The Colosseum I

One of the major monuments that needed repair was the Colosseum, the largest amphitheatre in the Roman Empire. Constructed under Vespasian, and completed by Titus in ad 80, in brick and travertine in the form of an ellipse, it measured 188 m by 156 m in plan and almost 50 m in height, seating 70 000 spectators. It was decorated with superimposed orders which presented a famous model for Roman and Renaissance architects. Its sophisticated substructures allowed complex spectacles with special effects, much loved by the Romans. Though much damaged, it had become a symbol of Rome, inspiring the Venerable Bede (673-735) to write his famous words:

While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand,

When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall,

And when Rome falls - the world.

Coach drivers used it as a night shelter, a gunpowder factory used it as a store and it was soaked in manure. These abuses damaged the stone and blocked the corridors, making them inaccessible to visitors. There had been a serious earthquake at the beginning of the eighteenth century which caused partial collapse of the fabric, and another one in the early nineteenth century further endangered especially the east side of the outer ring. These problems were pointed out in a memorandum written by Fea, Camporesi and Tommaso Zappati in June 1804. They feared that this damage would ultimately be fatal, recommending that the structure be freed externally, and the rubble removed from overloading the vaults. A week later there was an order from the Quirinale to the Chief Treasurer to have the Colosseum freed of abuses. In 1805, a timber shoring was built to support the endangered east wall, excavations were started and further plans were prepared for consolidation of the monument.

After another earthquake, Stern again inspected the condition of the building and reported that the detachment of the masses of travertine was caused by vertical fractures in the second and third order. This had made the piers of the last two arches pull apart and the cuneiform keystones settle considerably. Consequently the structure was at least three palmi out of plumb, and the last pillar had serious cracks that were constantly widening. The proposal was to build a plain brick buttress with a base of travertine to stop the lateral movement, forming a solid support that would be economically feasible and would respect the architectural and historical values of the monument. In Stern's words, the aim was 'to repair and to conserve everything -even though it were the smallest fragment'.20 There were, however, also critics, complaining that the picturesque qualities of this magnificent ruin would be spoiled by such a monstrous buttress, that the intervention was completely out of character, and that by adding extra weight to it would prove a technical failure.

As a counter proposal, it was suggested that the endangered part be formed into a 'buttress' through demolition of the upper parts along an oblique line and by walling in some arches. This would have caused the destruction of part of an arch on the first floor, a whole arch on the second, and two bays on the uppermost floor. Such an intervention, it was argued, would produce the appearance of a natural ruin and would also provide an easy starting point for rebuilding the Colosseum, if this were desired in the future. The architects, Palazzi, Camporesi and Stern, who formed the committee for restoration, objected strongly to the proposal, reporting: 'the shamelessness to present a similar sacrilegious project to the Sovereign was unknown even to the Vandals and Goths; although then it was true that plans of this kind were carried out, at least the devastation was done without asking for the approval and financing of the government'. The Committee concluded that their own proposal would cost only half, and would conserve the structure in its integrity: 'These are objects that all People of the World come to admire and envy us for. It is of course clear, that if that kind of vandalistic operation had been approved, it would have been better to leave the endangered parts in their natural ruined state - instead of taking steps to secure them. In such case, we would at least have

Figure 4.2 The Colosseum, Rome, an alternative proposal for the consolidation of the eastern section by demolishing the damaged part and walling in arches in 1806. (Archivio di Stato, Rome)

Figure 4.3 Consolidation (1806) of the eastern section of the Colosseum by R. Stern who took great care to preserve the antique fabric in the state as found been accused of lacking the means, but never of being destroyers and barbarians.'21

In November 1806, Rome suffered yet another earthquake and, even if the wooden shoring prevented collapse, the Colosseum moved even more out of plumb and the timbers were bent to breaking point. The project of Palazzi, Camporesi and Stern was approved, and the master mason Antonio Valenti was put in charge of the work. The first operation was to provide strong shores to support it against the thrust caused by detached elements. Secondly, the arches were walled in to consolidate them internally. Thirdly, it was necessary to build a cross wall in order to provide further lateral support and to link the buttress, the pillar and the walled-in arches to the inner structure of the building. The works proceeded rapidly, and by 6 June 1807 they had advanced to a point where little was needed for completion. The masses of earth that had accumulated in the surrounding area were removed, and some hay-lofts that obstructed the facade were demolished.

The pope was very proud of this operation that had saved the magnificent ancient Roman monument from collapse, and the buttress was considered one of the most important building projects of the decade in the Papal States. An image of it was painted in the Galleria Clementina in the Vatican and a marble plate with an inscription was fixed in the new buttress, thus announcing in the traditional way his contribution to the conservation of this ancient monument. Stern described the intervention to the pope's Chief Treasurer in the following words:

And while this stately ancient building, the largest that we know, assures us of the Splendour and the Learning of those centuries, its modern conservation under the present circumstances is a clear proof and an unalterable testimony of the veneration and the high esteem that we feel today towards these precious relics of the Fine Arts. This successful work brings us nearer to our ancestors and will show posterity that the present lack of works in our Epoch was caused only by deficiency of means that prevented their execution.22

In fact, this first large-scale operation of the nineteenth century, which consciously aimed at the conservation of each fragment, paved the way for future interventions and for the development of modern conservation theory.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment