The Mona Lisa? Meh. Colosseum, that’s a different story

Many wonders of the world prove to be a disappointment. Parisians are all too familiar with the glassy-eyed “Is that it?” glare of a tourist, squinting at the Mona Lisa for the first time. Indeed, every year, Japanese tourists are hospitalised with Paris Syndrome, a psychological disorder induced by extreme disappointment when the city of light fails to live up to the hype.

Actually great: the Colosseum early in the morning.Credit: iStock

Visiting Rome for the first time this week, I was primed for a let-down: “You can miss the Colosseum – it’s exactly how you’d imagine,” one friend warned. I didn’t quite emulate the American tourist who sighed “Gee, couldn’t they be bothered to finish it?” but I was braced for a building less impressive for being a ruin. Gazing at the symphony of arches, the opposite was true. The Colosseum is impressive precisely because it is a ruin, surviving on a breathtaking scale despite the ravages of centuries.

Across the Eternal City, humans, animals and newer buildings live within the shadow of ruins. The ancient chariot-racing stadium, the Circus Maximus, now hosts large public concerts. A cat sanctuary squats upon the subterranean remains of the spot where, in 44 BC, conspirators stabbed Julius Caesar 23 times outside the Theatre of Pompey. A sign piteously implores visitors not to feed the cats; “We do so every day.” Still, the feline occupants looked suspiciously plumy and well-upholstered; suggestive of more than one Six Dinners Severus.

The Basilica of San Clemente was another highlight. Beneath its unassuming facade lie layers of history; a Roman house, a Mithraic temple, an early basilica and a modern church stacked on top of each other. Only in Rome does the past press down with such sonorous weight.

Let’s not get too misty-eyed; the Colosseum was built by slaves and funded by loot from the first Temple in Jerusalem. But the Romans also had a grand vision, a supreme confidence which remains profoundly humbling, even when reduced to rubble. (Alright, but APART from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health… What have the Romans ever done for us?)

It vividly contrasts with the apathy of modern Rome. The restoration works on the Tomb of Augustus – the first Roman emperor – have been near-static since 2017; even minor tramway repairs are stalled.

This a not a purely Italian malady: London remains a monument to Victorian genius and modern folly. If some tourists are underwhelmed by the Colosseum, try putting them on a train out of Euston or showing them the Shard.

Our forefathers didn’t just revel in magnificence and scale but minute detail, injecting beauty and humour into everyday sights; from Sicily’s lion door-knockers to the Renaissance water fountain we spotted just off the Vatican, shaped like an old man watching his barrel leak away, forever.

The Victorians did gorgeous utility; opulent warehouses, sewage pumping-stations of ecclesiastical splendour. Even shabby Edwardian terraces often boast ornate fireplaces, suggesting a love of “beauty for its own sake”. It is new-build nothingness that saps the life out of things. What will our era bequeath to future generations that’s beautiful, let alone impressive?

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