and architects who studied it and depicted it in countless different media. One of the earliest, detailed representations of the Colosseum by an unattributed Italian artist of the Quattrocento, is now in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Here, the Colosseum stands next to the Arch of Constantine in a harmonious composition of Classical buildings making up an Ideal City. At the same time the Vitruvian Classical orders of the amphitheatre (the ground floor Tuscan, a Roman variation of Doric, the second floor Ionic, the third floor Corinthian) were taken as the model for palaces built in Florence and Rome.
The Colosseum also became the favourite ancient ruin of writers, poets, painters and antiquarians who were making the fashionable Grand Tour of Italy during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The building’s ‘picturesque’ ruined state, its evocative stones, empty corridors and dark crevices explored, preferably on the night of the full moon, sparked the imagination of Romantic visitors seeking inspiration (3 and 5). Shelley said he was ‘harrowed by fear’ when exploring the ancient ruins.
Tasteful souvenirs (much more pleasing than the tawdry objects now touted in Rome) of painted vedute, or views, and engravings of famous monuments were especially sought after. Small models of the Colosseum, made of wood or cork and sold to Grand Tourists are particularly interesting because they show the state of the building prior to 19th-century restoration. Caskets and snuffboxes covered with minuscule micro-mosaics were produced by skilled craftsmen.
Two pictures, made of mosaic and framed in gilded bronze (one representing the Colosseum; the other the temple of Concordia) by Cesare Aguati, one of the best mosaicists of the 18th-century, were presented by Pope Pius VI (r 1775–99) to the future Tsar of Russia, Paul I, and his wife Maria Fedorovna, who visited Rome incognito under the titles of the Count and Countess of the North, in 1782.
In the 1930s the Colosseum once again became a symbol of political power and was used as the focus of military parades celebrating the Fascist rule of Benito Mussolini. Adolph Hitler, who visited in 1938, commissioned his own larger version of the Colosseum, the Kongresshalle at Nuremberg, to house his Nazi rallies, though it was never completed. During the Second World War the Colosseum once again served as a shelter for the Roman poor, just as it had done in the Middle Ages. In 1944, it was American tanks that paraded along the majestic Via dei Fori Imperiali, which Mussolini had carved through the heart of the ancient city, when Rome was liberated.
A superb re-interpretation of the Colosseum’s tiered rows of arcades was built at the end of the 1930s for more peaceful purposes – for Esposizione Universale Roma (EUR), an International World Fair, planned for 1942. This is the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, an architectural masterpiece and a superb example of the New Classical Italian architecture flourishing at the time. War prevented the opening of the fair but the ‘square Colosseum’ still towers over the beautifully designed monuments of the EUR district.
The Colosseum featured in the first documentary films made by the Lumière Brothers and in the optical experiments of the Roman pioneer Filoteo Albertini at the beginning of the 20th century. But it was with the arrival of American film-makers that it became the iconic setting for the ‘sword and sandal’ films of the 1950s and 1960s. Soon Hollywood stars came to Rome to act in films, such as Quo vadis? (Mervyn LeRoy, 1951), Demetrius and the Gladiators (Delmer Daves, 1954), Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960), Barabba (Richard Fleischer, 1962) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (Anthony Mann, 1964). While, in 1953, a more light-hearted approach to the monument was created in William Wyler’s delightful romantic comedy, Roman Holiday. In Ridley Scott’s 2000 film Gladiator, the Colosseum was re-created using computer-generated imagery (CGI) to ‘restore’ it to the splendour of its heyday in the 2nd century. Other film genres, including science fiction and kung-fu, have exploited the powerful visual impact of the Colosseum. In the 1972 film The Way of the Dragon, Bruce Lee fought Chuck Norris in the amphitheatre’s arena. In the same year, Fellini used the Colosseum as a luminous beacon around which frenzied young bikers raced in a rainstorm in his film Roma. Last year a video game, The Assassin’s Creed series, also featured the Colosseum.
Many contemporary artists, such as Renato Guttuso (1911–87) (1), Josef Koudelka (b 1938), Pablo Echaurren (b 1951) and Paolo Canevari (b 1963) have produced their own versions of the Colosseum in various media. The building has also been replicated in improbable locations across the world including the Fisherman’s Wharf in Macao, the Public Library in Vancouver, Hotel Rome in Wisconsin and the Coliseum Marina Hotel in Batumi, Georgia. Somehow, though, these all evoke Pieter Breughel the Elder’s rendering of the Roman amphitheatre in his painting, The Tower of Babel, 1563, and seem to represent yet another symbol of human folly and the hubris of nations. n
• The Colosseum: An Icon is on show at the Colosseum in Rome (coopculture.it) until 7 January 2018. Il Colosseo, un’icona, the exhibition catalogue (in Italian only) is published by Electa at €39.