It is said that for each day of the week there is a certain sense of moment that comes early in life and never leaves: a sound, a smell, a peculiar movement of pictures that forever identifies the day. Sunday: strewn inky newspapers, a roast heavy in the air, an emptiness that made you want to go to sea. Monday: cold early mornings, the reality of lunch bags waiting, the smell of blue starch, the creak of a clothesline. Saturday: banging of hammers, new wallpaper going up, grass burns on knees from the park. Then there was Friday: a day as black as an atheist's soul, people arguing over money, warnings about bones in the fish, simply trouble on the wind.
The only thing that saved Friday was Latin and a big grizzled old Christian Brother known as Caesar; he looked as bad as Friday itself. For him Latin was the only language, and Friday's class was his stage in the Latin week. His eyes no longer in this world, his arms flailing, whether making great scrawls on the blackboard or dramatizing Julio-Claudian emperors, he made the room quake, Latin live and Ancient Rome seem only a few blocks away. His finest hour, one that the glorious ham in him could not resist monthly, was the Colosseum, and when he was through, as the chalk dust settled on ground damp with blood, who could not feel the prospect of the next hour with sentence diagrams heavy on the heart?
For the more street-wise in the class, bets were that the only ruin the old tale-spinner had ever been near was the building in which he taught. As usual, they were wrong, for his fervor for the place had taken him there often. Like those with a passion for the styles and motivations of Civil War generals, or the esoterica of 17th century furniture, he never could get enough of the Colosseum. He knew every inch of it, felt every scene, but little did he know that big Hollywood budgets would one day leave a single image on the minds of those he taught as well as most of the public: Peter Ustinov sprawled on a bed of rose leaves and chewing sensually on some grapes.
Bosh! That might have been his only reaction to the show-biz touch, but blood surely would have risen to his brain—alarmingly so—at the latest revelations concerning the Colosseum. The news would also not sit well with the literati who have been struck nearly dumb by the Colosseum for centuries. Goethe said it was a "vision of beauty." Dickens called it solemn, grand, majestic and "the most mournful sight conceivable." And Matthew Arnold said he would remember it to the latest hour of his life. Less ecstatic, but just as firm, Cole Porter called it "the top," right up there with Napoleon brandy, cellophane and Mickey Mouse.
November 13, 1972
Gentlemen, the news is not good: the world's oldest stadium in the round, the only oval to seat 50,000 until the Yale Bowl was built, this most magnificent arena of pagan civilization, is in bad shape. Its condition came to light recently when Rome officials—for the first time that anyone could recall—closed down perhaps the planet's star antiquity. The action left tourists gaping from behind barricades and the more scholarly pondering warily the Venerable Bede's prediction made centuries ago. "When the Colosseum falls," said the great doctor of the church, "Rome will fall, and when Rome falls, the world will go also."
As far as anyone could tell, the world did not seem to mind much, but the Italians took it hard. It was more than their general good nature and patience could bear after a year of a dozen or so strikes, closed hotels and bars, no Sunday newspapers, a government shutdown and the usual bureaucratic malaise. Almost everyone had something to say. The Superintendent of Antiquities pointed to his pittance of a budget. Guides, souvenir hawkers and taxi drivers lounged on the perimeter of the ruin, complaining of no customers. And Fellini, when asked for a reaction, merely said: "Ahhhh," which in the Italian intonation means, "So what else is new?"
Danger to tourists from falling rocks, each weighing roughly 40 pounds, moved officials to action. An inspection team was sent in, and the prognosis was not cheerful. If the structure was not going to keel over soon, it was, as one official put it, "an old, old man who needs medical treatment." The report found that the place was sorely in need of attention, that loose pieces of stone were all over vaults and arches, that the masonry was cracking around the top and slabs of travertine were splitting off from the pressure of growing weeds. Up went the barricades, but not for long and not before a California millionaire reduced the plight of the Colosseum to a joke that amused some, angered others.
One Thomas Merrick, the Californian, sent an emissary to negotiate the purchase of the Colosseum. His agent, Fausta Vitali, was authorized to offer the Italian government $1 million for the ruin and a promise to spend another million for restorations. To recover his investment, Merrick would charge a stiff admission. The Rome daily Il Messaggero reacted with a headline AMERICA IS THINKING OF us over a cartoon showing the Colosseum as a baseball stadium, cinema and supermarket covered with neon signs and surrounded by skyscrapers. Unamused, Miss Vitali countered by saying that the whole thing was "like taking a child from an unfit mother." The official Italian face grew slightly crimson.
At the Education Ministry, always up to its neck in chaos, a press spokesman suggested that the Californian spend his money elsewhere; the ministry oversees all public monuments. "I understand," said a press aide, "he could get a very good Colosseum in gold on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence." But the situation was viewed seriously by the Corriere Della Sera, Italy's most influential newspaper. "A lesson we deserve," said the Milan daily, "but the indifference of our governing class is such that, tomorrow, faced with complete ruin, some paradoxically could regret not having accepted Mr. Merrick's offer."
Anxieties were relieved and public outcry quelled as the government finally rejected the offer and went about probing the serious dangers to the monument that draws half a million tourists a year. The dangers, of course, had been detailed repeatedly for the last 20 years by Gian Filippo Carettoni, Rome's Superintendent of Antiquities. The trouble is that too many hands are now pulling at the current crisis, which is quite real in view of Rome's heavy dependence on the tourist dollar. "We are getting so lost in chatter and polemics," says Mario Pastorelli of the Police Division of Dangerous Buildings, "that the Colosseum could fall down while we're here arguing."
Aside from heavy rainstorms that have been cruel to the colosseum and other ruins, it seems the major threat is traffic. And the traffic is blamed on Mussolini, who cared for the arena rather well. Il Duce had grand plans for it after the war. It was to be the center of his Romanit√†, symbol of imperial grandeur. So he cleared away a congested quarter of Rome and built a ring of asphalt around the Colosseum. The ruin stood in splendid isolation. But he did not realize that an estimated 200,000 cars would one day explode around it, not to mention a subway underneath.
Traffic and official neglect are bad enough, but a hard, embarrassing fact is that the Colosseum ranks as one of the sinkholes of the world. It is a far cry from the place that once was a botanist's dream and a must after-dinner spot for Victorian ladies who rode there in carriages to see it by moonlight. Henry James had Daisy Miller go there in his novel of the same name, though she was warned of the popular threat of the time: "You'll not think a bad attack of the Roman fever very quaint." The flirtatious Daisy died of the fever, which is much more romantic than what could befall you there now after the sun goes down.
The Colosseum is a sinister bivouac for the strays of Rome, a place of amber light and strange sound. It is not wise to set foot in it, certainly not alone. On a visit at night not long ago, one remembers the eerie chill. It was like being lost inside a cave of stalagmites. Laughter floated down from its high rim, whispers could be heard nearby and then a sudden yowl of a starving cat. The cats, thousands of them, are the principal residents, just slightly more in number than the bands of thieves, busted-up prostitutes and homosexuals; if you hear a loud pop, it is a homosexual knocking out a light. So the police say, who have better sense than to go inside.
By day it is evident that the sanitation corps does frequent it now. Until recently all the refuse of Rome seemed to be deposited here, from old tires to rotten vegetables, and on a hot day even the most insensitive nose had to flinch. For perspective, one could imagine the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal being in the same condition or, on a more minor scale, the Houston Astrodome in a couple of centuries. The least, it can be said now, is that the Colosseum can crumble in dignity befitting a structure that has survived nearly 20 centuries and may be the most quickly recognizable monument in Europe.
Standing in the middle of it, it is likely that one will feel very old or very young, much inspired or quite subdued. But few can fail to grasp its brilliant construction, its workmanship and intricate design, its great upward feeling. A maze of sophisticated arching, entrance-exits (about 80), vaulted tunnels and stairways, the Colosseum never felt a sliver of wood; all of it was made of solid masonry. Not counting the basements and subbasements, the Colosseum is four stories high (187 feet). It is 620 feet long and 513 feet wide. Inside, there were 50,000 seats, all of marble and not a bad one in the house.
What a spectacle it must have been, the opening of Titus' 100 days of "games." Dawn breaks, silence for a moment, then thousands of Romans with their food for the day, buzzing toward the entrances, the clay disks that promised them admission in their hands. The velarium (a huge awning) snaps in the warm wind as they sit arguing and exchanging gossip while waiting for the dignitaries to come and be carefully seated; the velarium does not shade the masses, only the elite. The ringside is divided: one section for Titus and his guests and the rest of it for senators, pontiffs and other officials. Once they are seated a stillness falls over the arena.
Even the populus Romanus (the working stiffs) are quiet, but it is a wonder. Prior to the games the promotion has been intense, with posters up all over town announcing the gladiators and their records and special festivals. There were false promises of supreme comfort: the velarium would be up and there would be a sprinkler for the dust. The mob does not have to wait long, for now Titus, robed like a peacock, is being saluted by the gladiators. He then lets a scarf flutter from his hand over the rail, the signal for what would be endless carnage that would fascinate ages and make the use of the word cruel for description seem restrained.
The Romans would surely debate that point. For like all the chics of today—Mafia chic, Black Panther chic, protest chic, one for each month—barbarous spectacle was "in" at the time. Titus' games are fairly mild on this day: bear against buffalo, buffalo against elephant, elephant against rhino, man with javelins and nooses against beast and, finally, man against man. For amusement a few Pygmies are matched against cranes. Thousands of animals and many men are slaughtered before the 100 days end, and as the games close, Titus weeps; rumor is that he sees his own death near. His inaugural games for the Colosseum are a smash hit, the first step toward making it the most blood-soaked acreage in history.
Titus died one year later, and he was succeeded by his brother Domitian. A more poetic figure, but just as cruel as Titus, the games flourished under his rule. Crowds were seldom bored, for by now there were more diabolical stagings, more inhuman results: whips and red-hot irons to spur those who were hesitant; an orchestra of horns, flutes and a hydraulic organ; blows to the forehead by mallets; official confirmation of death and victory. Domitian also favored combat between women or cripples or dwarfs and one day flooded the place and produced a naval battle. Even so, the staple of the shows was and always would be the gladiators.
Look at a picture of a gladiator, think of his lot in life, and the instinctive emotion is pity. They were hard men, most of them drafted from slavery, from the ranks of prisoners of war and convicted criminals, and some were strayed nobility who merely sought the thrill of it all. For most, it was a hellish life, causing them to commit suicide in groups or attempt revolt in preference to slaughtering each other. For others it was a career and there were some, it is said, who had long merry lives, long enough to collect the wooden sword that symbolized honorable retirement, to be hymned by poets and have their portraits painted on vases. They would not have understood Byron's lines: "Butcher'd to make a Roman holiday."
Yet it was sympathy for them that brought an end to the gladiator combat. In 404 a monk by the name of Telemachus, who had never seen such games before, became outraged and jumped into the arena. He tried to separate the gladiators. The presiding official took one look and gestured to the fighters to cut him down, which they did neatly. Emperor Honorius was watching and was repelled by the sight. He canonized Telemachus for his trouble and abolished duels forever. One more century and even the matchups between animals were through, but by now nearly all the lions of Mesopotamia, the elephants of North Africa and the hippos of Nubia had been decimated.
It is unlikely that the Emperor Vespasian, father of Titus and Domitian, envisioned what would go on inside the Colosseum when he began to build it; contrary to popular belief, Nero had nothing to do with it, mainly because he was dead. Vespasian was a sober man, with one eye always on the budget and the other usually raised at the excesses of Roman high life. His reasons for starting work on the Colosseum were simple: he wanted to put the restless people to work and keep slaves occupied, and he thought Rome could do with another recreation center. It took more than 10 years to complete, and Vespasian did not see its finish. He died the year before the opening ceremonies, leaving the final touches and its ultimate reputation to Titus and Domitian.
Now, after all these centuries, the Colosseum shakes, its underbelly shocked every 10 minutes by the subway, its frame rattled by inexorable traffic. It has survived five earthquakes, Popes who used it as a public quarry, millions of tourists who had to have a piece of it and, finally, an American millionaire. Professor Carettoni estimates that complete restoration would cost $5 million; the budget for the ruins of Rome is $400,000. The government has given him an emergency fund of $34,500, and for a while anyway seems once more attracted to its chronic invalid. After closing it, officials have reopened a portion to tourists and promised future restoration. The world and the Venerable Bede, it seems for the moment, can rest easy if not the flinty old Brother with the broken chalk in his hand.