ROME—Sitting on a gilded, red velvet chair inside the ancient Roman Colosseum on a glorious July evening listening to a soprano sing O soave fanciulla from La Bohème, two things come to mind. The first, of course, is that this sure beats the usual Friday night routine (no offense, Netflix). The second is a haunting and somewhat horrifying reflection. Did the gladiators and slaves who fought in this very spot more than 2,000 years ago notice how the setting sun casts dancing shadows as it dips below amphitheater’s arched windows, or were too focused on the carnage of the bloody battles they were embroiled in? It is impossible to be in such a place and not think of its history. Sure, there are no longer bloodstains on the ancient travertine, but there are definitely ancient spirits—gladiator ghosts perhaps—everywhere.
The Roman Colosseum, or Flavian Amphitheater as it is officially known, is perhaps the most recognizable of all the remnants of the Roman Empire’s former glory. It was inaugurated in 80 A.D. as a gift by the Emperor Vespasian to the people of Rome, and has survived centuries of battles, of pillaging and, more recently, of pollution. It has been covered with garbage, excavated, built upon, dug under and trampled by millions of tourists each year. It has almost crumbled countless times, its wrinkles and fissures a true testament to the effects of time.
If not for the intervention of entrepreneur Diego Della Valle, chairman of the luxury shoe company Tod’s, it might not have survived much longer. The billionaire, estimated by Forbes to be worth $1.4 billion, parted with €25 million for a multi-phase renovation to ensure the survival of the important monument after chunks of marble started falling off the façade in 2012. When it emerged that Italy was too broke to pay to keep the structure from crumbling, Della Valle raised his hand and shamed a host of other Made in Italy entrepeneurs to adopt their own monuments. As a result, Fendi has cleaned up Rome’s Trevi Fountain, Diesel is scrubbing up the Rialto Bridge in Venice, and Bulgari has adopted the Spanish Steps.
Della Valle celebrated the completion of phase one on Friday night with a private orchestral concert and a sit-down dinner for 300 invited guests held inside the ancient ruin. The event was a spectacular display of the best of culture and history, with politicians, glitterati and a handful of lucky journalists dining on shrimp risotto, sea bass and wild fruits on linen-draped, candle-lit tables lining the upper ring of the ancient amphitheater. A pop up lounge bar was constructed on the landing overlooking the Roman Forum where those who didn’t want the evening to end sipped cocktails under dim lighting.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi sat at Della Valle’s table, which was placed where emperors once gazed out over the games below. (He left the dinner unexpectedly when news of the terror attacks that killed nine Italians in Bangladesh broke.)
At one point at the end of the concert, the travertine on the inside of the amphitheater was lit up in red, white and green, white and red like the Italian flag. All that was missing were gladiators and lions.
The renovation was not just about shoring the walls and cleaning the grit from the cracks. Workers uncovered centuries of grime to expose the original subtle pinkish hue of the external marble. A total surface of 143,650 square feet has been scrubbed and 31 of the arches have been restored and reinforced. 1,200 meters of iron gates, frames and parapets have been replaced. Scores of artifacts were uncovered during work to expose the amphitheater’s lower levels, including a low-relief depicting gladiators that date back to when the Colosseum was built, and another from the 14th century depicting Christ on the Altar. The project also included extensive surface mapping and the cataloguing of various types of decay and microorganisms, from algae to lichen, that had to be removed.
All this, and Della Valle has only spent €10 million of his €25 million budget. The rest of the work is expected to be finished by 2022. “We are so pleased with the results so far, exposing new colors and details” Della Valle told The Daily Beast as he made the rounds from table to table on Friday night. “But it’s not enough. We need to inspire people to sponsor these types of restorations not just in Italy but around the world.”
The next phase of the work will include new lighting and other less obvious improvements that will help stabilize the structure for centuries to come. The continuing renovation will also include a full floor to make the area look just as it did when gladiators fought. The floor was removed during excavations conducted in the 19th century. The new floor will include the same sort of hatches that were used to lift wild animals from the network of cages to the arena floor. That enhancement, as well as the renovation of the lower levels, is being paid by the Italian government, according to Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, who no doubt now wants part of the glory that goes with saving one of the most important monuments in the world. The new floor will allow the government to rent out the Colosseum for “very high level cultural events” like the one hosted on Friday night.