Renaissance: the quarry

In 1381
a section of the Colosseum was donated to the religious group called Confraternita del Santissimo Salvatore ad Sancta Sanctorum, also called del Gonfalone, which from 1490 to 1539 was granted permission to hold Passion plays in the amphitheatre. By now, the function of the amphitheatre had been rediscovered by the humanists, and it had become commonplace to believe that it had been the place of martyrdom for many early christians. Thousands of people crowded the ruins of the Colosseum to take part in the Passion plays of the Gonfalone, that were held until 1539, when they were banned because they aroused hatred of the jews and were the source of many incidents and riots.

In this period the property of the monument was split among the Arciconfraternita, the Roman Senate and the Camera Apostolica. The Arciconfraternita started to use the stones of the Colosseum from the sections that had already fallen down, and although in the XV century the Popes had started to repair some old Roman ruins, the removal of materials went on for centuries.

This image of Christ is encased on a keystone of the arches. It marked the property of the Arciconfraternita del SS. Salvatore

At the same time there was great interest in the ancient Roman ruins: the Colosseum was now being studied seriously. The architect Leon Battista Alberti, who was also author, artist, poet, priest, linguist, philosopher, cryptographer and general Renaissance humanist polymath, was summoned by Pope Nicholas V, who dreamed of rebuilding the city of Rome, to measure and study the ancient monuments. In 1485 Alberti published De re aedificatoria, a book that defined a set of formal models which were and still are a reference for architects. The Pope fulfilled only a few of his visionary plans, but the book was fundamental in propagating the theories and ideals of the Florentine Renaissance to the cultivated public.

It seems that as early as the XV century some “archaeological” excavations were made which brought to light the drains that cross the substratum of the amphitheatre, and the wide pavement around it. These elements were again unearthed only in 1895.

The amphitheatre in ruins

By now permission to take away the stones was easily granted by the Popes (under payment, of course), who exploited such a vast cheap source of building materials for their projects, while at the same time their edicts officially promoted the preservation of the ancient monuments. Practically all the Popes of those years were responsible for the spoliation: Eugene IV, Nicholas V, Pius II, who had a special wagon to transport the stones to Palazzo Venezia, Paul II etc.

A cartload of stones being taken away in an engraving of the 19th century

However, it was chosen to save the Northern facade. It had to remain as a monumental backdrop for the religious procession that passed in front of it to reach the Lateran. Behind the facade the stones could be quarried, as it happened, but the external wall was preserved, and there even the removal of the metal grips that hold the blocks together is much reduced in comparison with other areas of the Colosseum.

There is evidence that in 1439 the stones were used to repair the tribune of St. John Lateran Basilica; that in 1452 alone 2.522 cartloads were taken away by a Giovanni Foglia from Como, and that ten years later the travertine was used for the building of the Scala Santa and for the square and the Loggia of the Blessings in St. Peter’s.

“By kissing the Holy Cross one acquires one year and 40 days of indulgence” – This pious reminder is still affixed inside the Colosseum

In 1519 The Confraternita built the little chapel of Santa Maria della Pietà inside the Colosseum, but when the Passion Plays were banned in 1539 (due to the great costs of the ceremony and to the social unrest provoked by the hatred of the Jews promoted during the Holy Week) the church was abandoned and fell into disuse. The following is a rough list of the buildings made also with stones of the Colosseum:
– XV century: repairs to the city walls, Church of San MarcoPalazzo Venezia;
– XVI century: Palazzo della Cancelleria, Palazzo Farnese, the Palazzi Senatorio and dei Conservatori on Capitol Hill, and in 1574 for the repairs to the Ponte Emilio (a bridge that lasted only 23 years, as it was destroyed again in the terrible 1598 flood; since then it has been called Ponte Rotto, or broken bridge);
– XVII century: Palazzo Barberini (and many others).

The little church inside the amphitheatre, by danish painter Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg

Popes Sixtus V and Clemens X had plans for the building. Sixtus V wanted to use the amphitheatre as a milling factory, with the machines on the ground floor and the houses of the workers on the top floors. The illustrious architect Domenico Fontana made a project for this industrial conversion, but Sixtus died in 1590 and the money to start the business was never found. In any case, in 1594 a group of glue makers rented some spaces on the first floor.
Lacking ambitious projects, the chapel of Santa Maria della Pietà was restored and provided with a house for the guardian and a bell.
More projects were planned by Clemens X, who gave no less than Gian Lorenzo Bernini the task to plan a church dedicated to the martyrs to be built in the centre of the arena. Nothing was ever concluded also in this case, because of the lack of funds. Only a cross was placed on top of the monument for the Jubilee year 1675.

In the XVII century the monument had again become a den of derelicts and criminals. After long years of abandon, in 1700 Pope Clemens XI had the arches closed, a cross placed in the arena and the site used as a manure deposit for the manufacture of saltpetre, destined to a nearby gunpowder factory. In 1703 three arches of the second SW ring fell down because of an earthquake and Clemens found a way to use the travertine to build the new monumental port on the river (porto di Ripetta). In 1720 the stations of the cross were built all around the arena. Their story is rather strange: they were rebuilt in 1749 (see below), removed in 1803 during the French occupation, reinstalled in 1815 and finally demolished in 1874.

The monument was given some attention just before the 1750 Jubilee after many decades of decline: in 1743 the little church inside the Colosseum, dedicated to S. Maria della Pietà (see picture on the right), was restored again. On initiative of the Roman Senate some repairs were made in the NW area, and Pope Benedict XIV had the arches of the ground floor rebuilt.

In 1749 Pope Benedetto XIV declared the monument a public church consecrated to the memory of the Passion of Christ and His Martyrs; so if nothing else the removal of the stones was stopped. An edict forbade the Colosseum to be violated and threatened physical punishment to tenants who forgot to close the gates. New stations of the Via Crucis were placed all around the arena and a new cross was planted in the middle.

What about nowadays? Is the looting over ? Read here an interesting thread of discussion in a newsgroup, where someone asks if it is legal to sell a “chunk”  of the Colosseum on E-Bay…

Another picture by Eckersberg, of the Via Crucis at the Colosseum

The Pope also founded in 1752 a religious Arciconfraternita degli Amanti di Gesù e Maria (Brotherhood of the Lovers of Jesus and Mary) which started holding holy processions: the Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross).
The Via Crucis of the Brotherhood took place at the Colosseum on all Sundays and Fridays of the year, every Carnival day, every day of the Eight days of the Dead (from 2 to 9 November), on the days of the Holy Cross in May and September, during the three days of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before Easter and on the day of St. John Evangelist.
The faithful congregated at the oratory of Santi Cosma e Damiano in the Forum, where the spiritual teaching started in the early afternoon. If there were children, they were taught the Christian doctrine by priests. One hour later there was half an hour of catechism, separately for men and women, and then a quarter of an hour of meditation. Then the procession started towards the Colosseum while reciting the Rosary.
At the Colosseum there was the worship of the Holy Cross, and then there was the Via Crucis with its particular prayers, while retaining the separation between men and women. At the end there was another sermon and the faithful went back to the oratory singing hymns. The whole ceremony could last 3-4 hours, so to finish before sunset. Visitors found the procession very spectacular, and have left written descriptions and pictures.

Another image of the Via Crucis, by Bartolomeo Pinelli

Between 1751 and 1768 many small repairs were made here and there by the Popes and by the Roman Senate, like cleaning the debris, patching up walls, reinforcing pillars and replacing blocks, but the real restoration still had to come …


The main source for this page is “Il Colosseo” – AA. VV. – Care of Ada Gabucci, Electa, Milan 1999

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