After the ticket and security lines at the Colosseum, a steep set of stairs leads to this exhibit, which is installed in an exterior corridor one level above the ground floor. Its entrance is marked by a bright yellow freestanding panel with a mirrored oval flanked by the words Colosseo. Un'icona. The mirror at first seems a nod to the narcissism of the modern tourist, but is perhaps also a reference to an idea articulated by the fifteenth-century German traveler, Nikolaus Muffel, who said that the Colosseum was “a mirror, in which they saw all the things in the world” (quoted in Enrico Parlato's catalogue essay ). The focus of the exhibit is this—ideas and images that have been projected onto, invented, and imagined about the Colosseum in the centuries between the close of the ancient gladiatorial games and the dawn of the selfie.
The exhibit is divided into twelve sections, each with an introductory panel (all interpretative material is in Italian and English). It includes models, archaeological artefacts, paintings, drawings, and reproductions of images created over roughly the last millenium. Part one is titled “The Amphitheater of the Caesars,” but is dominated by the enormous model of the Colosseum completed by Carlo Lucangeli in 1812, which is divided into halves and installed in two facing vitrines. The model is an artefact of the intensity of attraction to the Colosseum as both a building and as a symbol of a glorious Roman past. The first objects are a small group of large fragments of the decoration of the Flavian ampitheater. An inscription commemorating a fifth-century C.E. restoration of the building—carved on the back of a Flavian-era one—serves as a jumping-off point for the post-antique history of the building. This inscription, together with a slab of stone seating carved with sixth-century senators' names, attests to the continued use of the amphitheater even after Christianity had taken permanent hold in the Roman empire. This topic is surprisingly little discussed overall, however; it would have been interesting to see and read more about the persistence of spectacle in Christian Rome and how or why it finally ended. Reuse and reinvention of the building and its components is a recurring theme of the exhibit, which implicitly reminds us that the Roman imperial Colosseum that we see today was not left to us in this form and had a long life after antiquity.
From here on, the exhibit progresses largely chronologically, moving through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to Mussolini and the modern day. Along the way, we learn about the importance of the Colosseum in the Grand Tour and as an object of study for European and American architects and painters. A fair amount of the work of the later artists is presented in printed reproductions, but several original paintings and drawings are also on view. Although necessarily a bit visually repetitive—the subject of the Colosseum allows for only so much variation of scale and composition—some of these images are poignant evocations of the building's history as a lived-in and living space, sometimes spooky, sometimes teeming with vegetation as well as people.
The three-dimensional models of the amphitheater in real or imagined stages are, to this reviewer, the most provocative of the show. In a section titled, “Living in the Colosseum,” a model accompanied by an informative panel reconstructs the haylofts and stables that were built into the spaces under the auditorium in the Middle Ages. Tiny plexiglass sheep are escorted through a soaring corridor by a two-dimensional shepherd in a simple but effective complement to the modest excavated objects displayed nearby. The model helps bring to life what is otherwise hard to imagine today—that for a long time the Colosseum was occupied not by exotic beasts and terrifying fighters, but by villagers tending sheep and chickens.
A true highlight of the show is a model of the never realized Baroque church first conceptualized by Bernini, but designed by Carlo Fontana, and meant to be inserted into the Colosseum. It was circular, with a tall cupola, and was to fit into one end of the oval arena. Its curving forecourt was to be surrounded by an arcaded portico topped by a series of statues reminiscent of those that now overlook the piazza at St. Peter's. The remarkable model and drawings of this project makes one wish it had been built.
The design of the opening panel—bright color, clean lines, sans-serif font—is in keeping with the overall aesthetic of the exhibit. It at times “fights” the curve and enormity of the vaulted space in which it is installed by moving visitors through low-ceilinged, boxy display modules. Objects and images are arranged in these partly enclosed exhibit spaces, which have crisp white or plywood walls. In a few places, the exhibit embraces the architecture of its host monument by using the radial vaults and shape of the corridor to structure displays—one long segment of a curving interior wall is covered with enlarged reproductions of drawings and paintings. The exterior arches of the corridor are open to the air and to Roman traffic, keeping the past and present in constant contact.
Through an array of Renaissance studies and romantic paintings of ruins overgrown with plants, we move into the modern age. A model of the Palazzo della Cività Italiana, also known as the Colosseo Quadrato (now the corporate headquarters of Fendi), is among the artifacts of Fascist interest in the amphitheater. The show ends with an array of twentieth- to twenty-first-century interpretations of the Colosseum, ranging from postcards to architectural kitsch to mini amphitheaters made from rubber tires. The exhibit's “longue durée” approach and juxtaposition of modest artifacts and modern visual culture fits well with wider scholarly and museological trends away from narratives of rise and fall, apex and decline. Perhaps most interesting is the implicit reminder to visitors that cultural knowledge is not immutable and that even powerful historical narratives can be largely forgotten over time.
The exhibit is accompanied by a catalogue, Colosseo, with 23 richly illustrated essays that discuss objects in the exhibit and expand substantially on aspects of post-antique engagement with the Colosseum as a physical building and a symbol of ancient Rome. The volume emphasizes that the life of the Colosseum extended far beyond that of the Roman empire and that our understanding of the ancient building continues to be shaped by that later history. Of particular interest are the essays that illustrate how the Colosseum has been a magnet for imagined identities—for instance, that Christians made it the center of ancient martyrdom (Rusconi, Bordi) and with that both a site of resistance to and ownership of Rome. Later Europeans studied and reinvented it as part of their architectural and imperial ancestries (Nazarro, Cornini). Modern Italians consolidated it—literally and metaphorically—into a symbol of the eternity and centrality of Rome in the modern nation and in the Church (Cellini, Chiodi).
There are too many essays to discuss individually here, so I highlight a few that are likely to be of particular interest to the readers of this journal (see full table of contents below). Christian interpretations of the Colosseum and the ongoing prominence of the building in Catholic ritual in Rome are explored in several of the contributions. Notable among them is Giulia Bordi's look at how the Colosseum fit into the larger process of Christianization of the city. Roberto Rusconi explores how the amphitheater was reformulated as a major site of Christian martyrdom (which it was not necessarily in antiquity) and how it has been incorporated into Catholic rituals in the city that continue today, such as the Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross), led by the Pope at Easter. María Margarita and Segarra Lagunes discuss the installation of shrines for the Stations of the Cross inside the amphitheater.
Other essays examine the evolution and impact of what might be termed invented mythologies of the Colosseum, which were built upon the foundations of its basic original purpose—violent spectacle—but elaborated in ways that the ancient Romans could not have imagined. Particularly interesting in this regard is Enrico Parlato's exploration of sixteenth-century adventures in necromancy, nocturnal conjurings in the arena, and the curious association of the Colosseum with the Tower of Babel.
It is somewhat surprising that discussion of the historical bridge between the Roman heyday of the amphitheater and its later functions—that is, Late Antiquity—is quite limited in the exhibit and the catalogue. Panels mention that the games stopped in the sixth century, but the exhibit moves quickly from the “Amphitheater of the Caesars” to the later Middle Ages. Such a timeline reinforces a “dark ages” impression of Late Antiquity and glosses over the complexities of a post-Constantinian Roman empire that still liked blood sports. (In the catalogue, Domenico Palombi discusses Tertullian and Augustine's response to the amphitheater, and the closing essay by Simone Verde talks a bit about the decline of the games in Late Antiquity). Given the long history of stripping, cleaning, and renovating the bulding, it is possible that the Colosseum itself might no longer contain much tangible evidence from Late Antiquity, but I wonder if more could have been done with less directly Colosseum-based material to illuminate what appears here as a largely blank stretch of history.
The modern restoration and archaeological history of the site and its role in the urban development of Rome is told through several essays (especially di Macco, Rea, Nazarro, Cellini) along with recent efforts to manage and conserve what is now by some accounts Rome's most visited monument. Popular and modern artistic responses to the building are also explored at length. Simone Verde, in the closing essay writes (slightly paraphrased), “[i]f the empire left [us] the Flavian Amphitheater, the Middle Ages [gave us] the Colosseum.” Colosseo, Un'icona illuminates this well, but also goes much further. It shows that long after the Middle Ages and for the foreseeable future, we—however defined—continue to recreate the Colosseum in our image.
Table of Contents:
Introduction. Francesco Prosperetti.
Le molte storie del Colosseo. Michela di Macco.
Il Colosseo ieri, oggi. E domani? Rossella Rea.
Storie di una identità contesa: Il Colosseo, da Tertulliano a Mussolini. Domenico Palombi.
Il Colosseo nel medioevo tra baroni, preti e mercanti. Riccardo Santangeli Valenzani, Giulia Facchin.
Fino al terremoto del 1349: Immagine della città e cristianizzazione dentro e fuori il Colosseo. Giulia Bordi.
San Giacomo al Colosseo e le sue pitture. Philine Helas, Giulia Bordi.
Il Colosseo e le confraternite romane, una pagina di devozione. Anna Esposito.
Il Colosseo come luogo di devozione dal culto per i martiri alla Via Crucis. Roberto Rusconi.
Presenze cristiane nel Colosseo: Da Santa Maria della pietà alle edicole della Via Crucis. María Margarita Segarra Lagunes.
Il Colosseo, modello di architettura dal Rinascimento alle utopie neoclassiche agli envois accademici, al novecento. Barbara Nazzaro.
Colosseo al nero: Distopie del rudere. Enrico Parlato.
In posa per il Grand Tour: L'immagine internazionale tra cinquecento e settecento. Guido Cornini.
Delle fronde e del chiaro di luna, degli agguati e della febbre. Il Colosseo romantico. Serena Romano.
Il modello di Carlo Lucangeli: Un Colosseo di legno. Cinzia Conti.
Le scoperte archeologiche nell'ottocento. Rossella Rea.
Riconstruzioni e restauri nell'ottocento. Rossella Rea.
I “grandi” restauri dell'ottocento e i “grandi” architetti: Stern, Valadier, Salvi, Canina. Barbara Nazarro.
Il Colosseo e l'area archeologica centrale nella formazione della città capitale. Francesco Cellini.
Monumento continuo. Stefano Chiodi.
La persistenza della copia conforme. Giorgio Gosetti.
Il Colosseo e la fotografia contemporanea. Marco Delogu.
Il patrimonio dissonante. Un antropologo al Colosseo. Vincenzo Padiglione.
Il Colosseo: Una storia culturale. Simone Verde.