Click on photos to enlarge.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Coliseum

Christian Martyr's Last Prayer, 1864-84, Jean-Leon Gerome, only the artist could capture
what the Coliseum must have been like in its "gory" days.
Several years ago, the City of Rome was treated to a revival of the ancient Greek drama Oedipus Rex. While not the stuff of Broadway, or even Appian Way theatre, the play does have its moments, otherwise Sophocles' tragedy wouldn't have been around for something just over twenty-four hundred years. What made this retelling unique was its venue, amid the architectural rubble of one of the greatest landmarks in the history of mankind--Rome's Coliseum. Foot for foot, yard for yard, it's probably the bloodiest site on the whole planet, which would seem not at all inappropriate for a play in which a man unknowingly kills his father then marries his mother, who later commits suicide upon this realization, leading her son to blind himself in retribution for his maternal incest. It's a Greek tragedy, what one might call "tabloid theatre."

Despite their current economic straits, the Italians have done their best to preserve their
ancient piles of Rocks. When I was there in 2001, the 'bridge" and partial floor had just
been completed, allowing visitors an intimate peek at parts of the arena not usually seen.
The news media proclaimed Oedipus Rex as the first performance in the venerable old amphitheater in fifteen hundred years. That's at least somewhat inaccurate. While it's true, the last "games" were held in the Coliseum in 523, bullfights were held there in the 1300s; and as recently as 1951, it was the site of a concert given to commemorate the anniversary of Verdi's death. And before that, during the Renaissance, passion plays were often held among the half-destroyed remnants of the Roman Emperor Titus' magnificent arena. Begun in 72 CE, the stadium could hold more than fifty thousand bloodthirsty Roman spectators. Its opening in 80 CE was celebrated with a full one hundred days of horrific gladiatorial games.

I was struck by the depth of the ruins that would
have been beneath the wooden floor of the
ancient arena. There was much within the
two-level guts of the Coliseum that didn't meet
the eye.
Bigger than two present day football fields, the stands once rose 164 feet high; while the oval arena floor, which was the only part of the structure made of wood, covered some 29,000 square feet. Everything about the Coliseum was enormous in size beginning with the colossal, 120-foot tall statue of Nero outside its gates (from which the arena first derived its name 630 years later). Though not completed until after the suicide that ended his reign, nor actually bearing his name, this was very much Nero's kind of place.

Though usually thought of as being constructed
of stone, the actual core of the structure was
good old-fashioned Roman brick, flat, irregular,
and held in place by the, then brand new,
invention of concrete.

The Coliseum is most well known as a death pit. Many of its victims were, of course, wild animals since most of the time the gladiators won. Even women gladiators played the Coliseum...until they were banned in 200 CE. The first Christian (St. Ignatius) died there in 110 CE. Estimates range from five- thousand to as high as ten-thousand others followed in his path. The last, St. Telemachus, was martyred within its walls in 404. Since then, sixteen-hundred years have not been kind to the place. A lightning strike in 320 began its trek down hill, followed by no less than six earthquakes (the last as recent at 1703) all of which inflicted varying amounts of damage. But without doubt, the most devastating damage has been done by the Romans themselves, who for centuries, considered its ageing walls a convenient stone quarry for the building of many present day structures; including over 2,500 cartloads of stone hauled across the Tiber to construct the walls of the Vatican.

Much of two outer rings of arches were consumed for Renaissance building materials
before the Italians came to realize they were demolishing their number-one tourist attraction.
What to do with the deteriorating structure has been a perennial problem for centuries too. Proposals to turn it into a church, and later, a cemetery did not mature, but the Coliseum has, at various times, been a woolen factory, a dumping ground for gunpowder refuse, a fortress, a den of thieves, a patch of weeds, and for the past two hundred years or so, a major tourist attraction. More recently, with part of its wooden floor rebuilt, but with its seating capacity reduced to a mere seven-hundred, once more the Coliseum was a venue for tragedy, though despite Sophocles' Oedipal plot, one not quite so lethal.

Despite its tortured past, and ruinous state, the Coliseum still manages
 to project a certain romantic beauty, especially at night.

No comments:

Post a Comment