Rome is a city of monuments on every corner, but if there’s one that is to be considered a symbol of this ancient city, more than any other, it has to be the Coliseum. It stands timelessly beside the Roman Fora, a testament of the grandeur once prevalent in Rome. Now, it is mainly composed of bricks, devoid of most of the marble that used to adorn it.
But it was not simply the passage of time which was responsible for this. The marble that once lined the façade and also some parts inside the Coliseum has served a thousand purposes during the years; of which the most prominent has to be the construction of papal palaces and Christian churches scattered all over the city. Fallen into abandon, the amphitheatre was indeed used for a long time as construction material; it is estimated that what remains is only a third of the original structure. The Amphitheatre was still in use in the early 6th century, but it was now oversized for the small population of the city; therefore the Romans began to recycle materials. There was plenty of Travertino marble, which was used in its natural state or baked to make lime. Everything was reused: the thick marble slabs that covered corridors, blocks of Tuff, lead pipes, metal clamps that held together the blocks of travertine, even the bricks. This practice started during the reign of Theodoric and eventually became routine for many years. The Church then followed. We have few epigraphic or literary sources for the centuries VI-IX, but we know that in those years the only stable institution was the Church. Pope Gregory the Great introduced the practice of transforming ancient temples and basilicas into Christian churches, systematically stripping the Coliseum of its riches. The proof of this lies in the name inscribed on a column found in the south east of the Coliseum: GERONTI V S. Tal Gerontius (V S means VIRI SPECTABILIS) , which indicates that he had obtained permission to utilize the Coliseum as a source of materials, much like a quarry.
In the fourteenth century, the Orsini and Colonna families were allowed to take stone and marble. In 1362, Álvarez Gil Carrillo de Albornoz, the bishop of Orvieto, complained in a letter to Pope Urbano V that there were no buyers for the stones of the Colosseo, except for the Frangipane family, who had ordered the marble to build a palace. Unfortunately, all the Popes of the time granted licenses to remove the material (against payment, of course) very easily. They took advantage of the great availability and low cost of materials in order to realize their own projects while officially upholding the claim that they wanted to preserve the ancient ruins.
The north side of the Coliseum remained untouched, because it served as a monumental backdrop for religious processions that passed by to go to the Basilica of S. Giovanni in Laterano. The exterior was therefore preserved, but behind the façade, the rampant extraction of the stones continued unchecked. This is seen even from the fact that there seem to be more remaining iron clamps in comparison to the rest of the monument, which indicates that less marble was removed. In 1439, the stones were used to repair the tribune of the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano. In 1452, then, a good 2,522 loads of material were removed by a certain Giovanni Foglia di Como. Ten years later, the travertine blocks were utilised in the construction of the Scala Santa, the walls of the city, Basilica di San Marco and Palazzo Venezia. The most valuable were used for the arches delle benedizioni at St. Peter’s and the square itself. In the following century, material from the Coliseum was used to construct the Palazzo della Cancelleria, Palazzo Farnese, the Palazzi Senatorio, the Conservatori sul Campidoglio and Palazzo Barberini in 1634. Finally, in 1703, the travertine marble ended up at the port of Ripetta, which was eventually demolished in favour of the reconstruction of the muraglioni, the great walls along the river Tevere.
As the Romans say today: Porello!*
* porello is a purely Roman word that signifies “poor guy”
Carmela Marocchini, in collaboration with architect Roberto Cattalani