The Fate of the Coliseum

ONE of the most popular sayings about the destruction of the Coliseum implies that the Barberini were nothing more or less than barbarians. But the proverb is not true. The Barberini and their Pope, Urban VIII., were guilty, without question, of many spoliations. They stripped the portico of the Pantheon of its beautiful roof of gilt bronze; they ruined with their “ restorations ” the temple of Romulus and many other noble buildings; but they did not lay their hands upon the Coliseum. At least no evidence has been found of their guilt. Why, by whom, under what circumstances, and when the great Flavian amphitheatre was reduced to its present state are queries to which the proper answer has not yet been given. Some documents which I have found lately in our archives throw considerable light on the subject, and prove, much to our comfort, that the Romans of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance took advantage of the downfall of the giant, but that they are not responsible for it.

The first destructive occurrences to be recorded are the earthquakes of 429 and 443 A. D. Their violence is attested by Paul the Deacon and by the Chronicle of Horosius, who describe them as “ terrible ” events, having caused the collapse of many temples, public edifices, porticos, and statues. The walls supporting the arena of the amphitheatre gave way, and brought down in their collapse some of the steps of the spectators’ seats. The damages were negligently repaired soon afterward by Rufius Cæcina Felix Lampadius, prefect of the city. The inscription which mentions these repairs was discovered by Fea in 1813 in the vestibule facing the temple of Venus and Rome, and tells in itself a long tale of disasters, having been employed three times for three various uses : first, as the jamb of a triumphal arch; secondly, as a pedestal to a group or to an equestrian statue, with an inscription in letters of gilded metal; and lastly, to commemorate the work of Lampadius. The first earthquake caused the choking up of the drains, and as the Coliseum stands at the bottom of a basin particularly rich in springs, the substructures were flooded to the height of six feet. Flavius Paulus, prefect of the city in 438, gave an outlet to the flood and repaired the sewers.

We have no detailed account of the injuries caused by the earthquakes of May 26, 492, October 9,501, and Easter Day, April 14, 502. The damages of the last were repaired by Decius Marius Venantius Basilius on the occasion of the great games celebrated by Eutarichus Cillica, son-in-law of King Theodoric, and consul in 519. The walls of the arena, laid bare in the excavations of 1874-75, are the work of Basilius. The games of Cillica, for which wild beasts unknown to the living generation of Romans had been imported from Africa, and those of Amicius Maximus, 523 A. D., were the last exhibited in the amphitheatre. The bones of the animals killed at these games were discovered by us in clearing the substructure in 1875.

The Coliseum was made to stand forever. If we gaze at it from the east side, where it appears still intact, we are forced to exclude the possibility of a spontaneous collapse of such a substantial structure. Yet the repeated concussions of the earth in the fifth century may have caused a crack or rent like the one which cuts the Pantheon on the side of the Via della Palombella. If such an accident occurred in the Pantheon in a solid wall fifteen feet thick, built by so experienced an architect as Hadrian, it is even more likely to have happened in the Coliseum, the outer belt of which is of stones without cement, and pierced by three rows of arcades and one row of windows. The equilibrium once destroyed, the results are obvious, especially if we remember how quickly arborescent plants and trees take root and prosper in the dry soil of an abandoned building. The stones on the edges of the crack must have been lifted or wrenched from their sockets by the roots wedging themselves into the joints and acting as levers. Readers familiar with the vignettes of the Coliseum of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries will remember how exactly they represent this process of disintegration of the edges, stone by stone. When Pius VII. determined to build the great buttress to support the edge of the outer belt on the side of the Via di S. Giovanni in Laterano, he was obliged to employ convicts serving for life, promising them a reduction in the term of imprisonment if they succeeded in propping it up. The danger was such that the forest of timber used in the scaffolding could not be removed while the masons were progressing with their work, but had to be left imbedded in the thickness of the supporting walls.

The disappearance of the western half of the Coliseum, on the side of the Cælian, cannot, however, be attributed to such a slow process of disintegration and to the action of roots alone. The collapse was a sudden and unexpected event, the date of which has yet to be determined. It produced a great hill of loose material, the coxa (or coscia) Colixei, which fed Roman lime-kilns, and has supplied travertine for Roman palaces and churches from the fourteenth century to the present age. When did the event happen ?

There is no doubt that the structure was nearly intact in the eighth century, when Bede wrote his well-known proverb : “ Quamdiu stabit Coliseus stabit et Roma; quando cadet Coliseus cadet et Roma.” (As long as the Coliseum stands, so long will Rome stand ; when the Coliseum falls, Rome also will fall.) But we can bring the date of the catastrophe much nearer to our own times. In a fragment of a mediæval diary, the authorship of which is generally attributed to Ludovico Bonconte Monaldeschi da Orvieto, there is a description of a great bull-fight given in the Coliseum on the third day of September, 1332. It appears that the arena was still free from any accumulation of soil, although the marble seats and the marble decorations had already been taken away. The seats were replaced, therefore, by wooden balconies and steps covered with red cloth. Monaldeschi’s account of this last exhibition of athletic sports, of this ephemeral revival of classic games the last of which had taken place eight hundred and nine years before, is so graphic and so full of details characteristic of the age that it may please the reader to know somewhat of them.

The seats had been divided into four sections. The first section was occupied by the noble ladies of the Ponte and Parione, led by the beautiful Savella Orsina; by those of Trastevere, led by Tacopella de Vico; and by those of the Monti and Campitelli, led by two of the Colonnas. The noblemen sat in the next compartment. Women and men of the middle and lower classes occupied the third and fourth sections. The brave young men, the pick of Roman and Italian aristocracy, who were to confront the wild bulls were remarkable for the variety of the colors they wore and for the mottoes engraved on their helmets. The gallant band of youths was not very successful on that day. When the fight came to an end for want of more champions, eighteen of them were lying dead in the arena and eleven were dangerously wounded, while only eleven bulls had been killed. The dead heroes were carried off in a triumphal procession to St. John the Lateran, followed by the whole crowd of spectators. The bloody annals of the amphitheatre could not have had a more appropriate end.

While in 1332 the Coliseum lent itself in its entirety to the celebration of games, in 1361 we already find the citizens, the Pope’s legate, and the Frangipani quarreling among themselves about the spoils of the ruined building, namely, a regular mise en exploitation of the quarry of stones which had fallen by thousands on the side of the Cælian Hill. Now, is there any event recorded in the history of Rome between 1332 and 1361 to which the downfall of the western belt of arcades may be attributed ? It is hardly necessary to remind the reader that between those dates the city was shaken to its very foundations by the earthquake of September 9,1349, which we call terremoto del Petrarca, because it has been particularly described by Petrarch.

I do not think it possible to find in the chronicles of other nations such scenes of horror as Rome and Italy witnessed in 1348 and 1349. The peaceful rule of Cola di Rienzo had been succeeded by the bloody reaction of Annibaldo dei Conti di Ceccano, when the “ black pestilence,” imported by Genoese ships, broke out in the autumn of 1347. Boccaccio in the preface to the Decameron, and the Chronist of Siena in the annals of Muratori, have left accounts of its ravages. More than eighty thousand people died in Siena and its suburbs; five hundred deaths a day were registered at Pisa; three fifths of the population were carried off in Florence, two fifths at Bologna; at Nettuno, a village on the Roman coast, the survivors would meet and banquet together every day at noon in the public piazza, and wait for their turn, until one family alone was left to tell the tale. The Chronist of Siena buried five of his children with his own hands. In Rome we have two monuments, or records, of the black pestilence : the steps of the Aracœli, built October, 1348, to make easier to the crowds of penitents the ascent to the church; and the image of the Blessed Virgin in the same place, to whom the cessation of the plague was devoutly attributed. The pestilence was closely followed by the earthquake which ruined Naples. Aversa, Monte Cassino, Aquila, Sora, and caused, in Rome, the downfall of all pagan and Christian edifices already undermined by age and neglect. Petrarch calls it the worst experienced in Italy for the space of two thousand years, and describes the ruins of the great antique monuments of the upper half of the Torre de’ Conti, erected by Innocent III. in 1203, of the belfry and porticos of S. Paolo fuori le Mura, of the roof of St. John the Lateran, and of parts of St. Peter’s.

No special mention is made by Petrarch of the Coliseum nor of the basilica of Constantine, although we are sure of the collapse of the latter building on the day of the earthquake. We can trace, however, exactly the.extent of the damages caused to the amphitheatre by a set of coats of arms of the S. P. Q. R. and of the Company of the Saviour ad Sancta Sanctorum, which were painted in 1386 on the edge of the ruins left standing by the earthquake. The belt of arcades overthrown began approximately at No. XIX., near the south vestibule, and ended with No. LVIII., in the opposite direction. Altogether three tiers of arches of thirty-nine each and one tier of windows fell to the ground, and formed an irregular chain of stony hills on half the circuit of the Coliseum. This is the coxa, so often mentioned in contemporary documents as the main quarry of travertine in mediæval and Renaissance Rome. The fate of the standing portion is not less remarkable ; it has been used wholly or partially, or destined so to be used, for a hospital, for a manufactory of woolen goods, for periodical religious shows, for a glue - factory, for a hay-farm, for the preparation of saltpetre, and for the abode of hermits, outlaws, and witches.

The coats of arms painted by the Company of the Saviour ad Sancta Sanetorum in 1386 have disappeared, but on the piers Nos. XXV. and XXXIV. of the first corridor are still engraved the names of Paolo de Vecchi and Paolo Palonio, the guardians of the Company for 1540. The corridors being unfit for use as a hospital even in those barbarous days, a new ward was built near and outside the amphitheatre, as an annex to the church of S. Giacomo del Colosseo. The foundations of the church, demolished in 1815, were laid bare in the spring of last year, together with hundreds of graves, forming the cemetery of the hospital. While these things were passing in one part of the ruins, the coxa was attacked by lime-burners and stone-cutters, urged by the Pope’s legate, and by the Camerlengo, who had a share of thirty-three per cent in the profits. The legate of Urban V. complains to his master of having found no purchasers of stones in 1362 except the Frangipani, then engaged in repairing their stronghold on the Palatine. Poggio Fiorentino says that the mounds of stones had nearly disappeared at the time of Nicholas V., 1449-55 ; yet a document published by Eugène Müntz in the Revue Archéologique, September, 1876, proves that in 1452 one contractor alone was able to remove from the Coliseum twenty-five hundred and twenty-two carloads of travertine. Pope Eugene IV., 1431— 47, had endeavored to stop the evil practice. In a brief dated Florence, 1438, which I have lately found in the Vatican archives, he says to his representatives in Rome: “ We have heard with deep regret that some one amongst you has given permission to a contractor to pull down part of the Coliseum for the restoration of some private houses. We need not remind you that such destructions of antique remains lessen the estimation of Rome in the opinion of the world. We order you, therefore, if you wish to escape our wrath, to revoke at once the license, if already granted, and to see that no stone of the Coliseum, however insignificant, or of any other ancient monument, shall be touched. Excavations in quest of building materials should be allowed only where there are no ruins above ground, at a considerable distance from the Coliseum and other such edifices.” To join action to words, the good Pope inclosed the Coliseum with a wall, and gave the custody of it to the monks of Sta. Maria Nuova ; but the Romans claimed their rights of possession, and after the death of Eugene they destroyed the inclosing walls.

The unfortunate ruins were thus left to the mercy of three masters whose respective rights were rather undefined, — the S. P. Q. R., the Company of the Saviour ad Sancta Sanctorum, and the Popes. Sometimes they followed an independent line of conduct; sometimes they acted together in favor of or against the interest of the place.

Early in the sixteenth century the celebration of the Passion Play was transferred from the so-called houses of Caiaphas and Pilate, and from the Monte Testaccio, to the Coliseum, and a remarkable map of Jerusalem was painted over the arch of the northern vestibule, where it is still to be seen in good condition. The surroundings of the play were certainly more picturesque than are those at Oberammergau, but the fact that the ruins had been consecrated did not prevent the lowest classes of city vagabonds and outlaws from considering them always as their headquarters, and as the safest and best place of concealment. Witches and sorcerers met under its arcades for their night revelings, as described by Benvenuto Cellini in his Autobiography (1532).

In 1574, the year before the jubilee of Gregory XIII., the Coliseum ran a great danger. The Pope was bringing a strong pressure to bear on the representatives of the city for the restoration of the Pons Æmilius, which had been overthrown by the inundation of 1557. There being no money in the pontifical or municipal chest for the purchase of the travertines required, the eyes of the city magistrates fell on the Coliseum, the nearest and cheapest quarry of all. The proposal was made in the sitting of the town council of October 15, 1574 ; but the order of the day accepted by the council was couched in such terms as to save the amphitheatre from further destruction : “ Agreed by unanimous vote that Lhe marbles and travertines required for the restoration of the Ponte di S. Maria shall be taken from the ruins of Domitian’s amphitheatre, provided they lie loose on the ground, and are not attached to any standing part of the edifice ; the search for materials, in this or in any other ancient ruin, to be carried on under the supervision and responsibility of Matteo da Gastello, the architect of the bridge ; the statues and objects of value which may eventually be discovered in the course of the excavations to be the property of the S. P. Q. R.”

Not less was the risk incurred by the Coliseum in the last year of the iron rule of Sixtus V. (1589). Domenico Fontana had planned the transformation of the edifice into a factory for woolen goods. His project included the reconstruction, more or less complete, of the fallen parts, leaving four entrances only, which would give access to the upper corridors by means of four great flights of steps. The centre of the arena was to be transformed into a tank for the supply of the works ; the looms were to occupy the first corridor, while the upper ones would contain the bedrooms of the workmen. This monstrous conception was actually approved by the old Pontiff, and the work was begun. His death came in time, however, to stop the enterprise before any very great damage was done.

The Company of Sancta Sanctorum, in the mean time, was endeavoring to reap some benefit from the portion of the ruins upon which it had a claim ; anil if the Pope himself had thought it expedient to lend the Coliseum to the production of woolen goods, why should not the Company try its luck at some kindred enterprise ? Its section was accordingly let, in 1594, to a company for the manufacture of a kind of glue obtained from the skins and tendons of animals, — an industry which at the present day is prohibited within a certain distance of the city walls, on account of the unbearable emanations. The S. P. Q. R. was informed of the transaction on March 21. The makers of glue were put under arrest, and the Company was deprived of its rights. The terms of the lease were found to be one pound of wax a year!

The offense, however, was apparently soon forgotten ; I have found the text of a contract signed on June 28, 1604, between the Company of Sancta Sanctorum and the S. P. Q. R., to the following effect: The S. P. Q. R. gives its consent to the destruction of the Arco di Basile, a stone viaduct in front of the hospital of the Company of St. John the Lateran, and the Company offers in exchange to the S. P. Q. R. a certain quantity of the travertines of the Coliseum, to be employed in the building of the Museo Capitolino.

The scruples about using the spoils of the amphitheatre once thrown away, the municipality of Rome laid hands on the quarry repeatedly in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In March, 1697, on the occasion of a contract for the reconstruction of the road which descended from the Campo Vaccino to the Palazzo del Senatore on the Capitol, the condition was imposed upon the contractor “ that the roadway should be paved with chips from the travertines of the Coliseum, which lay scattered on the floor.” Perhaps they were the stones the fall of which is described in the diary of Giacinto Gigli in the following words : “ In the night between May 21 and 22, 1644, three arches and portions of a fourth fell in the Coliseum.”

At the end of the seventeenth century the supply appears to have been exhausted, but another of those earthquakes so often mentioned in the history of the place caused the quarry to be filled up with fresh materials. On Friday, February 2, 1703, while Pope Clement XI. was celebrating the Vespers of the Purification, and just pronouncing the words ut nullis nos permittas perturbationibus concuti, the earth shook violently three times, putting the congregation to flight. Francesco Valesio relates in his diary that he happened to be crossing the Piazza Navona when the first shock was felt; he saw the water rush out of the basin of the Fontana del Nettuno, and the belfry of S. Agostino and Bernini’s obelisk vibrate in the air, and he heard soon after that “ three arches of the second belt of the Coliseum on the side of the Cælian had collapsed, burying under the ruins a poor man from Cascia who happened to be passing there.”

The diary of Valesio gives this curious piece of information about the earthquake. On the Saturday that followed it, about eight o’clock at night, the news spread like wildfire that the Virgin Mary had appeared to the Pope, warning him that another and more terrible shock would take place that very night at eleven o’clock, that no house or palace or church would be left standing, and that the whole population would perish unless warned in time. Bands of men and women, hardly covered by bedsheets, though the season was very cold, and carrying their naked children in their arms, were hurrying towards the nearest square, crying, “ Leave your houses, brethren ! Lord save us, Lord save us ! ” The panic seized all classes of citizens. Cardinals Bichi and Costaguti sought refuge in the Campo Vaccino, the Austrian ambassador in the Piazza del Popolo. The inmates of hospitals were carried with their beds to places of safety ; three women were confined in the Campo Vaccino, and Valesio himself met a young woman with nothing on but her nightgown, and three ladies covered only by a table-cloth. Twelve Moorish corsairs, who had just been made prisoners at Norma, asked to be baptized. The whole garrison of Rome was called out to patrol the streets and protect private property, for the door of nearly every house had been left wide open in the hurry of the flight.

The author or authors of this gigantic joke were never found out. On Monday, the governor issued a proclamation offering a reward to any one willing to turn informer ; another proclamation followed on Friday, increasing the reward. This remarkable document, showing the credulous simplicity of the time, ends with these words : “ Whereas all efforts of the police to trace the culprit have proved unsuccessful, it is supposed, even by wise and prudent men, that the affair was the work of the devil, because the first warning was given at the same time all over the city by beings dressed in the Pope’s livery or in the garb of a prelate ; and not only in Rome, but also in the suburbs (although the gates of the city were closed), in the Castelli Romani, and in the province as far as Rouciglione.”

To come back to the Coliseum. The stones that fell on February 2 were distributed immediately among the works then progressing in Rome. The greater part were used in the steps of the Porto di Ripetta, one of the most graceful structures of Pope Albani, now concealed by the embankment of the river. The last of the stones were used in the buttresses and restorations of Pius VII., Gregory XVI., and Pius IX.

Pope Albani and his architect, Carlo Fontana, inclosed the entrances to the Coliseum with wooden railings, and the glorious ruins were destined to become the deposit of the refuse of the city, a dung-hole for the production of saltpetre necessary for the powder-mill which they themselves had established among the ruins of Trajan’s Baths. Carlo Fontana went even a step further: he drew the plans, and presented to the Pope the project for the erection of a church of the wildest rococo style in the middle of the arena. Benedict XIV. adopted a much milder form of conservation of the arena : he raised a cross in the middle of it, and shrines around, with pictures illustrating the passion of our Lord. Shrines and cross were taken away in 1874. The gates of Clement XI. did not give sufficient protection to the building ; for it became soon after the hidingplace of malefactors of every description, and the scene of many crimes. If we remember that the staircases leading to the upper corridors were in a state of ruin, and that the whole building was covered by a forest of trees and shrubs, the Coliseum will appear to us, as it did to the outlaws of the eighteenth century, a much safer place of refuge than the woods of the Maremma. Antonio Uggeri, a daring explorer of Roman ruins of the time of Pius VI., declares that in the course of the excavations of the lower ambulacra many skeletons were found of men and women, murdered, and buried in haste in those recesses. Pieces of silver plate, also, and concealed valuables were found there. Uggeri goes on to say: “ The following personal experience, which nearly cost me my life, leaves no doubt that the Coliseum had become an asylum of malefactors. I was engaged in 1790 in verifying some measures taken on previous occasions. I arrived on the spot one afternoon, an hour before sunset, and began climbing the ruins on my way to the upper galleries. I had proceeded hardly a hundred paces when a tall man, entirely naked, bearded and repulsive looking, sprang at me from behind a corner and shook me violently, asking what business I had there. I answered, in fear and trembling, that I was an architect by profession, and showed him my rod and my compass. In the mean while I heard a more gentle voice, close by, begging him to leave me in peace ; and proceeding a step further, I discovered the rest of the company under the vault of one of the staircases. It was composed of two more men and one woman, all three naked, as the season was very warm. One of the men was standing, and the other was cooking something at the further end of the passage. The poor woman crouched down to conceal her nudity as well as she could.” The most curious thing is that these outlaws lived on good terms with the hermit in charge of the Coliseum, and I suppose it was through him that they secured provisions. The hermits of the Coliseum were mostly foreigners, who had some sort of crime to expiate, I suppose. They lived rather comfortably in a little house, traces of which can still be seen near the south vestibule ; and they drew a modest income from the hay-crop, and from the vegetables which they raised among the historical ruins. I have discovered several contracts between the hermits and the S. P. Q. R. by which the former are authorized to gather in the hay-harvest in exchange for the celebration of a mass.

Rodolfo Lanciani.