Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Fresco and graffiti discoveries at the Colosseum

I admit to being a few days late in covering this news, but what the hell.  Better late than never.

Work at Rome's Colosseum has revealed traces of previously undiscovered frescoes and graffiti.  I say 'work' because most media sources seem to have described the discovery as happening 'during restoration'.  Whether it actually was pure restoration (i.e. an attempt to restore something to its original appearance) that was happening rather than any other act of conservation such as the removal of accretions intended to preserve and stabilise the remains seems unclear.  But I digress into pickiness...

It seems that two things have been discovered - firstly evidence for formal paint schemes covering walls of a passageway leading to some of the lower class seating areas, and secondly graffiti that said lower class visitors have scratched into that paint scheme.

The decorative paint scheme raises interesting questions about the rest of the building, and to what extent such a paint scheme might have originally covered the iconic structure.  The presence of such a decorative scheme shouldn't surprise us, of course.  We have an odd tendency to see the past in monochrome and forget that many things were originally painted or gilded - classical statuary being a pertinent example.

The paint scheme in this instance seems to have been very fitting for the setting, with laurels, arrows, victory wreaths and even erotic scenes.  In case you're wondering why that last one is apt, there is certainly evidence to suggest that long days at the arena could lead to imaginative ways to kill time despite the crowds.  Although he was writing about a day at the chariot races, the 1st Century poet Ovid showed that his mind was on other than the spectacle,

"You, on the right, Sir - please be careful.
Your elbow's hurting the lady.

And you in the row behind - sit up Sir!
Your knees are digging into her back

My dear, your dress is trailing on the ground.
Lift it up - or there you are, I've done it for you

What mean material to hide those legs!
Yes, the more one looks the meaner it seems.

Legs like Atalanta,
Milanion's dream of bliss

A painter's model for Diana
running wilder than the beasts.

My blood was on fire before.  What happens now?
You're fuelling a furnace, flooding the Red Sea.

I'm sure that lightweight dress is hiding
still more delightful revelations.

But what about a breath of air while we wait?
This programme will do as a fan.

Is it really as hot as I feel? Or merely my imagination
fired by your sultry presence?"

The Colosseum isn't the first amphitheatre to reveal traces of paintings.  When the arena at Pompeii was first uncovered, a fresco running around the curtain wall was revealed, framing the action on the sand with images of fighters, referees and slave attendants.  Despite fading soon after discovery and now no longer visible, it clearly demonstrates how incomplete even the best of our surviving remains can be, and how major elements of the ancient experience can be lost to us.

The graffiti discovery is less of a surprise, considering how prevalent such scrawls are across the Roman world, and that an amphitheatre would seem a logical place for people to feel inspired to write on.  Although I haven't seen any detailed descriptions of what the graffiti consisted of, early reports have suggested palm fronds and crowns (symbols of victory) and the word 'VIND', referring to victory or revenge.  

It will be interesting to see what further details emerge as the current discoveries are further studied, and more of the area 'restored'.

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