Preparing to Restore Rome's Colosseum

The amphitheater needs shoring up, but first it's being studied stone by stone

TOURISTS still flock to the Colosseum.

The grand amphitheater, completed by the Emperor Titus in AD 80, is many things: a centuries-old symbol of Rome, even of a lost empire; the site of gladiator contests and mock naval battles; a place to get a carriage ride around the city, buy some souvenirs, or take pictures; another stop on a seemingly endless bus tour of the city.

To architect Giorgio Croci, it is an ancient treasure that needs to be protected.

The Banca di Roma concurs. The bank set aside 40 billion lira ($28 million) last year to be used by the Rome archaeological office of the Italian Culture Ministry for the study and restoration of the monument.

"No important restoration has been done on the Colosseum in recent years," says Pio Baldi, director of the Culture Ministry's central institute for restoration. "So there's a mountain of small problems."

Those involved in the project hope it will be a model for similar ventures in the rest of the world.

"We think we're going to do the most complete study of a historical monument that has ever been done," says Mr. Croci, who, with Mr. Baldi, belongs to the commission appointed to carry out the work.

In the next four years, he says, experts will make direct observations of the current state of the Colosseum. They will create mathematical computer models of it. And they will carefully study and interpret its history.

Already Croci, whose studio is minutes away from the arena, knows the Colosseum intimately. He was called in to examine cracks that had begun to appear in the structure in 1979.

Since then, Croci has compiled a detailed chronology of its architectural history, along with numerous artistic representations of the building over the centuries. He has examined it section by section, writing copious notes about its construction and making detailed architectural sketches. Computer models he has made show what the Colosseum looked like when it was first built and how it probably came to look the way it does today; the images detail the gradual collapse of sections of the walls following

earthquakes in the years 443, 801, 1349, and 1703. Croci says these earthquakes have weakened the Colosseum's structural soundness and, together with the possibility of a modern-day quake, represent the chief threats to its safety.

"Our study demonstrated that during the earthquakes the walls were deformed, creating stresses and microcracks that started the process of deterioration," Croci says. Rain and frost then entered the fissures, compounding the problem.

Yet despite all this work, Croci says the research is just beginning.

"We're starting a deep campaign of investigation," he says. "We need a lot of data about the soil, the water, the traffic, the vibrations, and so on."

One problem to combat is pollution, which is altering the character of the stone.

"You've seen how black the Colosseum is," says Baldi. Cleanup will be an important part of the four-year project, he says.

In addition, specialists will evaluate the effect that subterranean water is having on the structure.

"Undoubtedly the humidity has created deterioration and weakness in the masonry, but we can't say more than that at this time," Croci says.

While all this research is going on, cars and trucks, tourist buses and city buses, streetcars and subways shake, rattle, and roll by the Colosseum. The vehicles number in the thousands every day. On the theory that all this vibration has to be causing damage, some people in the art and environmental communities have urged that the grand Via dei Fori Imperiali, which dictator Benito Mussolini built next to the amphitheater, be closed to traffic, torn up, and the entire area turned into a traffic-free par k.

The proposal has been around for years, however, and nothing has been done. Not everyone agrees it's a good idea.

"I don't think it's necessary," says Angela Santilli, a language student at the University of Rome (La Sapienza), where Croci is a professor of engineering. "It's very exciting to drive by. If you had to reach it by foot, it would be different."

She pauses to muse further about the Colosseum. "If it survived all this time...."

Croci in fact is not currently a park supporter, either. Maybe the traffic vibrations are harmful, he says, and maybe not.

"It has never been studied from a scientific point of view, so it's just an impression," he says. "It has to be demonstrated that the traffic is dangerous."

But he smiles at the idea that the Colosseum has been standing all these years.

"The truth is just the opposite," says Croci. "It has been falling down all these years."

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