Reflections on the Colosseum

Famous Authors’ Reflections on the Colosseum

Hans Christian Andersen
“…like a vast mass of rock.”

Venerable Bede
“While the Coliseum stands, Rome shall stand; when the Coliseum falls, Rome shall fall; when Rome falls, the world shall fall.” [Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) quoting a prophecy of Anglo-Saxon pilgrims.

A woman writer in a fresco now in Naples. In reality, very few women could read and write

Lord Byron
“… when the rising moon begins to climb/ Its topmost arch and gently pauses there/When the stars twinkle through the loops of time,/The garland forest, which the gray walls wear/ Like laurels on the bald first Caesar’s head:/ When the light shines serene but doth not glare/ then in the magic circle raise the dead:/ Heroes have trod this spot –‘this on their dust ye tread.'”
“Arches on arches! As it were that Rome,/Collecting the chief trophies of her line,/ Would build up all her triumphs in one dome./ Her Coliseum stands; the moonbeams shine/ As’t were its natural torches, for divine/ Should be the light which streams here, to illume/ This long-explored but still exhaustless mine/ Of contemplation; and the azure gloom/ Of an Italian night, where the deep skies assume hues that have words, and speak to ye haven,/Floats o’er this vast and wondrous monument,/And shadows forth, its glory. There is given/ Unto the things of earth, which Time hath bent,/ A spirit’s feeling and where he hath learnt/ His hand, but broke his scythe, there is a power/ And magic in ruined battlement/ From which the palace of the present hour/ Must yield its pomp and wait till ages are / its dower.
A ruin — yet what ruin! From its mass/ Walls, palaces, half-cities, have been reared;/ Yet of the enormous skeleton ye pass,/ And marvel where the spoil could have appeared/ Hath it indeed been plundered, or but cleared?/ Alas! developed, opens the decay,/ When the colossal fabrics form is neared:/ It will not bear the brightness of day,/ Which streams too much on all years, man, have/ reft away.”
[4th Canto, “Childe Harold.”

James Boswell
It is “hard to tell whether the astonishing massiveness or the equisite tast of this superb building should be more admired.”

Ruins emerging from the earth

Thomas Cole
“From the great multitude of wondrous things I would select the Colosseum as the object that affected me the most. It is stupendous, yet beautiful in its destruction. From the broad arena within it rises around, arch above arch, broken and desolate, and mantled in many parts with the laurustimus, the acanthus, and numerous other plants and flowers, exquisite both for their colour and fragrance. It looks more like a work of nature than man; for the regularity of art is lost, in a great measure, in dilapidation, and the luxuriant herbage, clinging to its ruins as if to mouth its distress, completes the illusion. Crag rests over crag, great and breezy summits mount into the sky. [Thomas Cole, 1832]
“The mighty spectacle, mysterious and dark, opens beneath the eye more like some awful dream than an earthly reality — a vision of the valley and shadow of death…. As I mused upon its great circumference, I seemed to be sounding the depth of some volcanic crater, where fires, long extinguished, had left the ribbed and blasted rocks to the wild flowers and ivy.


Charles Dickens
“It is no fiction, but plain, sober, honest Truth, to say: so suggestive is it at this hour: that, for a moment — actually in passing in — they who will, may have the whole great pile before them, as it used to be, with thousands of eager faces staring down into the arena, and such a whirl of strife, and blood, and dust, going on there, as no language can describe. Its solitude, its awful beauty, and its utter desolation, strike upon the stranger, the next moment, like a softened sorrow; and never in his life, perhaps, will he be so moved and overcome by any sight, not immediately connected with his own affections and afflictions.”
“To see it crumbling there, an inch a year; its walls and arches overgrown with green; its corridors open to the day; the long grass growing in its porches; young trees of yesterday, springing up on its ragged parapets, and bearing fruit; chance produce of the seeds dropped there by the birds who build their nests within its chinks and crannies; to climb into its upper halls, and look down on ruin, ruin, all about it; the triumphal arches of Constantine, Septimus Severus, and Titus; the Roman Forum; the Palace of the Caesars; the temples of the old religion, fallen down and gone; is to see the ghost of old Rome, wicked wonderful old city; haunting the very ground on which its people trod. It is the most impressive, the most stately, the most solemn, grand majestic, mournful, sight, conceivable. Never, in its bloodiest prime, can the sight of the gigantic Coliseum, full and running over with the lustiest life, have moved one heart, as it must move all who look upon it now, a ruin. God be thanked: a ruin!”
As it tops the other ruins: standing there, a mountain among graves: so do its ancient influences outlive all other remnants of the old mythology and old butchery of Rome, in the nature of the fierce and cruel Roman people….”
“… the most impressive, the most stately, the most solemn, grand, majestic mournful sight conceivable.”

9. … Lastly, we ascended to the top of the Colosseum, Bunsen leaving us at the door, to go home; and I seated myself with, just above the main entrance, towards the Forum, and there took my farewell look over Rome.
It was a delicious evening, and everything was looking to advantage : the huge Colosseum just under me,the tufts of ilex and aliternus, and other shrubs that fringe the ruins everywhere in the lower parts, while the outside wall, with its top of gigantic stones, lifts itself high above, and seems like a mountain harrier of bare rock, inclosing a green and varied valley. I sat and gazed upon the scene with an intense and mingled feeling. The world could show nothing grander; it was one which for years I had longed to see, and I was now looking at it for the last time.
I do not think you will be jealous, dearest, if I confess that I could not take leave of it without something of regret. Even with you and our darlings, I would not live out of our dear country, to which I feel bound alike by every tie of duty and affection; and to be here a vagrant, without you, is certainly very far from happiness. Not for an instant would I prolong my absence from Laleham, yet still I feel, at leaving Rome, very differently from what I ever felt at leaving any other place not more endeared than this is by personal ties ; and when I last see the dome of St. Peter’s, I shall seem to be parting from more than a mere town full of curiosities, where the eye has been amused, and the intellect gratified. I never thought to have felt thus tenderly towards Rome ; but the inexpressible solemnity and beauty of her ruined condition has quite bewitched me; and to the latest hour of my life I shall remember the Forum, the surrounding hills, and the magnificent Colosseum.;

Nathaniel Hawthorne
The moonlight which “filled and flooded the great empty space glowed upon tier above tier of ruined, grass-grown arches, and made them even too distinctly visible. The splendour of the revelation took away that inestimable effect of dimness and mystery by which the imagination might be assisted to build up a grander structure than the Coliseum, and to shatter it with a more picturesque decay. Byron’s celebrated description is better than the reality.”

The dome of the Pantheon

Henry James
“One of course never passes the Colosseum without paying it one’s respects — without going in under one of the hundred portals and crossing the long oval and sitting down awhile, generally, at the foot of the cross in the centre. I always feel, as I do so, as if I were seated in the depths of some Alpine valley. The upper portions of the side toward the Esquiline look as remote and lonely as an Alpine ridge, and you raise your eyes to their rugged sky-line, drinking in the sun and silvered by the blue air, with much the same feeling, with which you would take in a grey cliff on which an eagle might lodge. This roughly mountainous quality of the great ruin is its chief interest; beauty of detail has pretty well vanished….”

“Silence, and the quiet moonbeams, and the broad deep shadows of the ruined wall… At length I came to an open space where the arches above had crumbled away, leaving the pavement an unroofed terrace high in the air. From this point, I could see the whole interior of the amphitheater spread out beneath me, half in shadow, half in light, with such soft and indefinite outline that it seemed less an earthly reality than a reflection in the bosom of a lake… I did not conjure up the past, for the past had already become identified with the present.” [1828]
“… A thousand wild flowers bloom/ From every chink, and the birds, build their nests/ Among the ruined arches, and suggest/ New thoughts of beauty to the architect.” [Longfellow, “Michel Angelo”]

“It is the most beautiful of ruins; there breathes all the majesty of ancient Rome. Memories of Titus Livius filled my soul; I saw before Fabius Maximus, Publicola, Menenius Agrippa.” (Promenades dans Rome)

Would you like a floor like this?

Mark Twain
Every body knows the picture of the Coliseum; every body recognizes at once that “looped and windowed” band-box with a side bitten out. Being rather isolated, it shows to better advantage than any other of the monuments of ancient Rome. Even the beautiful Pantheon, whose pagan altars uphold the cross, now, and whose Venus, tricked out in consecrated gimcracks, does reluctant duty as a Virgin Mary to-day, is built about with shabby houses and its stateliness sadly marred. But the monarch of all European ruins, the Coliseum, maintains that reserve and that royal seclusion which is proper to majesty. Weeds and flowers spring from its massy arches and its circling seats, and vines hang their fringes from its lofty walls. An impressive silence broods over the monstrous structure where such multitudes of men and women were wont to assemble in other days. The butterflies have taken the places of the queens of fashion and beauty of eighteen centuries ago, and the lizards sun themselves in the sacred seat of the Emperor. More vividly than all the written histories, the Coliseum tells the story of Rome’s grandeur and Rome’s decay. (The Innocents Abroad)

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