The crumbling Colosseum is undergoing a major restoration thanks to a private benefactor, writes Josephine McKenna.
It has withstood battles and bloodshed, fires and earthquakes, the ritual slaughter of slaves and the appearance of Paul McCartney and Elton John. The Colosseum has survived the rise and fall of the Roman Empire yet its future depends largely on the largesse of a shoemaker.
"There's not much time to do the work," says Diego Della Valle, who is financing the $38-million restoration of Rome's most popular monument. "Pieces are literally falling off."
After almost three years of delays, the two-and-a-half-year project began in December. The world's most famous amphitheatre is now barely recognisable, with its northern façade wrapped in scaffolding.
Della Valle, the Italian-born billionaire founder of the Tod's luxury leather goods company, says he is motivated by his "desire to protect and promote Italian culture". He is one of a number of entrepreneurs investing millions to restore Italy's crumbling historic sites in exchange for high-profile promotion.
This has sparked heated debate in Italy; consumer group Codacons lost a legal challenge last year in which it claimed the project's bidding process lacked transparency and gave too many concessions to Della Valle. An appeals court ruled Codacons was "not entitled" to bring the action.
The contract gives Tod's the right to use the Colosseum's logo for promotional purposes for up to 15 years and to add its brand name to visitor tickets. The company has repeatedly insisted it will not plaster the exterior with advertising hoardings.
More than five million tourists a year visit the largest amphitheatre of the Roman Empire, begun under Emperor Vespasian in AD70 and completed 10 years later. "The Colosseum is the most important symbol of Italy and presents the country in the best way to the world," Della Valle told foreign journalists in December. "In Italy, we lack the means to restore the country's heritage."
His plan has the overwhelming support of Rome's city council and the nation's culture officials, who are struggling to protect Italy's crumbling heritage with ever-diminishing public funds.
For some time archeologists have expressed concern about the degradation of the crumbling monument and raised questions about fractures in the façade and the impact of pollution on its surface. Chunks of masonry and stone have fallen from various parts of the structure in the past couple of years; last year a metal barrier was installed around the outside to protect the public. And there is ongoing debate about whether vibrations from traffic and the nearby subway have caused the southern side of the amphitheatre to subside.
Four storeys of scaffolding have been erected in the first stage of the project and will be shifted around the monument over a period of 900 days - two and a half years - as the entire façade is cleaned and repaired.
Restoration experts in overalls and hard hats can be seen gently scrubbing the charcoal-coloured travertine surface to remove "black rust" - a minestrone of algae, fungus, pollen and traffic fumes - and return the monument to its original creamy colour.
The next phase will include construction of 69 new steel gates around the monument, a new visitors' centre in the piazza outside and the restoration of the underground cells, or hypogeum, where gladiators and savage beasts were kept before being winched into the arena. About a quarter of the Colosseum's subterranean area has already been restored and is open to visitors.
Della Valle sees his restoration project as a "strong signal for stronger investment" by the private sector in restoring and maintaining cultural heritage; Italy has the largest number of UNESCO heritage sites in the world.
The idea has already occurred to several entrepreneurs. Renzo Rosso, the founder of the Diesel clothing empire, is spending $7.6 million to restore the Rialto Bridge in Venice, with the right to cover 30 per cent of the restoration site with advertising billboards.
The Fendi fashion house is footing the bill for the restoration of Rome's Trevi Fountain. And the Japanese clothing tycoon Yuzo Yagi has invested $1.5 million to clean and restore the city's last remaining pyramid, built in 12BC as a mausoleum for a leading dignitary after the Romans conquered Egypt.
Rome's mayor, Ignazio Marino, has been a vigorous campaigner to save the Colosseum - he braved criticism by restricting traffic around the monument soon after he took office last year - and defends Della Valle's involvement. "In other countries initiatives like the Colosseum project are the order of the day," Marino told GT. "As the custodian of the world's greatest cultural heritage, it would be incomprehensible if Italy did not do all that it could."