It occurs to me that Italy isn’t the best place to live if you’re an architect. Take a walk at random through Rome or Florence or Venice, and it is quite possible that you won’t pass a single building made in the last century, let alone the last decade. Certainly, no one needs a Cheesegrater grating bolts all over the place when there are so many historic monuments to preserve. But while Italy’s old buildings are nectar to tourists, they can prove a headache for those trying to adapt their cities to modern life.
No surprise, then, that some Italians have come out in support last week of a proposal to restore the floor of the Colosseum in Rome. In theory, this could lead to the building being used again as an arena, rather than merely preserved and tiptoed around as an historical site.
Italian culture minister Dario Franceschini is backing the idea ‘to give the Colosseum back its arena’ after an archaeologist suggested covering with a new stage its central section, where ancient underground tunnels and compartments for gladiators and animals lie exposed to view. ‘Basta un po’ di coraggio’ ('Just need a little courage’), he tweeted.
Courage, I presume, to see the likes of Enrique Iglesias take to the stage where once gladiators fought to the death. For there is nothing particularly courageous about replacing the central floor, provided it is done with care. There is already a wooden, crescent-shaped platform over one part of the amphitheatre. A full stage could make the building look even more like it did when it was completed in AD 80.
If the idea is taken up, it won’t be in the interest of reviving cultural accuracy, but of encouraging the public to help with the building’s costs. Already one can sit in the relatively intimate amphitheatre in Verona and watch opera on balmy summer evenings. With a significantly larger capacity (at least 40,000), the refitted Colosseum could be the perfect venue for pop concerts. (Iglesias is currently top of Italy’s charts.) It would be a case of new arts funding the preservation of ancient ones.
The costs of old buildings are all too apparent in austerity Italy, where private investors foot restoration bills in return for advertising. The Ducal Palace in Venice was undergoing reconstruction in 2011 when I witnessed it enwrapped with billboards for Mario Testino. The Colosseum itself is currently undergoing a dramatic period of cleaning and fixing, paid for by Italian leather brand Tod’s.
Drawing on the booming fashion industry to preserve the country’s artistic heritage is an excellent means to an end. The restoration of the Colosseum stage, on the other hand, seems more like the beginning of the end.
In its current state, the amphitheatre is at once vast and cave-like with its subterranean walls, haunting enough to evoke the Romans’ beloved blood-sports. To experience the contrast between the expectant spectators and the slaves summoned to ‘perform’, you need only cast your eye between the sun-bleached seats stretching into the sky, and the dark shadows in the arena’s bowels below. Daniele Manacorda, the archaeologist who suggested covering these bowels with a stage, is said to envisage people visiting them underground. But as soon as you lose the cross-section view of the monument, you lose the view of the cross-sections which divided Roman society. The monument should not be preserved at the expense of its spirit.