Heritage purists in combat at Coliseum

By Bruce Johnston in Rome

International News (UKTelegraph); Thursday 24 July 1997

ITALIAN government plans to build a bookshop in the facade of the Coliseum have angered purists and conservationists in Rome.

State radio said the shop would occupy one of the 80 remaining arches of ancient Rome's largest surviving monument, at a point in front of the Arch of Constantine.

As it stands today, the arched exterior of the Coliseum, built in AD 72-80 under Vespasian and Titus as the venue for games and gladiatorial combat, is unspoilt by any kind of commercial activity or shopfront.

The Fine Art Superintendency, spurred on by a 1993 law requiring "modern structures" to be installed in all museums and other state sites, to enable visitors "to be better informed," has awarded a public tender contract.

The deal to create and run a shop has gone to a subsidiary of the Mondadori publishing and bookselling giant, raising fears that the site may not only be an eyesore, but also very commercially oriented.

Intellectuals say the project will ruin the monument's aesthetic integrity and create a dangerous precedent. The architect Paolo Portoghesi was said to be interpreting the opinion of most architects, art historians and archaeologists when he expressed his perplexity at the project.

"I think it's a very good idea that there should be a bookshop," he said, "but I don't know that I'd put it there, where it would close off a barrel-vault.

"The whole Coliseum is part of these wonderful shadows behind the arches, and somenhow this would be destroyed if there was to be a plate-glass window." Athos De Luca, a Green Party senator, said: "The construction of the bookshop risks defacing the facade."

Adriano La Regina, the capital's Archaeological Superintendent, claimed there had been no choice, and said the project, which would enable the public to buy books, postcards and "things related to the monument" was a "very particular initiative".

The government promises that the structure will not be permanent. But the project, along with the colonisation of Rome by jeans shops and hamburger emporia, including a McDonalds which faces the Pantheon, suggests that the Eternal City is finally succumbing to modernity.

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