di Marcello Mento
Rome, January 11 - The Colosseum is usually thought of as a blinding arena clad in shimmering white marble that set off the crimson-flecked violence of the killing floor. Only one locale, the gallery of the mad emperor Commodus - memorably played in Ridley Scott's Gladiator by Joaquin Phoenix - was known to have been decked in other colours. Until now, that is. Restorers at a mid-level tier of the ancient amphitheatre say they've found "a riot of colour" in many other niches and galleries. "They've uncovered complex decorations, floral patterns in polychrome glory including azure, ochre, pink and green," said the superintendent of the iconic Rome monument, Rossella Rea. "We've known since the 19th century that the Colosseum's white splendour was punctuated by square red plaster tiles, but we never expected to find such multi-hued decorations, a veritable riot of colour," she said. Alongside this "technicolour surprise," Rea went on, the restoration team also uncovered, underneath centuries of graffiti and visitors' signatures inscribed in the ancient stonework, "symbols of ancient machismo and blood lust as well as erotica including phalluses. "The Colosseum was full of colour, covered in frescoes," Rea said. Rea said the new decorations would 'hopefully be on view from next summer, joining the other new features the Colosseum has added, enhancing its timeless lustre'. The 2,000-year-old symbol of Rome, set for a 20-million-euro clean-up and restoration starting this year, recently expanded its range of tourist attractions when it opened up the underground pits where gladiators and wild beasts waited before being winched from darkness into the arena's cruel glare. The so-called 'hypogeum' (literally, 'under ground') was restored in a multi-million-euro project that also installed new, muted lighting effects. Rea said the hope was to have recaptured 'some of the atmosphere' of the breathless moments before the games commenced, when the armoured or naked fighters and the wild animals were hauled up through 80 trap-doors. The Colosseum or Flavian Amphitheatre (its proper name) attracts some four million visitors a year. Construction on the arena started between 70 and 72 AD under the Emperor Vespasian. It was completed in 80 AD by his son Titus, who financed the project from the booty his armies seized in the war against the Jews in 66-70 AD. Titus inaugurated it with 100 days of games including the recreation of a sea battle between Romans and Greeks. The father-and-son team - the so-called Flavian emperors - built their monument to Rome's grandeur in travertine stone before giving it the marble cladding that amazed contemporaries - and was still its crowning glory until generations of popes picked away at it for their own architectural testaments. "Hardly any of the marble is left now," Rea said, "but that loss has been partly compensated by the discovery of these stunning pictorial remnants, a secret trove of colour we never knew existed".