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Plans to restore crumbling Colosseum cause rumblings in Rome

The Colosseum in Rome, pictured December 2010, when Diego Della Valle of luxury brand Tod's put in a bid to restore the site.

Story highlights

  • Plans to restore ancient Roman Colosseum meet with anger from Italian Restorers Association
  • Restorers allege privately-funded plans will use non-specialist builders to clean and restore amphitheater
  • Colosseum Director refutes claim, says restoration project is hiring architectural restorers, "not just workmen."
  • Monument in need of funds and protection measures including cessation of car traffic around it

It sits in the ancient heart of Rome and is an emblem of the city's imperial history as well as an icon of Italy.

But plans to restore Rome's nearly 2,000-year-old Colosseum are causing rumblings among heritage workers and restorers, compounded by reports in December that small amounts of powdery rock had fallen off the monument.

The current $33 million (25 million euro) restoration plans to restore the Flavian amphitheater, which once hosted spectacular shows and gruesome gladiatorial battles, are being sponsored by Diego della Valle, of luxury Italian brand Tod's, in exchange for advertising rights.

Restoration of the monument, which attracts up to two million visitors a year, is due to go ahead in March and will involve cleaning of the travertine exterior, the restoration of underground chambers, new gating, the moving of visitor service stations to an area outside of the building itself and increased video security.

But members of the Restorers Association of Italy are unhappy about the plans, which they believe has sidelined them in favor of non-specialist restorers and which "run the risk of causing irreparable damage to the monument," according to the group's President, Carla Tomasi.

"Having some of the best restorers in the world in Italy and yet turning to general enterprises is a choice that we do not share, and embarrasses both our work and the image of our nation in the world, in addition to causing risks to the monument," Tomasi said.

A ruling given late December 2011 by Italy's Council of State in favor of the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities is however allowing the restoration plans to go ahead.

"Italian law states that restorers can restore things like statues, ceramics, mosaics and decorative surfaces but not architecture," said Rossella Rea, Director of the Colosseum, adding that the workers employed to do the restorations are in fact "specialized in architectural restoration, they're not just ordinary workmen."

Rea was also quick to stress that the reports of the Colosseum crumbling were false and that only 8cm of tuff -- a porous rock formed by consolidation of volcanic ash -- had come off, something "that happens all the time to monuments."

But she also added that the Colosseum has suffered in recent years from underfunding caused by government cuts and that the revenue from ticket sales only covers the yearly upkeep of the city's ancient sites, which include the nearby Forum and Palatine.

Sponsorship, though difficult to obtain owing to sponsors having to pay VAT on donations, is much-needed.

Sneska Quaedvlieg-Mihailovic is Secretary General of Europa Nostra, an organization dedicated to protecting cultural heritage in Europe.

She said, "We at Europa Nostra and anyone dealing with heritage would say that it's wonderful to have private companies and individuals wanting to support heritage at a time when public budgets are being cut."

But she also warned against governments across Europe loosening restrictions on restoration work in the current economic climate, and of privately funded restoration plans not complying with strict guidelines.

And while the current Colosseum project aims to improve visitor services in addition to cleaning and restoring the amphitheater, Quaedvlieg-Mihailovic believes that its underlying problems also need to be addressed -- the main one being the car traffic that surrounds the site and causes the exterior to be tarnished with pollution.

"You can do wonderful restoration works but you haven't yet tackled the things that will continue to cause damage and this is an issue at the level of the urban management of the city," she said.

"It's a problem that's been discussed with the City of Rome for many years," said Rea, adding that she hopes that with the building of a new subway stop near the Colosseum, the roads around the site will be closed to cars -- though heritage workers have long complained that vibrations from the nearby subway trains are also damaging the building.

It's an ongoing struggle, Rea said, but one she hopes will eventually be successful.

After all, it's only been 60 years since people parked their cars inside the amphitheater.