Colosseum as Icon

Over the centuries, many have come to Rome to stand in the shadow of the ancient monument to the Roman Empire, the renowned architectural achievement – the Colosseum. Travelers and academics often comment, however, that their visual expectations far exceed their first impression of it. Touring the Colosseum is almost anticlimactic. The magnificent amphitheater, faced with gleaming travertine stone three stories high and lined with statues --  a venue that that once hosted gladiator fights, mock sea battles, staged animal hunts, and public executions of Christians, criminals, and ill-fated persons -- now seems a mere skeleton whispering about its former blood-soaked glory, imposing structure, and storied history.

The Colosseum has a complicated history that explains its ruined state. After the fall of the Roman Empire, it suffered damage from lightning strikes, fires, plundering, neglect, vandalism, and earthquakes. Over the centuries it was also re-purposed as a chapel, cemetery, lodging, workshop, and fortress. The most severe damage came in 1349, when a tremendous earthquake caused the outer southern side to collapse. Many of the fallen stones were used to build other prominent structures around Rome. The interior of the amphitheater was also stripped of stone, travertine facing, and bronze clamps (used to hold the stonework). Thus when modern observers encounter the Colosseum, they see an elegiac and crumbling pile of rocks.

If, at first glance, the Colosseum does not meet our expectations, what can be done? Can it be made “whole”? Some believe that educational opportunities, academic research, and site preservation warrant the reconstruction of such monuments. The 18th-century French writer Charles de Brosses proposed an original solution: “My plan … would be to reduce the Colosseum to a semi-amphitheater, and to demolish the rest of the arches on the side of Mount Caelian, to restore the other half to its former shape and to turn the arena into a fine public square. Wouldn't it be better to have a partial Colosseum in good condition than to have a whole one in tatters?” Aesthetes and architects can contemplate the question.

If reconstruction seems disruptive or daunting, what about cleaning the structure? Is that cultural disruption? Diego Della Valle, owner of the global luxury goods brand Tod’s, gave millions a few years ago for the purpose of scouring by hand, with brushes large and small, each stone and brick of the Colosseum. Two thousand years of dirt and pollution (and memory and history?) were scrubbed down with atomized water to reveal the structure’s natural patina. There were no significant renovations or modernizations, as were previously called for by the likes of de Brosses. Nonetheless, was something lost in this process?

In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, the Victorian-era art critic John Ruskin considered a reconstructed monument one of the greatest of sins: “… it is a lie from beginning to end … it means that the total destruction that a building can suffer is related to: a destruction out of which no remnant can be gathered; a destruction accompanied by a false description of the thing destroyed.” Ruskin admitted that there is a distinct weakening of an architectural structure that occurs over time, through the process of weathering and centuries of misfortune. Erosion and time remove the layers of function, form, and detail. These factors push the structure into the domain of uselessness and sentimentalism. But in that deconstructed state, Ruskin argued, a heightened intimacy transcends the visual effect and formal design. For him, that was where the real beauty came from – a certain timeworn vulnerability rather than a sought-after perfection.

So the visible lines of imperfection, seen in monuments like the Colosseum, are what scholars and artists like Ruskin find so expressive. From the layers of material, keen travelers or researchers may spend more time interpreting its remnants and contemplating the different stages of its development and decline, learning more than they would from a reconstructed monument. Physical encounters with a declining edifice short-circuit its ordinary architectural logic and open a person to a different emotional and expressive interpretation. Essentially, ruins are more interesting and enchanting, and engage the intellect and imagination more easily than other works of architecture.

Thus the power of a decaying Colosseum, as of other ancient monuments, rests in its capacity to conjure historical and cultural memory, and part of its value is derived from its ability to have stood for centuries. Reconstruction and scrubbing away layers of dirt may make a monument “whole” and serve a more utilitarian purpose. But a monument’s spirit and integrity will be compromised in the process.