Today’s Colosseum is like a skeleton stripped of its skin. Two thousand years of use and numerous functions, which adapted to changing needs through time and to the transformations that the city itself endured, have left the Amphitheater bereft of the precious materials in which it was originally clad: the white marble for the cavea; colored plasters, mainly red and white, for its galleries and internal passageways; colored marbles for the two platforms located on either side of the monument’s shorter axis, reserved for the emperor and the highest authorities; and the walkways that led to them with their vaulted ceilings covered in figurative stucco decorations.
The presence or absence of richly decorated surfaces, together with direct accounts from ancient sources, reveal that separate access routes existed to ensure that the emperor and his family never crossed paths with the common folk. The imperial boxes, positioned at either end of the building’s shorter axis, could be reached by the emperor from the northern entrance or preferably from the southern side, in the latter case via an underground passage. Both of these passageways were richly decorated, with marble cladding and painted plaster, and most notably with extraordinary stucco surfaces.
Created from the moment of the Amphitheater’s inauguration in 80 AD, with some additions made in the Severan period as well (3rd cent. AD), the stuccos primarily depict scenes linked to the Dionysiac world, with frolicking young women (Maenads) or mythological episodes which are not always easy to decipher. The subsequent Severan-age stuccos are instead more directly linked with the world of entertainment, depicting scenes of gladiatorial combat. Preserved in the southern passage, these stuccos are not yet open to the public.
At the Colosseum’s northern entrance and in the adjoining archway n. 38, the stucco remains that once decorated the surfaces of the archway’s vaulted interior and lunette are still visible. Over the course of the Renaissance period (i.e. between 1500 – 1600), the great artists who had recently discovered the Domus Aurea’s “grotesques” (including one of Raphael’s most brilliant students, Giovanni da Udine) also reproduced the Colosseum’s stuccos through drawings and other media, providing today’s scholars with a priceless trove of information which would have otherwise been lost to history.
However, the elements (especially strong winds) have taken a heavy toll on these surfaces over the centuries. Starting in April 2021, the Parco archeologico del Colosseo is beginning an important project of special maintenance to consolidate the stuccos’ materials, improve their adhesion to the underlying masonry and make the decorations more legible to viewers.
The project will be documented with continuous updated videos and interviews.