The Coliseum – Rome, Italy

The Venerable Bede, who lived in the eighth century, is the first person who is known to have given to the Flavian amphitheater its comparatively modern and now universal designation of the Coliseum; tho the name, derived from a colossal statue of the emperor Nero which stood near it, was probably then familiar to men’s ears, as we may infer from his so calling it without explanation or remark.

When in its perfect state, the exterior, with its costly ornaments in marble, and its forest of columns, lost the merit of simplicity without gaining that of grandeur. The eye was teased with a multitude of details, not in themselves good; the same defects were repeated in each story, and the real height was diminished by the projecting and ungraceful cornices. The interior arrangements were admirable; and modern architects can not sufficiently commend the skill with which eighty thousand spectators were accommodated with seats; or the ingenious contrivances, by which, through the help of spacious corridors, multiplied passages, and staircases, every person went directly to his place, and immense audiences were dispersed in less time than is required for a thousand persons to squeeze through the entries of a modern concert-room. We know that this interior of the Coliseum was decorated with great splendor. The principal seats were of marble, and covered with cushions. Gilded gratings, ornaments of gold, ivory, and amber, and mosaics of precious stones, displayed the generosity of the emperors, and gratified the taste of the people.

How, or at what period, the work of ruin first began does not distinctly appear. An earth-quake may have first shattered its ponderous arches, and thus made an opening for the destroying hand of time. There can be no doubt that it suffered violence from the hands of civil and foreign war. But more destructive agencies than those of earthquake, conflagration or war, were let loose upon it. Its massive stones, fitted to each other with such nice adaptation, presented a strong temptation to the cupidity of wealthy nobles and cardinals, with whom building was a ruling passion; and for many ages the Coliseum became a quarry. The Palazzo della Cancelleria, the Palazzo Barberini, the Palazzo Farnese, and the Palazzo Veneziano were all built mainly from the plunder of the Coliseum; and meaner robbers emulated the rapacity of their betters, by burning into lime the fragments not available for architectural purposes.

The material of which the Coliseum was built is exactly fitted to the purposes of a great ruin. It is travertine, of a rich, dark, warm color, deepened and mellowed by time. There is nothing glaring, harsh, or abrupt in the harmony of tints. The blue sky above, and the green earth beneath, are in unison with a tone of coloring not unlike the brown of one of our own early winter landscapes. The travertine is also of a coarse grain and porous texture, not splintering into points and edges, but gradually corroding by natural decay. Stone of such a texture everywhere opens laps and nooks for the reception and formation of soil. Every grain of dust that is borne through the air by the lazy breeze of summer, instead of sliding from a glassy surface, is held where it falls. The rocks themselves crumble and decompose, and turn into a fertile mold. Thus, the Coliseum is throughout crowned and draped with a covering of earth, in many places of considerable depth. Trailing plants clasp the stones with arms of verdure; wild flowers bloom in their seasons; and long grass nods and waves on the airy battlements. Life has everywhere sprouted from the trunk of death. Insects hum and sport in the sunshine; the burnished lizard darts like a tongue of green flame along the walls; and birds make the hollow quarry overflow with their songs. There is something beautiful and impressive in the contrast between luxuriant life and the rigid skeleton upon which it rests.

As a matter of course, everybody goes to see the Coliseum by moonlight. The great charm of the ruin under this condition is, that the imagination is substituted for sight; and the mind for the eye. The essential character of moon-light is hard rather than soft. The line between light and shadow is sharply defined, and there is no gradation of color. Blocks and walls of silver are bordered by, and spring out of, chasms of blackness. But moonlight shrouds the Coliseum in mystery. It opens deep vaults of gloom where the eye meets only an ebon wall, upon which the fancy paints innumerable pictures in solemn, splendid, and tragic colors. Shadowy forms of emperor and lictor and vestal virgin and gladiator and martyr come out of the darkness, and pass before us in long and silent procession. The breezes which blow through the broken arches are changed into voices, and recall the shouts and cries of a vast audience. By day, the Coliseum is an impressive fact; by night, it is a stately vision. By day, it is a lifeless form; by night, a vital thought.

The Coliseum should by all means be seen by a bright starlight, or under the growing sickle of a young moon. The fainter ray and deeper gloom bring out more strongly its visionary and ideal character. When the full moon has blotted out the stars, it fills the vast gulf of the building with a flood of spectral light, which falls with a chilling touch upon the spirit; for then the ruin is like a “corpse in its shroud of snow,” and the moon is a pale watcher by its side. But when the walls, veiled in deep shadow, seem a part of the darkness in which they are lost—when the stars are seen through their chasms and breaks, and sparkle along the broken line of the battlements—the scene becomes another, tho the same; more indistinct, yet not so mournful; contracting the sphere of sight, but enlarging that of thought; less burdening, but more suggestive.

But under all aspects, in the blaze of noon, at sunset, by the light of the moon or stars—the Coliseum stands alone and unapproached. It is the monarch of ruins. It is a great tragedy in stone, and it softens and subdues the mind like a drama of Aeschylus or Shakespeare. It is a colossal type of those struggles of humanity against an irresistible destiny, in which the tragic poet finds the elements of his art. The calamities which crusht the house of Atreus are symbolized in its broken arches and shattered walls. Built of the most durable materials, and seemingly for eternity—of a size, material, and form to defy the “strong hours” which conquer all, it has bowed its head to their touch, and passed into the inevitable cycle of decay. “And this too shall pass away”—which the Eastern monarch engraved upon his signet ring—is carved upon these Cyclopean blocks. The stones of the Coliseum were once water; and they are now turning into dust. Such is ever the circle of nature. The solid is changing into the fluid, and the fluid into the solid; and that which is unseen is alone indestructible. He does not see the Coliseum aright who carries away from it no other impressions than those of form, size, and hue. It speaks an intelligible language to the wiser mind. It rebukes the peevish and consoles the patient. It teaches us that there are misfortunes which are clothed with dignity, and sorrows that are crowned with grandeur. As the same blue sky smiles upon the ruin which smiled upon the perfect structure, so the same beneficent Providence bends over our shattered hopes and our answered prayers.