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Rome's Colosseum gets a much needed facelift

Rome's Colosseum will soon look a little more like it did in the bad old days two millennia ago, when it first hosted gladiator fights, mock naval battles and public executions carried out by wild animals.

Rome's Colosseum gets a much needed facelift
A view of the Colosseum facade under restoration. Nearly 2,000 years after its birth, the Colosseum,
 one of the most famous -- and neglected -- monuments in the world, is undergoing an
historical scrubdown [Credit: Giulio Napolitano/The Wall Street Journal]
The $35 million project—the first full cleaning in the Colosseum's history—aims to return it to its former splendor, while also strengthening the overall structure. Earthquakes, the pillaging of pieces of its outer frame, heavy car traffic and Rome's nearby subway have damaged key parts. The scrubdown should also reveal secrets of how one of the world's most famous, and often neglected, monuments remained standing for 20 centuries.

Some surprises have already emerged during the project's first six months. The restorers expect to uncover the first five arcades this summer. Visitors will find that the monument's Travertine limestone is once again a vibrant dark ivory—what Rossella Rea, the Colosseum's director, calls "yellow ivory." Pollution had turned the stone a variety of colors from dirty cream to jet black.

When the first five arcades are revealed, five others will be covered as the scaffolding makes its slow clockwise trip around the monument. There are 80 arcades in all.

While this is the first full cleaning in the Colosseum's history, for centuries cement and other substances have closed fissures in the Travertine limestone. For the first time, thanks to the scaffolding, "we had the chance to examine past restorations closely and see how the philosophy of shoring up the structure has evolved through the centuries," said Ms. Rea, who has worked at the Colosseum for 30 years, including the past six as director.

A 1990s cleaning of four arcades gave restorers the confidence that they had developed the least invasive method to remove centuries of gunk.

Rome's Colosseum gets a much needed facelift
Rome's Colosseum gets a much needed facelift
Compare a column covered in gunk (above), and a different column (below), after the
scrubdown treatment [Credit: Giulio Napolitano/The Wall Street Journal]
Behind the scaffolding's tarp that obstructs the views of passersby, hundreds of jets of water lightly spray each piece of Travertine limestone for a period ranging from one to four hours. The duration increases at the lower levels that are more exposed to car exhaust and consequently have accumulated more dirt.

During breaks in the spraying, 10 workers dressed from head to toe in yellow waterproof outfits scrub the Travertine with soft-bristled brushes and toothbrushes. In particularly difficult spots where the accumulated gunk refuses to come lose, they use compresses of ammonium bicarbonate. Keeping the water on long enough would also do the job, but too much water can damage the Travertine and turn it an artificial white. Restorers use hammers and chisels to chip away at poorly done past interventions.

"When you have the chance to put up scaffolding on an ancient monument and look closely while you're cleaning, you discover things you would never otherwise see such as frescoes, stucco work, inscriptions and graffiti," said Clementina Panella, a professor of Roman archaeology at Rome's La Sapienza university.

Ms. Rea says she expects major surprises like those to emerge when the scaffolding makes its way to the south and west sides of the Colosseum. That section lacks an extra row of outer arcades, which began to be dismantled in the sixth century to provide material for new structures. The outer arcades block close-up looks at the inner structure. In January last year, a small-scale cleaning not connected to the current project revealed frescoes, graffiti and drawings on an internal passageway. The project could also afford the first look at how the Romans built key sections of the world-famous monument.

The cleaning, slated to end in 2016, started in October after years of bureaucratic wrangling and a national debate about whether the cleaning of a national monument should be funded by a private company or individual—in this case, Diego Della Valle, the billionaire owner of leather-goods maker Tod's. Mr. Della Valle's donation will also cover some restoration inside the Colosseum and the building of a visitors' center.

While the arena has been decaying for centuries due to a lack of proper upkeep, it is not in the dire straits of Pompeii, the ancient Roman town buried by Vesuvius in 79 A.D., just three years before the Colosseum's completion. In 2010, a building in Pompeii collapsed, and since then several walls in other structures have crumbled.

While Ms. Rea insists there is no danger of any pieces of the Colosseum falling off, she says she'd probably need close to triple what Mr. Della Valle has donated to be able to carry out all the needed restoration. In particular, she would like to fix up an unstable and abandoned tunnel filled with frescoes and stucco and marble works; it was once used by the emperor to arrive in the Colosseum.

Darius Arya, an American archaeologist who is chief executive and co-founder of the American Institute for Roman Culture, said of the Colosseum, "People think it's been here for 2,000 years and so it will be here another 2,000, but the reality is: No, it won't, if you don't take care of it."

Author: Eric Sylvers | Source: The Wall Street Journal [April 25, 2014]

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