Colosseum opens its belly to the public
By Elisabetta Povoledo
For nearly 450 years, the majestic amphitheater known today as the Colosseum provided spectacular, often gory, entertainment for legions of ancient Romans. Last week, archaeologists opened its restored warren of underground corridors to the public.
Starting in A.D. 80, spectators were thrilled by gladiatorial contests, bloody tussles between wild animals, staged sea battles and theatrical performances with condemned criminals acting out myths that usually ended badly. Now, visitors can see where it was all methodically planned out.
The hypogeum was “the heart” of the amphitheater, Alfonsina Russo, director of the Colosseum and its archaeological park, told reporters Friday during an impromptu tour of what she described as the monument’s backstage, where she said “preparation took place to ensure the optimal execution of the games.”
Under the arena floor, working by torch and oil lamps, unseen stagehands manipulated elevators and trap doors so gladiators, performers and animals could make dramatic choreographed entrances. “There must certainly have been a director who coordinated all the activities that resulted in the show,” Russo said.
The restoration, which began in late 2018, adopted a multidisciplinary approach that involved archaeologists, architects, restorers, physicists, topographers and engineers. “As you can imagine,” she said, “it was a very complex effort.”
Their work unearthed new archaeological data that was used “to read” the amphitheater’s history, from the moment it was inaugurated to the final games there in A.D. 523, Russo said. “The transformations often followed the tastes of the various emperors,” or the fads of the time, she added.
A section of the underground beehive has been open to the public since 2010. In 2015, a model of the elaborate system that raised cages from the bottom of the amphitheater to the arena floor 24 feet above — built to descriptions found in ancient texts — was installed there.
Now visitors can walk down the tunnels that cross the length of the arena.
The opening of the underground area marks the end of the second of three phases of a 25 million euro project (about $29.8 million) sponsored by the luxury goods maker Tod’s.
The first stage involved cleaning and restoring the Colosseum’s vast, arcaded facade and substituting the metal gates that seal off the ground-level arches. The third phase calls for the restoration of galleries on its second level and the relocation of the services center outside the monument.
“It shows that when public and private want to do something together, things can happen,” the founder of Tod’s, Diego Della Valle, said Friday, renewing an appeal to other Italian industrialists to follow suit. He has had few takers, save for other fashion brands, like Bulgari, which revamped the Spanish Steps, and Fendi, which cleaned up the Trevi Fountain.
“With my words today, I hope to bring others onboard,” Della Valle said.
But the underground corridors at the Colosseum that once housed the elaborate machinery that hoisted scenery, props, animals and people onto the arena floor will not be visible from above for long.
Last month, Dario Franceschini, Italy’s culture minister, announced the winner in a competition to build a replacement floor for the Roman landmark that will allow visitors a glimpse of what it was like to stand as a gladiator.
“It’s a great operation,” Franceschini said Friday. “We need to feel proud in these weeks of reopening.”
Russo, the Colosseum’s director, also attended the inauguration this week of another landmark in her care: the Domus Aurea, or Golden House, which reopened Monday after a 14-month closure because of the coronavirus pandemic.
At the Domus Aurea, a palace built by the emperor Nero, a new entrance and ramp designed by Stefano Boeri Architetti lead directly to a large octagonal room with a semicircular dome that was at the center of the house. There, a multimedia exhibit, “Raphael and the Domus Aurea: The Invention of the Grotesques,” has been installed. The exhibit celebrates the rediscovery in the late 15th century of the ancient palace and the influence its frescoes had on Renaissance art.
The exhibit had been scheduled for 2020 and was to coincide with a blockbuster show at Rome’s Scuderie del Quirinale commemorating the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death. However, the show was partly derailed by the pandemic.
Boeri’s ramp demonstrates how contemporary architecture can perfectly fit with the “conservation of the patrimony of the past,” said Franceschini, who was also at Monday’s inauguration.