Saturday, June 18, 2011

Rome: Colosseum History

 This is what the Colosseum site looked like in the years before its construction. It was called the Domus Aurea and occupied the large area between the Palantime, Velian, Esquiline, Oppian, and Caelian Hills. It contained an artificial lake and the Colossus, a huge statue by Greek sculptor Zenodorus of Sol/Helios with the face of Nero.
But to really know the history of the area, we must go back even further to July 19, 64 AD and the Great Fire of Rome. The Great Fire destroyed most of central Rome and damaged 10 of the 14 districts. 3 districts were completely leveled, and seven others were left full of partially burned homes. It burned for 4 and a half days. Nero was emporer, and he opened his palaces for the homeless, provided food, and assisted in rebuilding by coming up with a new urban plan.
 Some have theorized that he started the fire on purpose (though this was never proven). This theory was fed because, not only did the new plan contain wider roads and brick homes to reduce the threat of fire, but it contained plans for a new palace complex called the Domus Aurea, shown in these pictures.
 The complex was as large as 300 acres and funded through taxes imposed on the empire's provinces.
 Later, in the Flavian period, the square artificial lake was filled in order to build the Colosseum. The Colosseum was initiated by Vespian, completed up to the third floor by 79 AD, and finished in 80 AD.
Here is part of the Domus Aurea as it looked in Nero's time.
And here is how it looks today - note the Colosseum in the background.
 Another view from Nero's time.
 And this is how it looks today from the same perspective.
 When it was built, the Colosseum was known as the Flavian Amphtheater and looked much like this drawing. It held 50,000 people and would have looked much like this during an event. Events lasted all day, so people cooked and ate there. There were 10 major events a year, enough to keep the Roman populus either reflecting on the last event or preparing for the next, thereby passified and unlikely to start uprisings (not unlike sports seasons today, eh?). The tour guide noted there are mistakes in this drawing. For example, men and women did not sit in the same sections.
 This drawing shows the basement. When originally built, there was no basement - the basement floor was the arena floor and it was made of sand. Later, a wooden floor was built much higher up and the area underneath it used as the basement for animal cages and stage props. There were 32 trap doors where pulleys could be used to raise animals and props to the arena. Like the original, the new arena floor was covered with sand.
 Though it is still debated, it is thought that the Colosseum was sometimes filled with water so mock sea battles could be held. Some think that only parts of the arena were filled in this manner. The picture to the left depicts how the Flavian Amphitheater originally looked. The dark poles around the top were used to secure a cover that could be suspended above the arena to provide shade from the hot Roman sun. Centuries after the Colossus statue was moved to the edge of this Amphitheater, people began calling the arena the "Colosseum" (in reference to the statue) instead of the Flavian Amphitheater.
 A model showing a cross section. The small "shelves" in the yellow area are what held the beams that supported the wooden arena floor.
 Another cross section. The rise to the seats appears too small to me, if we look at the surviving seats in my other posts. Maybe this was a special section with much lower rises or much wider seats.
 A diagram posted at the Colosseum showing where things are located. The blue area is where the exhibits are on the second level.
 This cross section shows the composition of the ground on which the Colosseum was built. This explains why a portion of the outer Colosseum collapsed - it was built on less stable alluvional terrain.
 If you look closely at the Colosseum from the outside, you'll see that three different column styles are used. Level 1 has Corinthian columns. Level 2 has Ionic columns. And the tour guide said Level 3 had Tuscan columns. This piqued my interest since I thought from architecture classes there were three styles: Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian. So I did some research...these are the styles that are generally accepted today: Tuscan, Ionic, Doric, Corinthian, and Composite. Not sure if things have evolved, or more likely my memory is bad.

A painting from 1832.

After completion in 80 AD, lightning caused a major fire in the upper wooden levels in 217 (when it was 137 years old). It was not repaired until about 240 AD with additional repairs in 250 and 320 AD. In 443, an earthquake caused major damage that was repaired in 484 and 508 AD. Gladiator fights were last mentioned in 435 AD, and animal hunts continued until 523 when Ancious Maximus was criticized by King Theodoric the Great for their high cost.

Beginning in the 6th century, the Colosseum began to undergo changes. A small church was built into the structure though it did not apparently add religious significance to the entire Colosseum. The arena was converted into a cemetery. The vaulted spaces under the seats were converted to housing and workshops that were rented out well into the 12th century. The Frangipani family enhanced the Colosseum and used it as a castle beginning around 1200.

A large earthquake in 1349 caused the outer south side to collapse and much of the marble from that collapse was used to build palaces, churches, and hosptials.

In the 14th century, a religious order moved into the Colosseum and remained there until the 19th century. During this period, stone was stripped frm the Colosseum and the bronze clamps that held the stonework together were pried and hacked from the walls, generating the pockmarks we see today.

Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) wanted to turn the building into a wool factory to provide employment for Rome's prostitutes. In 1671 Cardinal Altieri was going to use it for bullfights until the public voiced opposition. In 1749 Pope Bendict XIV stated that the Colosseum was a sacred site because early Christians were martyred there. (There is no evidence to support this claim, as stated in the Catholic Encyclopedia from modern times). On the plus side, he forbade additional quarrying of the Colosseum.

Later popes attempted stabilization projects, removed extensive vegetation that threatened the Colosseum stability, and reinforced the facade with triangular brick wedges in 1807 and 1827. Interior repairs were done in 1831, 1846, and the 1930s.

As always happens, my thoughts on civilizations and cultures changes when I visit a region. I arrived in Rome very angry at the Catholics for plundering the Colosseum, by robbing it of marble to construct the Vatican and other buildings and neglecting it for centuries. But as I listened to the stories and thought about how large a time span 2,000 years is, I came to realize things I had never thought of.

First, even the Romans robbed other buildings of materials in order to build their temples and theaters - they were certainly no angels either. And the Catholics didn't just destroy buildings of other cultures not their own, they destroyed their own buildings...look at how they stripped the Tower of Conti of its marble. Also consider how Via della Concilazione, leading up to St Marks Square, was built by destroying Church of S. Giacomo a Scossacavalli and Church of the Nunziatina. Of course, Via della Concilazione was built under orders from Musollini, but the Vatican helped develop and approve the plan.

It appears to me that prior cultures did not value great buildings as much as our generation does. I was also impressed at how many artifacts of prior cultures and religions are preserved in the Vatican itself. This is a good sign, in my opinion, though a skeptic could view it as plundering other regions of the world.

Finally, it dawned on me that, even had the Colosseum not been stripped of materials, it would still be in very dilapidated condition or very heavily restored over the centuries. The little original marble that remains is in deplorable condition, and that would have happened no matter what. As would have the earthquakes that severely damaged it - there was no stopping those!

Shoot, I can't even keep my own house from deteriorating in as little as 5 year's time!

So I'll go back to appreciating what is in the here and now. And wishing I was a multi-billionare so I could build and exact replica of the original Colosseum on a site somewhere removed from these fabulous ruins.

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