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The Coliseum on fire!!!! PDF Print E-mail
Sep 27, 2010 at 10:07 AM


From a distance it looked like the Coliseum was on fire; flames leaped behind the travertine arcades that mark the three-storey, 48 meter tall edifice, and making you feel as if you ought to pick up your phone and dial 115 to call the Rome Vigili del Fuoco, the fire department.

But wait. Couldn't this have something to do with the video art installation planned for September 17, 18 and 19th by artists Thyra Hilden and Pio Diaz. The two had won permission from the Rome city council to implement part of their project - City on Fire: Burning the Roots of Western Culture - at the Coliseum after successfully burning up the Trevi Fountain in 2005? Yes, indeed. And the extraordinary effects of the fire which could be seen from quite a distance were achieved by, using a pre-recorded video of real fire on a scale of 1:1 using a series of powerful projectors. By digitally manipulating the footage, the artists were able also able to recreate the effect of wind blowing through the building

The project purportedly is designed to show just how fragile and transitory mankind's creations are, even great buildings that are considered symbols of eternal culture and which, as in this case, have been standing - amazingly - for almost 2000 years.

Personally, I think this is pretty silly. Anyone who has travelled in Europe has seen ruins and knows how fragile monuments can be and the kind of destruction that both nature, and mankind itself, can wreak.But never mind. It was impressive to watch for Rome's administrators the event possibly was also a way to draw attention to a monument which is in need of (financial) help.

 Earlier this month, Italian Culture Undersecretary Francesco Giro announced that a 30-million-euro restoration of the amphitheatre will begin next year and should be finished by 2013. The city council is seeking commercial sponsors to fund the work, which will see the complete restoration of the almost 13,000 square meters of exterior walls. Pressure to get the project moving has risen since parts of an inside wall collapsed earlier this year.

According to third-century historian Cassius Dio, the 2,000-year-old Colosseum did experienced a real major fire back in the year 21, when a bolt of lightning hit, destroying the upper inside levels which were made of wood and requiring extensive repair work.

All this, of course, could not but bring to mind the great fire of Rome in the year 64 that many continue to blame on the Emperor Nero, although the more recent scholarship, as well as many ancient writings, say this is not true and that Nero, who was not even in Rome at the time, had nothing to do with the fire. Construction of the Coliseum began between 70 and 72 A.D. by the Emperor Vespasian of the Flavian Dynasty (for this reason it was often called the Flavian Amphitheater), two years after Nero's death in 68 A.D..

But there is a connection. It was built near the the site of the huge statue of Colossus that Nero had ordered built in his own likeness outside the entrance to his magnificent palace, the Domus Aurea, which is right across the modern day Fori Imperiali road. The Colossus was later moved to the other side of the Coliseum.

Shortly after Nero's death in A.D. 68, Vespasian added a sun-ray crown to the statue and renamed it Colossus Solis, after the Roman sun god Sol Invictus. Around 128, the Emperor Hadrian ordered the statue moved from the Domus Aurea to just northwest of the Coliseum to make room for the Temple of Venus and Roma, a feat for which 24 elephants were reportedly needed. Emperor Commodus (161-192), you know, the bad guy from "The Gladiator", is said to have converted it into a statue of himself as Hercules by replacing the head. But after his death it was restored as Sol Invictus and so it remained.

No one seems to know when, exactly, it disappeared. The last mention from antiquity of the statue reportedly is the reference in an illuminated manuscript known as the "Chronography of 354". Today, nothing remains of the Colossus of Nero save for the foundations of the pedestal at its second location near the Coliseum. On theory is that is was destroyed during the Sack of Rome in 410, or toppled in one of a series of fifth-century earthquakes, and its metal scavenged. The remains of the brick-faced masonry pedestal, once covered with marble, were removed in 1936.The foundations were excavated in 1986, and can be viewed by the public. Oh. Just one other thing. You know all those stories about Nero fiddling while Rome did burn.? If anything he might have been playing the lyre, down the coast in Anzio where he was then sojourning, because the fiddle, or the violin,  apparantly did not emerge in  Europe in anything like its curren form until the 10th century.

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