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Rome to Rebuild Colosseum’s Ancient Retractable Floor

By Sarah Buder

May 3, 2021

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In ancient Rome, the Colosseum’s underground network of tunnels, ramps, and lifts was hidden beneath a wooden, sand-covered arena floor.

Photo by AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis, file

In ancient Rome, the Colosseum’s underground network of tunnels, ramps, and lifts was hidden beneath a wooden, sand-covered arena floor.

Italian officials have plans to restore a key element of the ancient amphitheater, a floor devised by the Romans to conceal an underground network of tunnels and cages during the gladiator era.

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Ancient Rome’s Colosseum hosted grisly gladiator clashes, battle re-enactments, and other (often violent) public spectacles for crowds of more than 50,000 onlookers. To facilitate a suspenseful show, the Romans devised a network of tunnels, ramps, and lifts hidden beneath the amphitheater’s wooden, sand-covered floor. This underground labyrinth, called the hypogeum, allowed for competing fighters, performers, and caged animals to emerge by surprise onto the expansive arena floor.

Nearly 2,000 years after it was constructed, little remains of the Colosseum’s original arena floor. (It was removed in the 1800s for archaeological digs on the hypogeum, which is almost entirely exposed currently.) Now, however, the Italian government plans to renovate the ancient landmark with a historically accurate recreation of its retractable floor, allowing visitors to experience the UNESCO World Heritage site as it was in its gladiator-era glory.

Italy’s culture minister Dario Franceschini announced on Sunday, May 2, a 18.5 million euro (US$22 million) contract to build and install the retractable structure. Italian officials hope to complete the work by 2023.

The new, retractable floor will be designed to open and close above the hypogeum to reveal the trapdoors, lifts, and other engineering elements used in the original Colosseum. The renovation will also allow visitors to stand in the center of the ancient arena, offering an incredible view of the amphitheater’s surrounding 157-foot-tall walls.

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Once the landmark’s retractable floor is installed, the Roman arena will also be used to stage concerts and theater, Colosseum officials say. The project is reversible, meaning it can be removed if plans for the Colosseum change in the future.

While visitors will have to wait a few more years to see this new project finalized, the Colosseum reopened to the public on April 26, after a 41-day closure because of rolling coronavirus pandemic restrictions. Visitors are limited to 1,260 per day and must follow a one-way itinerary as part of COVID-19 safety measures. Prepandemic, as many as 25,000 people visited the landmark a day in 2019.

Travel to Italy is still currently heavily restricted due to the pandemic, but American travelers who have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19 may soon enter the European Union, the head of the European Commission said on April 25.

The Associated Press contributed reporting. This article was originally published on January 5, 2021; it was updated with new information on May 3, 2021.

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