Provocative Objects / Spaces
8 June 2022 -
Welcome to the next edition of our Provocative Places and Objects blog series, in which our Ambassadors look more at places and spaces that challenge and confront us as design historians. This month, Alexandra Banister looks at the Colosseum in Rome, and discusses issues surrounding much-visited architectural sites of historical importance which were designed for inhumane purposes.
Construction of the Colosseum began under the Roman Emperor Vespasian in c.70CE, and was continued by his successors of the Flavian dynasty. As a public amphitheatre it was designed to hold tens of thousands of Romans, symbolising the strength of the Flavian leadership, providing a public stage for its politics, and promoting the power of the Roman Empire.
Unlike previous amphitheatre designs, which were built into hillsides to support the building, the Colosseum was innovative in its freestanding design. The complex scheme used a system of vaults and arches for structural support, as well as hundreds of columns in the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders. Perhaps the Colosseum’s most impressive feat of design was its retractable canvas velarium. When sun protection was required by spectators, hundreds of people were required to work machinery beneath the arena to extend and retract the velarium.
For over 500 years the Colosseum hosted gladiator fights to the death, executions of those who protested the Roman order, and other acts of inhumane persecution and animal cruelty for the entertainment of the Roman people. Its ruins are the emblem of the city and have been celebrated for centuries as a symbol of ancient history; for example, in the instantly recognisable scenes painted by the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme. It is also one of the top tourist attractions in the city, visited by around seven million people per year.
The Colosseum poses interesting ethical questions to design historians. This remarkable building tells us much about ancient building techniques and pioneering design. It also reveals to us the values and ways in which ancient Roman society functioned. But to what extent should such a stadium dedicated to violence, where nearly half a million people were killed for entertainment, be celebrated and iconised? Is a comparison of our view of human rights now applicable to those of former generations? How should those persecuted at the Colosseum be represented? Should we reconsider how we write about such places and histories, and whether sites of historic brutality should be opened to paying visitors?
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