Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Colosseum through times: Functions and Symbols

The Colosseum, one of the most important Symbols of Rome cannot be understood so simply as just the first permanent amphitheater to be erected in the city of Rome. The Colosseum is a result of a complex set of relationships and interactions from the time it was built to the present day. In this entry I aim to ‘simplify’ and break down elements of the Colosseum in order to better translate it.

The Colosseum has a rather complex history of containing inside of it various functions, versus outwardly constructing a space of Rome and consequently defining what the city is. This site-specific structure has not only influenced the physical fabric of the immediate city but also the rest of the world both literally and also in a less tangible sense by representing the image of the city itself.

The Colosseum has not only changed physically and functionally over time but has also changed in terms of its relationship with its urban context, people, the means by which it is accessed and how Romans, tourists and the world in general relates to this structural wonder.

Colosseum = Amphitheatre
Before we begin to discuss all these relationships, it is essential that we familiarize ourselves with the very basics of this ingenious architectural and engineering marvel.

View of the Colosseum today

The Colosseum sits in the valley between the Palatine, Esquiline, and Celian Hills. Despite the damage it has endured over the centuries because of fires, earthquakes and looting, after 2000 years it still remains an incredibly powerful Symbol of the city.

The Colosseum, (formerly known as The Flavian amphitheater) was certainly the most impressive arena the Classical world had yet seen. It was built in an area occupied by a manmade lake adjoining the Domus Aurea (Nero's Imperial residence), at the behest of Vespasian and was inaugurated in A.D. 80 by Titus with games that are said to have lasted 100 days. It was completed by Domitian and restored by Alexander Severusus. The amphitheater was used for gladiatorial spectacles, animal hunts and capital punishment.

The Colosseum is in the shape of a grand ellipse that spanned 187m by 155m, with tiers of seating for 50,000 spectators around the central arena. Below this wooden area level, there were a set of complex chambers and passageways built for wild beasts and other provisions required for the spectacles. From the arena, eighty walls radiate and buttress the vaults for passageways, stairs and the tiers of seating. On the outermost edge circumferential arcades link each level and the stairs between the levels.

The construction utilized a careful selection of materials: concrete for the foundations, travertine for the piers and arcades, tufa infill between piers for the walls of the lower two levels, and brick-faced concrete used for the upper levels and for most of the vaults.

Colosseum = Prototype
The Colosseum is one of the most famous, and instantly recognizable monuments to have survived from the classical world. So famous, in fact, that for over seventy years, from 1928 to 2000, a fragment of its distinctive colonnade was displayed on the medals awarded to victorious athletes at the Olympic Games as a symbol of classicism and of the modern Games’ ancient ancestor. The Colosseum’s tiered seating could once accommodate for 50,000 seated and 10,000 standing, all of whom could enter and leave in a matter of minutes, courtesy of 80 entrances. This amphitheatre used for bloody gladiatorial combats was a radical invention of a new typology of the stadium.

Stadium in Los Angeles

The Colosseum, which is seen as an extremely classical monument, was in fact very avant-garde for its time. Not only did it invent this new stadium typology and push structural limits, it also created a new architectural language that questioned and reinvented a façade using classical elements in a new composition.

Its façade was originally graduated from simple Doric at ground level, to Ionic on the second and ornate Corinthian on the third, using these orders as metaphors of the larger social structuring of Roman society, from the nobility through the merchant classes. The articulation this facade has been a powerful regulating influence upon the facade aesthetic of buildings through to present times. The most notable of these was perhaps Renaissance palazzi such as Palazzo Rucellai in Florence, with its rusticated ground floor, piano nobile and top floor stacked with the different classical orders.

Colosseum = Container of Functions
The Colosseum, built by 80AD to house gladiatorial contests and public spectacles was used for contests well into the 6th century however it underwent many radical changes in terms of its function during the medieval period.

By the late 6th century it was used as a religious space and a small church has been constructed into its structure and the arena was converted into a cemetery. The numerous vaulted spaces under the seating area were used for housing and workshops, and were being rented as late as the 12th century. Soon after the 12th century the Frangipani took control over the Colosseum and converted it to function as fortification by using it as a castle. The Colosseum later functioned as a quarry after much damage was inflicted upon it such as the great earthquake in 1349. The materials looted were reused to build palaces, churches and hospitals around the city. In the mid 14th century a religious order began to occupy a part of the Colosseum and they used it as a shrine until as late as the early 19th century.

When Pope Sixtus V came to power, he found the treasury exhausted and the city full of beggars and unemployed. He decided to develop the export trade by reviving the old Roman wool and silk industries by transforming the Colosseum into a wool-spinning establishment, though this proposal fell through with his premature death.

In 1749, Pope Benedict XIV endorsed as official Church policy the view that the Colosseum was a sacred site where early Christians had been martyred. He forbade the use of the Colosseum as a quarry and consecrated the building to the Passion of Christ and installed Stations of the Cross, declaring it sanctified by the blood of the Christian martyrs who perished there, however there is no historical evidence to support Benedict's claim.

Originally an entertainment and sports arena to a religious space, housing complex, a fortress and then a shrine, the Colosseum today serves as an archeological ruin. The Colosseum can thus be seen as a container of functions.

Colosseum = Nucleus
The Colosseum can be perceived as a large cylindrical object anchored into the fabric of the city and according to Corbusier, its beauty lies in its volumetric form; it is part of a collection of platonic solids strewn across the city that portray a clear, tangible image that anyone can instantly relate to.

The Colosseum should not however be seen just this abstract volume that can embody whatever function successively fills it because it also strongly resists merely being a container as such. On the contrary, it can also be seen as an inverted Piazza because of its outward influence to its immediate site and the rest of the city both physically and symbolically.

The Colosseum is a ‘new’ urban artifact whose constitution has contributed to the growth of the city. It behaves almost as an inserted nucleus (part of a collection of other monuments and locations) around which the city has slowly crystallized.

The activities linked to the original uses of the Colosseum manifested as many buildings that came up around it. For example to its east lie the remains of Ludus Magnus, a training school for gladiators that was connected to the Colosseum by means of an underground passage. Apart from training schools there were the Armamentarium, comprising an armory to store weapons, the Summum Choragium, where machinery was stored, the Sanitarium, which had facilities to treat wounded gladiators, and the Spoliarium, where bodies of dead gladiators were stripped of their armor and disposed of. There was also an accommodation in the Castra Misenatium for the sailors who works the retractable roof or velarium.

The transformation of the city due to this nucleus continued centuries later; in March 1588 Sixtus V opened the new road from the Colosseum to the Lateran. This lead to great building activity close to the Colosseum as the countryside became much more dense.

Maps showing the change of density before and after Sixtus V's intervention

Colosseum = Rome
The Colosseum has acted as a tool for shaping and reshaping the urban fabric of the city over time in response to how people perceived and used it not just physically, but also iconographically.

The Colosseum hosts millions of visitors every year and is the most popular tourist destination spot in Rome. Many tourists who have a very limited time in the city try to capture all of Rome by visiting this monument. Even though the Colosseum is a major urban icon it is impossible to encapsulate the whole of Rome in a single image. From their very naïve point of view, they associate this image as representative of the entire city.

Even though Romans do not at all have such a narrow-minded association between the Colosseum and their city, it still remains as a major Icon to them as well. The Colosseum is not just a Symbol they take pride in but also a physical Presence in the city due to its immense scale. Despite the Colosseum’s complex history of changing conditions over time, it has always been constant in its aspect of representing the city in a single image.

Colosseum = Backdrop
In the post modern city the Colosseum has become a frozen but powerful image of time. Similar to the Caracalla baths, this gigantic structure has become an untouchable chunk that is immensely crucial to the city yet ‘unused’. It is in a sense over-preserved – it can be seen as a mighty giant sitting in the center of the city in a very deep coma, yet ever strong and powerful since it still exerts its own agency on the urban fabric.

Today the function of the Colosseum is not just an archeological ruin where people can imagine and recreate its history but it is actively being used because of its strong iconography. The Colosseum even now after 2000 years astonishingly and amazingly still works – but as a Backdrop. The building has been translated into the contemporary fabric of our society through films (such as Ridley Scott's Gladiator), concerts and literature.

After discussing various important aspects of the Colosseum and how it has come to be we can consequently reflect on how people’s relationship must have changed to this structure over time. Unfortunately, we do not have the chance to be able to experience the energy or spectacle of the Colosseum the way other people were privileged to in the past. I feel that in the present day our perception of the Colosseum has taken a 180-degree turn: At one point in time it was shamelessly exploited and used it as a quarry as its pieces were broken up and distributed around the city; today however we have reached a point of extreme over-preservation, where we have great value for the monument and also its parts that are dispersed and reused around the city.

The Colosseum, as you can see has actively or passively been a major player in many aspects of the world from the day it was first conceived. My translation of the Colosseum to map out its extremely dynamic evolution used the most critical examples to illustrate its depth, however there are many more events that have caused or been caused by this structure. The Colosseum is not just a superblock landmark in the network of Rome but a living, breathing organism like a city in itself that has grown out of the land of Rome.

Works Cited
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"Colosseum." Wikipedia. 13 May 2009 (

Corbusier, Le. Toward an Architecture. Frances Lincoln ltd, 2008.

"Essential World Architecture: Roman Colosseum." Italian Architecture. 12 May 2009 (

Giedion, Siegfried. Space, Time and Architecture The Growth of a New Tradition, Fifth Revised and Enlarged Edition (The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures). New York: Harvard UP, 2003.

Hopkins, Keith, and Mary Beard. The Colosseum (Wonders of the World). New York: Harvard UP, 2005.

"Lectures." H i s t o r y O n l i n e. 10 May 2009 (

"Roman Colosseum - Rome, Italy - Great Buildings Online." Architecture Design. 13 May 2009 (

Rossi, Aldo. The Architecture of the City. MIT P, 1982.

Watkin, David. A history of Western architecture. Laurence King, 005.

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