The Colosseum in Rome is one of the most iconic buildings in the world. A relic of the mighty Roman Empire, this 2,000-year-old structure has survived lootings, earthquakes and even the bombs of World War II – and welcomes (in non-pandemic times) four million tourists each year.
And now – for the very first time – visitors to the vast amphitheatre are able to explore its ‘hypogeum’: the network of underground chambers and tunnels where gladiators and wild animals prepared to meet their fate in the arena above.
Clearly all the real-life blood and gore of a fight to the death wasn’t convincing enough for Roman audiences, because as well as housing gladiators, bears, tigers, elephants and rhinoceroses awaiting battle, the hypogeum contained elaborate machinery used to hoist props and scenery into the arena space above – some of which has been recreated as part of the huge €25 million restoration project.
Works on the 15,000-square-metre space began in 2018 and have involved more than 80 archaeologists, architects, engineers, topographers and physicists. As well as taking in a model of the elevator system which raised cages from the hypogeum to the arena 24 feet up, visitors to the Colosseum will now be able to walk the length of the 15 large corridors that functioned as backstage area for the theatrics being performed above.
And there are more exciting plans afoot. After holding a competition to find architects for the project, the Italian culture minister last month announced the winning design chosen for the next phase of the restoration, which will see a replacement floor built above the hypogeum (allowing tourists to glimpse the 60,000-seat amphitheatre from the perspective of a gladiator walking out to battle).
Projected to be completed by 2023 at a cost of €18.5 million, the floor will be made from specially treated wood, and will be fully retractable so that the underground space can be protected from rain or aired out when necessary. Created from sustainable materials, the design makes no changes to the existing structure and will be fully removable in case plans for the Colosseum change in future. We give it an emperor’s thumbs-up!
Want to check it out in person? Italy has relaxed its border restrictions (with caveats for some travellers).