ROME — For 500 years, the Colosseum was the biggest amphitheater in the Roman empire, hosting gladiator fights, executions and animal hunts. Then it fell into disrepair.
Now, nearly 2,000 years after it was built, the Colosseum is getting a new high-tech floor. Made of carbon fiber covered in sustainable wood, it promises to give visitors a gladiator’s view of Italy's most popular tourist attraction.
At the moment, the Colosseum’s underground system of tunnels is exposed, a remnant of 19th century archaeologists who unearthed the labyrinth of corridors that lay below the arena.
“The floor will be retractable through electrical mechanisms,” Fabio Fumagalli, an architect involved in the project, told NBC News. “This way we will be able to control the environmental conditions of the basement, and at the same time we will be able to show visitors the complex system of openings on the original floor plan.”
The Colosseum, which could host up to 70,000 people when it opened, drew around 7.6 million visitors in 2019, before the coronavirus struck.
When it was built in A.D. 80, the floor was made of wood and covered with sand. It was high-tech for its time, with moving parts and removable sections where gladiators and wild animals would pop up on stage through a complex system of elevators.
“The original floor of the Colosseum was highly innovative," said Andreas Steiner, editor-in-chief of Archeo, a monthly Italian magazine on archaeology and ancient history. "The whole arena was a symbol of the most advanced and expensive technology of the times."
This new floor will also break ground, technologically.
The wood and carbon fiber slats can be tilted 90 degrees to allow in light and reveal a glimpse of the tunnels underneath. Sections of it will be able to retract, sliding along runners and more fully exposing the warrens below that were once used as a backstage of sorts for the deadly shows and grand events in the arena, according to the Ministry of Culture.
The floor also aims to protect the arena’s foundations, which have been exposed to the elements for around 200 years. New ventilation units along the perimeter will help control the temperature and humidity of the underground rooms, and rainwater will be collected for use in the public toilets.
The idea of re-flooring the Colosseum was first proposed by the archaeologist Daniele Manacorda in an article published in Archeo in 2014. The proposal was embraced by the country's culture minister, Dario Franceschini, who called for engineers and architects to come forward with a plan. Recently the tender was won by Milan Ingegneria, an engineering firm, who will build the floor at a cost of $22 million.
“It is an interesting proposal, but we shouldn’t forget that the original floor wasn’t only used for games, but also a stage for violence and cruelty,” Steiner said. “Rebuilding the floor is a good idea, but I hope they will not use it to re-enact gladiator fights. It would be a tribute to death and violence.”
The new floor is due to be completed in 2023, and will allow for cultural events to once again take place inside the Colosseum, according to Franceschini.