It is said that for each day of the week there is a certain sense of moment that comes early in life and never leaves: a sound, a smell, a peculiar movement of pictures that forever identifies the day. Sunday: strewn inky newspapers, a roast heavy in the air, an emptiness that made you want to go to sea. Monday: cold early mornings, the reality of lunch bags waiting, the smell of blue starch, the creak of a clothesline. Saturday: banging of hammers, new wallpaper going up, grass burns on knees from the park. Then there was Friday: a day as black as an atheist's soul, people arguing over money, warnings about bones in the fish, simply trouble on the wind.
The only thing that saved Friday was Latin and a big grizzled old Christian Brother known as Caesar; he looked as bad as Friday itself. For him Latin was the only language, and Friday's class was his stage in the Latin week. His eyes no longer in this world, his arms flailing, whether making great scrawls on the blackboard or dramatizing Julio-Claudian emperors, he made the room quake, Latin live and Ancient Rome seem only a few blocks away. His finest hour, one that the glorious ham in him could not resist monthly, was the Colosseum, and when he was through, as the chalk dust settled on ground damp with blood, who could not feel the prospect of the next hour with sentence diagrams heavy on the heart?
For the more street-wise in the class, bets were that the only ruin the old tale-spinner had ever been near was the building in which he taught. As usual, they were wrong, for his fervor for the place had taken him there often. Like those with a passion for the styles and motivations of Civil War generals, or the esoterica of 17th century furniture, he never could get enough of the Colosseum. He knew every inch of it, felt every scene, but little did he know that big Hollywood budgets would one day leave a single image on the minds of those he taught as well as most of the public: Peter Ustinov sprawled on a bed of rose leaves and chewing sensually on some grapes.
Bosh! That might have been his only reaction to the show-biz touch, but blood surely would have risen to his brain—alarmingly so—at the latest revelations concerning the Colosseum. The news would also not sit well with the literati who have been struck nearly dumb by the Colosseum for centuries. Goethe said it was a "vision of beauty." Dickens called it solemn, grand, majestic and "the most mournful sight conceivable." And Matthew Arnold said he would remember it to the latest hour of his life. Less ecstatic, but just as firm, Cole Porter called it "the top," right up there with Napoleon brandy, cellophane and Mickey Mouse.
Gentlemen, the news is not good: the world's oldest stadium in the round, the only oval to seat 50,000 until the Yale Bowl was built, this most magnificent arena of pagan civilization, is in bad shape. Its condition came to light recently when Rome officials—for the first time that anyone could recall—closed down perhaps the planet's star antiquity. The action left tourists gaping from behind barricades and the more scholarly pondering warily the Venerable Bede's prediction made centuries ago. "When the Colosseum falls," said the great doctor of the church, " Rome will fall, and when Rome falls, the world will go also."
As far as anyone could tell, the world did not seem to mind much, but the Italians took it hard. It was more than their general good nature and patience could bear after a year of a dozen or so strikes, closed hotels and bars, no Sunday newspapers, a government shutdown and the usual bureaucratic malaise. Almost everyone had something to say. The Superintendent of Antiquities pointed to his pittance of a budget. Guides, souvenir hawkers and taxi drivers lounged on the perimeter of the ruin, complaining of no customers. And Fellini, when asked for a reaction, merely said: "Ahhhh," which in the Italian intonation means, "So what else is new?"
Danger to tourists from falling rocks, each weighing roughly 40 pounds, moved officials to action. An inspection team was sent in, and the prognosis was not cheerful. If the structure was not going to keel over soon, it was, as one official put it, "an old, old man who needs medical treatment." The report found that the place was sorely in need of attention, that loose pieces of stone were all over vaults and arches, that the masonry was cracking around the top and slabs of travertine were splitting off from the pressure of growing weeds. Up went the barricades, but not for long and not before a California millionaire reduced the plight of the Colosseum to a joke that amused some, angered others.
One Thomas Merrick, the Californian, sent an emissary to negotiate the purchase of the Colosseum. His agent, Fausta Vitali, was authorized to offer the Italian government $1 million for the ruin and a promise to spend another million for restorations. To recover his investment, Merrick would charge a stiff admission. The Rome daily Il Messaggero reacted with a headline AMERICA IS THINKING OF us over a cartoon showing the Colosseum as a baseball stadium, cinema and supermarket covered with neon signs and surrounded by skyscrapers. Unamused, Miss Vitali countered by saying that the whole thing was "like taking a child from an unfit mother." The official Italian face grew slightly crimson.
At the Education Ministry, always up to its neck in chaos, a press spokesman suggested that the Californian spend his money elsewhere; the ministry oversees all public monuments. "I understand," said a press aide, "he could get a very good Colosseum in gold on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence." But the situation was viewed seriously by the Corriere Della Sera, Italy's most influential newspaper. "A lesson we deserve," said the Milan daily, "but the indifference of our governing class is such that, tomorrow, faced with complete ruin, some paradoxically could regret not having accepted Mr. Merrick's offer."
Anxieties were relieved and public outcry quelled as the government finally rejected the offer and went about probing the serious dangers to the monument that draws half a million tourists a year. The dangers, of course, had been detailed repeatedly for the last 20 years by Gian Filippo Carettoni, Rome's Superintendent of Antiquities. The trouble is that too many hands are now pulling at the current crisis, which is quite real in view of Rome's heavy dependence on the tourist dollar. "We are getting so lost in chatter and polemics," says Mario Pastorelli of the Police Division of Dangerous Buildings, "that the Colosseum could fall down while we're here arguing."