IN THE REALM OF historical architecture, perhaps no question is as perplexing as that of restoration. To put it simply: where do you stop?

The clichéd goal of restoring a structure to its “former glory” isn’t as straightforward as it may sound. First, you need to decide which version of the building you’re trying to recreate. Buildings evolve over time—adding features, removing components, and adapting to current trends. Restoration, then, can sometimes be a matter of undoing unwanted renovations to better suit your target period.

Next, there’s the question of just how extensively to restore. Do you want to return the building to pristine condition? Careful. If your building is old enough, its deterioration could be part of its charm. For instance, while scholars have fiercely debated certain renovations to the Acropolis, few of them would advocate for a truly period-accurate renovation of its buildings. Such a makeover would see the Parthenon painted in eye-popping bold and bright hues. Despite our visions of gleaming, sun-bleached stone, the Ancient Greeks embraced color in ways that would shock a modern sensibility.

The truth is that when it comes to our oldest buildings, many of us prefer the aesthetics of ruin. While we’re enamored with the idea of an enduring icon, we also need to see the patina of time written on its face. And so, restoration is always a fine balance. It freezes buildings in the amber of our imagination in a way that both conjure a bygone era and evokes the gulf of time between then and this moment.

This precarious balance between persistence and decay has brought millions of visitors to Rome’s Colosseum. Completed in 80 A.D., the building persists as Italy’s most popular tourist attraction. And over the past decade, it’s been the object of extensive renovations.

At peak use, the 80,000-spectator amphitheater hosted dramas, gladiatorial matches, animal hunts, and was even flooded for mock sea battles. Despite its subsequent uses as a cemetery, as living quarters, as a fortress, and a shrine, it is the era of bloodsport and spectacle that captures our imagination. To visit the Colosseum is to picture fighting for one’s life in front of thousands of eager spectators.

Thanks to a three-stage, $29.8 million effort, this kind of speculation should become easier. Funded by the Italian fashion brand Tod’s in a private-public partnership, the restoration seeks to let visitors to stand where gladiators once did, fulfilling their cinematic Gladiator fantasies. This past summer, after an extensive, years-long cleaning effort, a team of archeologists, engineers, and topographers completed the renovation’s most extensive phase: the excavation of the hypogeum, a warren of underground tunnels and chambers beneath the Colosseum. In this once-hidden, candlelit area, enslaved gladiators prepared for battle and workers prepared props, animals, and scenery to be raised on elevators to the arena’s wooden floor. Today, tourists can wander the exposed passageways, illuminated by natural sunlight.

Soon the hypogeum will be covered once again. The third phase of the restoration will replace its floor with a cutting-edge solution by 2023, permitting visitors to imagine themselves at the heart of the action. Fully retractable, the carbon fiber and wood floor will also let visitors see the hypogeum’s corridors from above. Critics of the renovation deride the proposed floor as an excessive and indulgent architectural gesture—a triumph of experiential tourism over archeological integrity. After all, for the past few centuries, the charm of the Colosseum was how open-ended it seemed to be. Thanks to centuries of earthquake damage and “quarrying,” in which builders pilfered its stone for other projects, the building resembled a kind of cross-section of itself. Any attempt to fill in the gaps will always feel absurd when you remember what’s left is a mere skeleton of the original building.

However, the soul of the Colosseum was always one of artifice, theatre, and myth-making. It hosted elaborate scenarios aided by lavish set dressing that included real trees, exotic animals, and thousands of people. While an $18 million vantage point isn’t period-accurate, it will serve the same impulse that the Colosseum once did: to indulge fantasies. Ultimately, all restorations are works of fiction. While the Colosseum was a state-of-the-art facility in its time, boasting running water, an elaborate sun-shade mechanism, and marble facades, the recent renovations still serve an important function. They give us a better view of what we want—a beautiful ruin.

Originally Published in:

THE NETWORK / JANUARY – FEBRUARY 2022 – Amazing Buildings