Fight For Survival
Rome’s Colosseum stands as one of the most visited historical sites in the world. But under threat, it’s in need of heroes to save it.
Standing at the top of the Colosseum in Rome is a vast and expansive feeling, a sense of connection to history tempered with an immense awe that borders on the indescribable. At a height of 48m, and among what were once the wooden seats reserved for the poorest of Roman citizenry, tourists become small ants that inch along the rotunda; the exposed architecture of the Hypogeum—the underground labyrinth that staged the gladiators and the beasts brought from every corner of the empire—is a cratered puzzle. “And imagine the velarium!” Barbara Nazzaro, Technical Director of the Colosseum, says excitedly. “The velarium was brought out on hot days or in the late afternoon to keep the temperature of the Colosseum and its guests—50,000; but some say there were spectacles that drew 70,000—comfortable. It was a massive awning that was manipulated by ships’ crews. Just imagine it being wielded by up to 1,000 men, as its flags unfurled.”
Of course, that majestic intrude doesn’t detract from what was happening inside. Yes, there were the legends of live sea battles in an intentionally flooded Colosseum (now supported by archaeological research) and rare moments of beauty; but, overwhelmingly, the place spoke of Orcus, the Roman god of the underworld, and for him, the Colosseum was a paean. Upon its inauguration by emperor Titus in 80AD, finishing the work started by his father, emperor Vespasian in 70AD, who died less than a year before its completion, Titus unleashed spectacles that lasted 100 consecutive days to amuse the Roman public. On one day alone, so says the lore, 1,000 animals—lions, tigers, elephants and more—were slaughtered in mock battles. And, of course, gladiators and slaves who showed a thirst for killing and the skill to deliver it waged pitched battles, to give glory, to survive.
Now, centuries on, the Colosseum is itself the gladiator, as it fights a war against nature for its very survival. Since the days when it struck terror (or delight) in the heart of an empire, the building is being ravaged by modernity and its own history. “Look at how dirty this is,” Nazzaro exclaims matter-of-factly of the darkened surface of the once-white travertine, called “black rust” by those who battle it. “This is the result of years and years of pollution, but mostly dust that binds with the hydrocarbons from vehicle exhaust. And, of course, there’s a whole story of how much has been stolen from the Colosseum, it would make you cry.” She explains that for the past 50 years, the monument battled one of its greatest challenges as the level of neglect and decay outstripped the level of intervention necessary. Although every fourth tourist to Italy visits the Colosseum (or a total of almost six million visitors per year), making it one of the most popular attractions in the world, its maintenance was stuck in limbo as Italy’s finances fell on tough times. What it needed was a gladiator to fight for it, a gladiator whose sword was financial and shield a reputation for getting things done.
When the cultural ministry went looking for such a champion, they knocked on the door of Diego Della Valle of Tod’s Group, an Italian patriot whose global empire of luxury could provide the funds as well as the passion to intervene. “Yes, I’m a businessman, and I feel that making money and not giving back isn’t responsible. We are Italian, we live the Italian style, and we make our products under the ‘Made in Italy’ marker,” Della Valle explains of his decision to back the project. “The Colosseum is the most important icon we have. When the mayor of Rome asked me to support the restoration of the Colosseum, I accepted, no problem,” he says with Latin aplomb. He recounts one condition, however—that there would be no advertising, no branding and no visual PR, which Della Valle accepted readily. “It’s a fair request. So many companies use these kinds of activities for their branding, but we won’t,” he stresses.
He goes on to note that more and more companies, especially fashion and luxury ones, are jumping in to help Italian heritage while the state focuses on other priorities. “You know it’s interesting to see there’s a surge of this. The Fendi people are supporting the restoration of Trevi Fountain; Diesel’s Renzo Rosso [with Venice’s] Rialto Bridge; Bulgari, the Spanish Steps; and so on. The people who love Italy, who want to support us, they see what this means. The government has its problems and we have to step in; we can’t simply stand by and do nothing,” Della Valle affirms. “But the government is responding well: I told the prime minister [Matteo Renzi] that if someone who loves Italy—say, Toyota, wants to support, let’s say, restoring Pompeii; then why not? It doesn’t mean that the commercial partner will take over and put hoarding up all around Pompeii. Renzi is very clever with such things; he was the mayor of Florence, so he’s very aware of such collaborations.” So, armed with a chequebook and a pen, Della Valle and Tod’s Group have put up USD35 million to finance the work of the Colosseum’s restorers.
Restoration and rejuvenation
Ascending the scaffolding in a makeshift elevator that seizes halfway up (“It does that, nothing to worry about,” Nazzaro assures), hard hats on head, we get a look at the work that’s being done, all the while getting a history lesson of this building, and thus, the Ancient Roman republic. “We take great care of this restoration; we’re very passionate about this project,” she starts, showing the section that is being worked on that spans five columns. “We start from the top down, work on five sections at a time, and then move on. This is a new concept of work, and the covering is semi-transparent, so you could see through it; that’s very important. So many tourists come to see the Colosseum that we couldn’t cover it up. This is a good compromise. And it’s all done by hand! How amazing is that?” she declares, pointing to a workman who’s meticulously repairing a small nave with the care of a dentist. The contrast is remarkable: the cleaned section is a dull eggshell, its corrugated texture apparent. On the other side, a black and grey surface. And the most astounding part? How simple it is to enact that difference. Not with lasers or special detergents—just plain ol’ H20. “We use this technique,” Nazzaro explains, pointing at the apparatus that sits across the façade. “Very-low-pressure water that loosens that up, and then washes it down. Very simple, yet very effective. There was another sponsor that did some restoration work, Banca Roma, and they gave EUR20 million. They actually pioneered a few systems and discovered that nebulisation was the best way. It’s like a soft rain that has almost no pressure. The process takes four to six hours.”
That’s the surficial, an aspect that will take the project through the first year. As the cleaning goes on, a restoration triage happens and repairs are enacted as needed. One such section that exemplifies that and shows the challenges faced is section 30 where a great fire had raged. “This is the most difficult and damaged part because there was a massive fire. It was razed and very dirty. The true situation came out after the washing,” Nazzaro recounts, adding how previous restorations—while with good intentions—can be as much a part of the problem as anything. “One of the problems with the concrete that was used for restoration was that it contained salt, which, of course, is corrosive, especially when in contact with volcanic materials. But it’s more destructive to replace it, so we treat the concrete instead,” she adds.
Although modern ravages are the restorers’ immediate enemy, the damage that the ages has inflicted is something that no team can reverse. After the fall of Rome, calamities, from earthquakes to fires, struck. “The northern part was preserved because there’s a bedrock. The other side is sandier because that’s where the river flows, causing the walls on that side to fall,” Nazzaro says, describing why the Colosseum has only part of its exterior remaining. “Outright theft was the biggest problem. They didn’t just use the pieces of the Colosseum for the stones but even for the mortar; they also cooked it, which saved time from sourcing [for mortar].”
Still, for all that harm, the structure stands tall, and the restoration project will go farther than any previous ones to bring back the glory of this engineering marvel, one that took a mere eight years for 12,000 enslaved Jews to construct (the capital looted from the recent sacking of Jerusalem financed the project under Vespasian). The most important phase will be the restoration of the Hypogeum. It should serve as no surprise that The Hunger Games drew inspiration from the Colosseum’s carefully constructed landscape of death for entertainment. The plan is to construct part of the flooring anew and bring back the subterranean chambers to a restored state to show the elevators, the animal holding area, the gladiator chambers, and the ambulatory for visitors. The total length of the project is slated at three years and will be an enduring legacy for those who love Rome, Italy and world history. And there’s even a plan to build a world-class museum, befitting of such a singular monument. “I find that really exciting, finally!” exhales Nazzaro, barely containing the relief of such a proposition.
Della Valle, sanguine and relaxed, reflects on the project not only in physical terms, but also existential. “It’s a very complicated situation with the state, with the life in Italy, with the future of young people here,” he comments, as he ponders the role of philanthropy in such a large public work.
“I think it’s a good message to send that we’re Italian, we’re here, and everybody should do what he or she can. We might be doing the Colosseum, but another could do a small church in his or her village. I hope people follow the philosophy that now is the time to give back, to do something for the community.” Colosso Rex.