Monday, May 24, 2010

Rome, Italy.  Summer 2004.

Little pomp and almost no circumstance.  It just appears there, along side the road.  Not that it needs a formal introduction - it's the colosseum.  It's one of the most recognizable structures in the world, and on our first day in Rome, we're going to step inside it.  

As our group waits at the gate for our guide, Ashley sits on a large boulder near the entrance.  Only it's not a boulder.  It's too smooth on one side, and too intricately carved on the other.

"Ashley, do you realize what you're doing?"  


"You're sitting on history.  The colosseum is under your butt."  She rockets up onto her feet, and we both burst into giggles, because it's just a piece of stone.  It's old and broken and just lying there beside the walkway.  It's not on a pedestal in a museum behind a line of velvet rope.  It's not like we were doing anything naughty.  But the weight of its history makes is something sort of sacred; this is one of the icons of the most powerful empire ever to exist.  Surely we can do more than sit on it.

Ashley surreptitiously presses her palm against an upright column.  "Quick," she whispers.  "Take a picture!"  I do, and we quickly step away from the wall, trying to look nonchalant and failing as we laugh at our own stupid joke.   

The building isn't quite a shadow of what it once was.  It's still standing, it's still mostly intact, but there's something intimidating about the way the light moves through its open spaces.  The flowers growing in the cracks and crevasses of the stone do nothing to soften its look.  It makes me think of that Bodies exhibit that everyone's been talking about but that I've never had the guts to seek out for myself.  Innards carefully reconstructed and posed and displayed, nothing that isn't human, but deeply unsettling without the skin.  That's how the colosseum looks.  Flayed.  

Or maybe it feels like stepping onto a stage when the lights are off and the set's been taken down.  Maybe this is empty theatre. 

The guide rattles off dimensions and dates and names - the building is so ubiquitous though, that there's little she's saying that we haven't already heard before.  Yes, we know the entertainment held here was as much theatre and art as it was brutality.  Yes, we know they could and would flood the arena floor and sail ships here.  Yes, we know the Ridley Scott movie is largely based on fiction.  Our guide is funny and personable, but she must be tired of climbing into this behemoth every day to tell stories to half-interested American school-children.

Our guide points to the hypoeum down below, and doesn't even blink when she describes the sophisticated mechanisms that would release wild beasts into the arena with trained gladiators or defenseless Christians.  The devices used to flood the colosseum are long gone, but we squint at the maze below our feet and try to imagine full sized ships battling for the amusement of the masses. 

Our guide points to the tall cross throwing shadows across the ground.  In 1749, Pope Benedict XIV decreed the colosseum a sacred site, in honor of the innocent Christian blood spilt here.  The Christian church has had a hand in the preservation and legacy of the building since the 16th century, when Pope Sixtus V planned to turn it into a wool factory, hoping to provide honorable work for the city's prostitutes.  (This plan never made it past the planning stage, as Sixtus died before he could put in into effect.  But what a thing it would have been.)  

Perhaps most ironically, this place where so many were put to their deaths has become the symbol for the international campaign against capital punishment.  Now, our guide tells us, when a death-row inmate earns a stay of execution, or a government abolishes the death penalty, the lights used to illuminate the building at night shine gold instead of the usual white.

The sun shines above us, but the stone is cold under my hands.  It's full of early morning tourists, but still feels cavernous and empty.  For a handful of bills you can get your picture taken out front with a man in a plastic centurion costume.  It feels both wildly inappropriate and totally appropriate at the same time.  This is theatre, after all.   

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