Recently, Dario Francheschini, the Italian Minister for Cultural Assets, Activities and Tourism, announced on twitter that the Colosseum is set to have facelift. ‘A commitment maintained: the Colosseum will have its arena again. The restoration project has been financed’ he said to his almost two hundred thousand followers. The drama of the statement makes it sound almost as though it is the building itself that has been waiting all this time for its sandy floor. Elaborating in an interview, Francheschini said the amphitheatre will become a venue for events of only the ‘highest quality’. He suggests ballets and Seneca’s tragedies. Future audiences will be much smaller than those of the past, though Francheschini has ambitions of screening events around the world – so the arena will be the floor to large spectacles as before, but of a very different sort.
The history of the building is familiar to many. After the demise of Nero who had used the space as part of his personal estate, later emperors decided to create a location which could be used to entertain the people of Rome instead. Begun in AD 70 during the reign of Vespasian, the Colosseum was finished in AD 80 under Titus. Domitian added the top floor and the hypogeum whose skeletal remains are soon to be hidden by the new arena. After the end of gladiatorial contests and animal hunts, parts of it were used as a burial site, a church, housing, workshops and a fortress. Throughout the centuries much of its stone was also removed for use in other buildings. Grand tourists looked at its remains with nostalgia, botanists recorded the plant species which claimed the space as their own and today’s travellers clobbered it with selfie sticks until they were banned.
The reaction of some to Francheschini’s plans has been less than positive. Decrying the reconstruction of the arena floor as an attempt to turn the site into a gigantic theme park or, worse still, a venue worthy of Las Vegas, many advocates of historical authenticity have come forward. Complaints about possible destruction of data about the building through whatever additions or removals will be necessary for the new arena have merit, but criticisms about the idea of reconstruction itself forget that much of the building which we see is not original, however we choose to define the term.
The building has seen so many changes it is actually difficult to tell what was there at the beginning. The first major reconstruction was necessary after the building was struck by lightning during the festival of the Vulcanalia in AD 217. It was not finished until AD 240 so, much like us today, decades of Romans saw it incomplete and broken. Some of the later repairs from the succeeding centuries are recorded in inscriptions as part of the standard practice of wealthy and powerful Romans desiring to be recognised for their patronage of important sites in Rome. The last few centuries have witnessed some dramatic changes to the building as well, as large buttresses were added to prevent further collapse and several arches were rebuilt. Little is known about the ancient floor itself aside from its sandy texture (our word ‘arena’ comes from the Latin harena which meant sand as much as a place of contest).
Interestingly for today’s debate about the planned new floor, giving the arena over to the archaeologists for excavation actually originally faced some opposition. For some the arena constituted consecrated ground since it was believed to have been the setting for the martyrdom of Christians in pagan times. It had also contained Stations of the Cross as part of a Christian appropriation of the space. In terms of its ancient uses though, by the time of the excavations by Pietro Rosa in 1874 which uncovered most of the hypogeum, any actual ground a gladiator might have walked or the blood of a Christian martyr might have stained (in fact, no ancient source even mentions the killing of Christians in the Colosseum) would have been long gone, since the arena had not only been used and reused, but also partially excavated and even flooded in the past.
If we do not like the new plans to rebuild the arena, should we also then remove the nineteenth century additions, or are they now old enough to be deemed ‘authentic’? What is authentic anyway? Is about appearance? Do the materials have to be original even if after many years they do not look as they were seen when it was first created? Is there an aura to something ‘original’ that a copy could never have? Is authentic simply that which is authorised by experts? What Colosseum do we want to see? Some argue that the experience of a space is as important as its fabric, so to create a floor would return a different kind of authenticity. Of course such experiential reconstructions can only go so far when you aim to put ancient plays into a Roman amphitheatre and do not plan to reinstate gladiator as a compulsory career or capital punishment as a practice (the Colosseum has in fact been part of a campaign against capital punishment around the world for some years now – you can read about it in another Res Gerendae post!).
Therefore, if we must speak of authenticity, what is more authentic for a building which has changed for the last two thousand years than more change? We can look at this new development as just another step in the Colosseum’s complex biography. It is not a step back into the past, it is the creation of a new layer in a multilayered notion of what the building was before and what it is today. There have been many Colosseums on the site in Rome and as well as in the nightmares of its victims and the imaginations of its visitors. Today some may deem appropriation in this case to be insensitive considering the building’s original purpose, but at least we have to recognise that such appropriation is part of a tradition which spans almost one and a half thousand years rather than just being the recent invention of money-hungry movie-panderers. When someone writes the history of the building in the future, as so many have done in the past, they will have a new chapter to add.
Look below for some of the reactions in the news: