I had written a post on a late afternoon passeggiata in the center of Rome to share a moment of light-heartedness. I have decided to set it aside because I did not want it to read as insensitive with regards to what I hear on the news, and so instead, I would like to take you with me on my first visit to the Colosseum since it reopened.
I walked past it numerous times after the lockdown ended but without ever looking too long or getting too close, perhaps almost avoiding it. I have always adored the way its spectacular ancient bulk sits amidst the chaos and fast pace of modernity: school kids and commuters rushing out of the metro station to catch a bus, trams and scooters, the ear-splitting drilling of never ending construction. I loved the contrast between the fleeting present and the permanence of its stone arches, a constant reminder that there is always more weight and significance to any given moment.
I have spent so much time looking at it, thinking and talking about it, worrying about crowds, lines at the bathroom, looking for shade in the sweltering summer heat and shelter in rainstorms, my eye on my watch thinking of the next site on the tour, the next chapter in the story I wanted to share. Most of all, the Colosseum provoked amazing breakthroughs with the travelers I met there.
It has been said that there is no other building in the world that sums up a civilization as precisely as the Colosseum sums up the ancient Romans. It is so iconic; everyone carries a mental picture of it with them along with an expectation of what it will be like to see the real thing in the real place. Yet on arriving, the first impression tends to be that nothing can possibly prepare for its true presence and scale. The realization that architecture is art we walk through, that we can comprehend the scale of a building only by measuring it on ourselves, is one of most magical thresholds we cross when we travel, the exhilarating leap from looking at pictures and reading books to the personal experience: the mental, physical, emotional, spiritual connection to a place that we will never again think of as foreign but as our own. That is exactly where I like to start my story about the Colosseum as a guide, by saying “You are here!”.
Because so much of my life is tied up in these ancient stones, I was a bit wary of seeing it closed and empty, without its mad orbit of motion and sound, imposing as always but somehow naked and hollow. Then it finally reopened to the public and I felt compelled to go, to understand how visits will be organized with new safety standards, but also because it was just time to return.
I meet my group of colleagues at the base of the Colossus, the bronze statue that gave the Flavian Amphitheater its common name, gone as so much else is today, and still feel a bit uneasy. It is lovely to see staff members with whom we normally exchange exhausted smiles or concerned looks while standing in line to get in. Our face masks hide our smiles today, but we see them regardless and reinforce them with words of encouragement and optimism. Temperature, metal detectors, ticket check, we are in. Only groups of fifteen people, one every 10 minutes, on an established (but smart) route, and yet we do not see anyone else during our time here.
Is it getting old, me describing the emptiness of these places; why is it still hitting me so hard; why do I seem incapable of appreciating the supposed luxury of having all of this to myself? I try to be honest and admit part of it has to do with the fact that this is where I make a living and I am not working now, but I peel that obvious layer off and find more. The emptiness of Rome these days, although it is receding, has a million nuances; each one of the iconic places I visit seems to have its own. The Colosseum without visitors feels painfully desolate to me. Without the eyes of visitors marveling and igniting them with their imagination, the stones feel heavy and dull. It is a ruin in an obvious, literal sense that – I acknowledge the absurdity of this – had never found space in my experience of it.
People often ask me why I don’t get bored coming here day after day, year after year, and are surprised when I say that, along with the Roman Forum, this is my favorite place to show visitors, more than any off the beaten track, little known place. The Colosseum sums ups my core beliefs as a guide about how travel can change us. It is a unique place to confront our ideas on history and how we can relate to it, on violence and power, the value of thinking in context; a place that challenges us to consider that understanding is harder but more interesting than judging .
“I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.” ― Baruch Spinoza (17th century Dutch philosopher).
In more recent years, these stones have helped me accept complexity and ambiguity as essential components of our experience of the world, to resist the need for simple, easy answers. The Colosseum is undeniably one of the worst killing fields in history, and yet it is also one of the most extraordinary buildings of all times, one of the new 7 Wonders of the World. The ancient Romans are both terrifying and fascinating. A great Italian scholar, Andrea Giardina, concluded a lecture by reminding us that the animal that appears in the legend of their origins is a she-wolf, traditionally wild and ferocious, but she is tender with the abandoned baby twins: the origin story is the story of an adoption, there is kindness there too, even if it will end in violence with one twin killing the other. More and more I see the potential enrichment of learning to consider contrasting angles on things and I learned this at the Colosseum.
Also, ruins need to be brought to life with the imagination. I love the idea of “informing” the imagination of visitors so they can evoke what was, along with seeing what is. Imagining becomes a means of interacting with what we are looking at, it is never passive, and for me that justifies crossing the world on an airplane to see this place in person. We must walk through these arches in and look onto the arena from the upper level to “see” the crowds from 2000 years ago, to hear the cheering, the music, the roaring of the wild animals. Creating a connection with a place in time so distant from the present can be immensely powerful and dwells in the mind longer than the dates and the bare facts (although they matter a great deal, of course).
As I walk through and experience the emptiness, I realize how much the Colosseum has to say. If there are no visitors to listen, its stones are bound to stay eerily silent and inert.
I diligently take note of how future visits will work, compare ideas on architectural details and interpretations with my colleagues, but then look for a redeeming thought before I leave, and I find it. In its long, long life, the Colosseum has been a structure for ancient spectacles and the display of imperial power, a quarry of building material, a fortress and dwelling place with artisanal activities, storage and stables, a place of Christian pilgrimage, a garden, haunted and unsafe at night, a romantic ruin, a destination for travelers of every era. I decide its emptiness during the pandemic of 2020 will be just another chapter in its story, one of many, and other, more exciting ones, are certainly ahead of us.