‘Nothing Vulgar’: Commercializing Classical Monuments


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Ah, Italy: land of Roman and Etruscan ruins, Venetian palazzi, various medieval towers (both leaning and non-leaning), Versace, Bulgari and Maserati. The very mention of the country’s name conjures up images of style, design and a life in which the casual sipping of limoncello in an Amalfi Coast villa is de rigueur (or perhaps di rigore?).

Maintaining historic treasures doesn’t come cheaply, though, and in September the Italian government began seeking out a corporate sponsor to help fund renovations of perhaps the best-known Italian monument: Rome’s Colosseum. Concerned that ‘much of central Rome is beginning to look like Times Square,’? high-profile individuals from government and private enterprise called for the sponsorship to be done ‘tastefully,’? ‘very subtly’? and with nothing ‘vulgar.’? This week, Italian leather goods brand Tod’s has stepped forward with an offer of ‘?¬¨25 million to ‘completely renovate’? the Colosseum.

Is this an appropriate brand match? A grand, 2,000-year-old edifice that is the pride of Rome, and a cash-flush Italian luxury brand that has already underwritten two years of productions at La Scala, Milan’s venerable opera house?

As a classicist, I can’t help but be bemused at the kind of sterile veneration we give these ancient monuments. ‘Tasteful?’? ‘Subtle?’? ‘Nothing vulgar?’? Turn back the clock to 80 AD, and the Colosseum was a scene of carnage on a grand scale. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator only hinted at the horror: at the Colosseum’s opening, 5,000 ‘beasts’? ‘ wild animals brought in from Asia and Africa ‘ were said to have been slaughtered.  Usually fighting to the death, gladiators swore the oath ‘I will endure to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword.’? In this violent, blood-soaked milieu, Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto would seem a more appropriate brand match for the Colosseum than a luxury handbag designer.

But time and culture inevitably evolve, and the Colosseum is no longer the scene of bloody battles. Elegantly backlit in the Roman night, it has all the romance we have come to associate with ancient ruins that have been divorced from their original uses. It is the perfect backdrop for a passeggio, or evening stroll – designer handbag in hand.

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