promoting cultural heritage and conservation

What’s Wrong with the Colosseum? Part II

What is being done to conserve the Colosseum? The measures vary in scale. A small-scale, but nevertheless crucial, one is the newly-imposed limit of 6000 visitors at a time. The electronic turnstiles at the entrance and the exit are now programmed to read the numbers of people entering and exiting. The entrance turnstiles stay locked when 6000 visitors are inside the structure; as visitors leave, the same number of new visitors is allowed to enter.

At the large end of the scale is the other aspect which has put the Colosseum squarely in the public eye for the past 2 years: a 3-year, 25 million euro restoration project that will bring the structure into the 21st century. The masonry will be cleaned and consolidated, the long-promised restoration of the hypogeum (underground) will finally be completed, and the service spaces (display area, bookstore, ticket office, bathrooms) will be transferred to a new structure in the piazza outside, near the Arch of Constantine, which will also house a café.

Sound too good to be true? Almost, as often happens in Italy. An international tender was offered; companies were invited to pool their resources to come up with the necessary funds in return for exclusive rights to the Colosseum logo and use of the monument itself for publicity. But in the end only one company made a viable proposal, Tod’s, an Italian luxury footwear company owned by Diego Della Valle, who promised to finance the entire project single-handedly. The contract was duly awarded to Tod’s.

It didn’t take long for Italy’s own white knight to be transformed into a blackguard. A labor union launched a legal complaint, alleging that proper tender procedures were not followed in the awarding of the contract (the complaint was withdrawn after several months due to negative press coverage). The Italian consumer protection association filed a complaint with the state anti-trust office over the apparent lack of competition in the tender and the contract’s terms (allegedly too favorable to Tod’s), even accusing Tod’s of seeking to exploit the project for free publicity despite Della Valle’s public rejection of the provision in the contract that allows for advertisement on the Colosseum. This complaint eventually drew in the State Prosecutor’s Office in Rome and the State Audit Court, causing irritation and embarrassment for Della Valle and Rome’s embattled mayor Gianni Alemanno. Professional conservators accused Della Valle of passing them over for employment in favor of mere “masons”; Della Valle countered that his employees will be specialists in stone restoration, rather than fresco or statue restoration.

Meanwhile pieces of masonry have continued to fall, almost as if the Colosseum itself were sending a message: the longer you dither, the more I decay. A few weeks ago Della Valle, impatient and frustrated, publicly threatened to withdraw the sponsorship of Tod’s. Public opinion appears to be on the side of the archaeological and municipal authorities and Della Valle, arguing that it ultimately doesn’t matter who sponsors the project and whether or not the terms are the fairest possible – the work can’t wait any longer. A few days ago Italy’s Authority for the Supervision of Public Contracts approved the contract between the state and Tod’s, apparently clearing the way for the first scaffolding to go up next month.

When discussing the Colosseum, everyone likes to cite the famous quotation attributed to the 8th-century English prelate Bede: “As long as the Colossus stands, Rome stands; when the Colossus falls, Rome too will fall; and when Rome falls, the world too will fall.” The author actually does not refer to the Colosseum, but instead to the Colossus, the 120-foot tall gilt bronze statue of the emperor Nero that was placed next to the Colosseum in AD 124 and refashioned to resemble the Sun. (It would not make sense for a Christian to equate the Colosseum – scene of the deaths of martyrs – with civilization!) By Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages the Sun was venerated almost as a creator divinity, the light of the civilized world, and in fact the cult was assimilated into Christianity and other current religions like Mithraism. Over the course of time the statue’s name rubbed off on the amphitheater next to it by association. The Colossus disappeared at some point in the Middle Ages, and so technically Rome has fallen and the world should have ended. But that should not stop us from reviving the old prophecy and applying it, with slight modifications, to the Colosseum in our own time: as long as the Colosseum stands, Rome and Italy stand. If the Colosseum falls, Rome and Italy will have to answer to the world. Mark Twain would be proud.

– by Albert Prieto, AIRC Associate Director of Archaeology

albert[at]romanculture.org

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  1. Pingback: What’s Wrong with the Colosseum? « American Institute for Roman Culture

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