on the cooling ashes of the great fire of Rome (64
A.D.), the emperor Nero's Domus aurea—or
Golden House—was truly a marvel to behold.
The palace and grounds covered four of the seven
hills of Rome and included such wonders of engineering
and artistry as an atrium large enough to contain
a colossal 120-foot bronze statue of the sun god
Helios (who suspiciously resembled the emperor himself),
a dining room with a revolving ceiling, pipes that
misted the air with perfume and a triple colonnade
more than a mile long. A master of artifice, of
visual spectacles, Nero re-organized and recreated
local flora and fauna in order to create beautiful,
novel views. Illusionistic fresco paintings of birds,
plants and mythological scenes brought walls and
ceilings to life, open fields were transformed into
shady woods stocked with exotic animals and an entire
valley was flooded to make a lake as big as a sea.
On the shores of this mock sea, the fanciful facades
of miniature buildings simulated a port city and
provided the perfect backdrop for the mock naval
battles that Nero staged for his own entertainment.
colossal megalomaniac with an insatiable appetite
for self-aggrandizing forms of pleasure, Nero put
more time and (even more) money into producing the
artificial mini-empire of his Domus aurea
than in wisely governing the real empire smoldering
just beyond his gaze. Even back then, 2000 years
before the Hearst Castle, Hollywood and the Las
Vegas strip, such man-made spectacles required a
big budget. To pay for the views he liked best,
Nero instigated a policy of terror that involved
the systematic execution of just about anyone with
either large sums of money or serious designs on
his throne. He even murdered his two wives and mother
when they no longer fit into the picture he was
so determined to make—and watch.
the cruelty that went on behind the scenes—and
despite the fact that the Senate declared him an
enemy of the state—it is still oddly appropriate
that the most public of buildings in Rome, the Colosseum,
got its name from Nero. Or more precisely, from
the colossal statue of Nero-Helios which, years
after his death, migrated from the Domus aurea
to a spot just in front of the spectacular
new Flavian amphitheater. This name is fitting because
Nero was, at least for a time, extremely popular
with the Roman people. And like any emperor who
wanted to remain emperor, Nero understood that political
value was synonymous with entertainment value. He
knew that, even more than bread, the Romans craved
circuses. Entertain them, make them a part of the
spectacle that is Rome and you'll win their vote.
People will believe the evidence before their eyes.
least until his own ego got the better of him, Nero
kept the people happy by sponsoring spectacles in
the public arena, which were about as amazing as
his Domus aurea: artistic and gymnastic
competitions, chariot races, gladiatorial combats,
wild animal hunts and—as in his own artificial
lake—staged sea battles with miniature boats.
To woo and wow the demanding Roman spectators with
more than potentially monotonous games and gratuitous
bloodshed, Nero spiced up his shows with feats of
technical wizardry. It is said that, in the course
of a single day, he first staged a hunt in the arena,
then flooded it for a sea battle, then drained it
again for gladiatorial combats and then flooded
it once more to give the people a banquet on-board
ship. Talk about set design and special effects!
Nero was more than a master of ceremonies and special
effects. He was also a participant, an actor on
the stage of the amphitheater's micro-empire. Though
he avoided real battles, he frequently competed
in chariot races, always took first prize (even
for games in which he didn't compete!) and strongly
encouraged bewildered senators to do the same. If
he wouldn't share the glory, what Nero did share
with the crowds was a passion to play a part in
the spectacle. It was a right any Roman citizen
would not be denied.
arena, theater complex, zoological garden, courtroom,
execution chamber, city hall—the Roman amphitheater
was a multi-functional structure that has no equivalent
today. People didn't go to the amphitheater
just to be entertained, as we mostly do when we
switch on the virtual amphitheater of television.
They went because it was a public duty and, especially
in the case of the gladiator fights (intended as
offerings to the gods), a sacred rite. They went
to witness the public execution of slaves and Christians.
They went to shout the names of gladiators and decide
their fame or fate with a "thumbs up"
or a "thumbs down." They went to gamble
on other people's lives and to have a good time.
They went to demand a reduction in taxes and to
express their opinion of the emperor. They went
for the novelty of seeing a pseudo volcano erupt
or to have their emotions roused by a fight between
a python and a bear. They went for the fiction as
much as for the carnage, suspending their disbelief
as actors really died. They went to behold and bespeak
the vast power of the Roman Empire and, in turn,
were empowered themselves.
that was a long, long time ago. Or was it?
you visit Nero's Domus aurea in
Rome today, as I did last summer, don't forget to
bring your imagination; for this amazing private
pleasure-dome on the top of the Celian hill is now
nothing more than a series of cold, dark caverns
stripped bare of ornament, illuminated by a few
spotlights and faded fragments of fresco paintings.
Thanks to the well-planned eclipse of Trajan, the
views of ancient lakes, vineyards, wilderness and
sky enjoyed by Nero are now hidden behind heavy
brick walls and ceilings. Courtyards once filled
with fresh air and sunlight are now completely buried
in dirt—the foundation the emperor Trajan
needed to build his extensive baths and to smother
the memory of his notorious predecessor. Vespasian
and Titus had the same idea years before, when they
built their colossal amphitheater on the site of
Nero's artificial lake as a gift of good will to
the Roman people.
public spectacles die a lot harder than private
fantasies. Outside the empty caves of the Domus
aurea, in the same valley where waters
once rippled in imitation of the open sea, the Colosseum
is still a sight for eager eyes. After 500 years
of games and 1,500 years of pilfering, squatting,
earthquakes and neglect, this architectural masterpiece
seems at first glance just a skeleton of its glorious
former self. Gone (to the Vatican) is most of the
travertine that originally covered its surface.
Gone are the boxes and bleachers that both joined
and divided up to 70,000 people by gender and class.
Gone is the enormous, sailor-operated velarium,
or awning, that protected spectators from the elements.
Gone are the fantastic sets, the ropes and pulleys,
the marble statues of the gods and the bronze Colossus
of Nero. Gone are the hundreds of thousands of animals
and human beings, which were sacrificed and then
carried out through the still-standing door of death.
for some strange and powerful reason, this vacant
temple to the twin gods of power and entertainment
is just as alive now as it was in the ancient past.
And it's not only because of the millions of tourists
who visit the Eternal City's greatest landmark from
every corner of the globe each year—though
these are certainly the most obvious. This sense
of vitality is also due to the recent efforts of
Italian and international organizations to revive
the slumbering spirit of the ancient edifice and
instill it with new meaning.
the day I last visited, the partially rebuilt Colosseum
floor was being prepared for a theatrical production
of Oedipus Rex, the first of many
high-priced artistic events (concerts, literary
prizes, fashion shows) that will now animate the
arena at night. On other more somber and sobering
evenings, the Colosseum lights up in silent protest
of the death penalty, a practice that contemporary
Italians view as today's equivalent to the cruel
and inhuman executions of ancient Rome. In May,
the Pope gave a memorial prayer service in honor
of Jubilee 2000 and of all the Christian martyrs
who were persecuted and killed during the Roman
Empire. A few months later, and quite in contrast
(or conflict) to the Pope, thousands of Gay Pride
marchers stopped in front of the Colosseum and shouted
"Victory is ours!" With a little enhancement
from the media, this otherwise empty shell, this
ancient theater of wonder and death, has transformed
into a powerful symbol of human rights and equality.
about its colossal entertainment value? Aren't Italian
filmmakers taking advantage of the revival of the
real Colosseum and its cinematic counterpart to
set their movies in history's most awesome arena?
It doesn't look that way. But why? To put it simply,
if Rome wasn't built in a day, it wasn't rebuilt
on a dollar, either. In box-office terms, Italian
filmmakers couldn't afford the kind of colossal
budget required to effectively recreate the spectacles
that took place in the Colosseum—even with
the authentic backdrop. Italians couldn't afford
to make a film like this year's blockbuster, Gladiator.
Even Spartacus would be a stretch.
to Ridley Scott's $100 million, computer-enhanced
Colosseum, what remains of the actual arena seems
about as spectacular as the partial replica built
for Gladiator, now being dismantled
under the Maltese sun. No matter how much they've
helped to animate our collective imagination, the
crumbling monuments of history cannot compete with
their cinematic clones. This is especially true
now that we've entered the virtual era of computer-generated
imagery. On the screen, as in the Roman Empire,
what we see is what we believe. Reality (tangible,
historic, flesh-and-blood) is only part of the equation,
and not necessarily the most significant part. Paradox
or not, today we need the virtual—in increasing
quantities—to make reality seem more powerful
and authentic. Just compare the sets and sword fights
of Gladiator to those of earlier films
like Spartacus (1960) or The Fall
of the Roman Empire (1967), and you'll
see what I mean.
order to bring the Colosseum (and its vast urban
jungle) back to life on the screen, director Ridley
Scott's team combined actual or constructed sets
and heart-beating extras with virtual ones, thus
enhancing and replicating the "real" to
make it look more real to modern eyes. On the Mediterranean
island of Malta (much more controllable than present-day
Rome), a visually accurate replica of a portion
of the Colosseum was built. This physical fragment
was then extended and embellished with computer-generated
travertine tiers, marble statues and the gigantic
canvas awning. Beyond the amphitheater, the partially
constructed sets of the Forum, the emperor's palace
and the Senate antechamber were filmed in front
of blank screens, which were later filled in with
a seemingly infinite number of CGI edifices. With
megabytes in the place of marble and stone, today's
movie screens project the sweeping, panoramic vastness
of the city of Rome, now the virtual symbol of an
even more virtual empire.
a similar act of replication, the Gladiator-makers
began by filming a couple thousand extras performing
a variety of enthusiastic, crowd-like gestures.
Later, this mini-crowd was mapped and multiplied
in the CGI arena in order to create the illusion
of the Colosseum's virtual "sell-out"
crowd. The result was an enthusiastic "thumbs-up"
from the movie-going masses, who rushed to join
the Colosseum's virtual spectators in movie theaters
around the globe. Anyone who's seen the film knows
why the toga-wearing crowds were shouting the name
of Russell Crowe's character—"Maximus!
Maximus!" But were last summer's movie crowds
(today's video audience) cheering for the virtual
Rome or for the real drama, for the technical wizardry
or for the human heroes and the timeworn myths?
I stood in line for an hour at the ticket booth
and watched jubilant tourists, wielding crisp dollar
bills, have their picture taken with tanned gladiators
and their Styrofoam shields, I wondered to myself
why we were all there. Was it to see—and understand?—such
a historic place with our own eyes or to leave with
a photograph of ourselves in it? Were we there for
the reality or the fiction, for the mute stones
or for the vivid cinematic images of Russell Crowe
battling tigers and chariots in front of thousands
of "thumbs-up" cyber-spectators? Were
we cheering for the martyrs or the movie stars,
the block builders or the blockbusters? Is ours
a real or a virtual amphitheater?
also wondered why I couldn't spot any contemporary
Romans in the crowds.
since Hollywood took over the making of cinematic
spectacles such as Gladiator in the
early years of film history, Italy has not been
part of the big commercial picture. This seems strange
when you consider that Italians actually inaugurated
the historic, or epic, genre with films like Enrico
Guazzoni's Quo Vadis (1912), which
featured vast three-dimensional sets and thousands
of extras, and Giovanni Pastrone's influential mix
of fiction and fact, Cabiria (1913).
Set predominantly in Carthage during the Second
Punic War, Cabiria stirred the imaginations
of early movie-goers and filmmakers (D. W. Griffith)
alike with its big-scale, authentic recreation of
ancient wonders and wars: elaborate costumes, blazing
battle fires, live elephants, villas complete with
mosaics, frescoes and marble floors and the memorable
130-foot-high Temple of Moloch, now on view at Turin's
new Museum of Film History.
took real wars to snuff these historic flights of
fancy. While togas and temples gathered dust in
the studio, filmmakers such as Rossellini, De Sica
and Visconti turned their cameras to the personal,
social and political dramas taking place right before
their eyes. In films like Roma citta' aperta
(Rome, Open City, 1945)
and Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle
Thieves, 1948), Rome and its heroic people
take the place of costumed actors and costly sets
inspired by places faraway and long ago. This realistic
style of cinema, which with a touch of comedy continues
to dominate Italy's filmmaking scene, is certainly
cheaper than an epic super-production like Gladiator.
But it could also be considered more powerful and
enduring because of its attention to (real) time
and (real) place.
their strong tradition of cinematic realism (even
Fellini's bawdy portrait of Neronian times, Satyricon,
feels like live theater after seeing Gladiator),
I doubt that Italians will ever return to the kinds
of spectacles they started out with—either
in film or in Roman history. In Italy, the pull
of reality—pasta, politics, evening promenades—is
just too strong. After spending the past 15 years
traveling between Italy and the United States, it
is my sense that Italians are far too busy living
(and enjoying) life to watch it being lived by others
on a screen. Why else would all but a few indoor
movie theaters close for the entire summer, which
is America's biggest box-office season? Why else
would the streets of Rome or Florence fall silent
(except for the pitter-patter of tourists' sneakers)
during August holidays, three-hour lunch breaks
and Sunday afternoon soccer matches?
fact that I found posters and ads for Gladiator
throughout Italy last summer is a detail that shouldn't
be ignored. Nor should the fact that I myself saw
this film, along with a couple hundred Italians,
in Lucca's open-air cinema, located just around
the corner from the city's Roman amphitheater. Despite
some evidence to the contrary, when it comes to
big-budget spectacles, even contemporary
Romans turn their thumbs down to history and enthusiastically
hail Crowe and Cruise, Scott and Spielberg. Not
to mention Calista Flockhart and Sarah Michelle
Gellar. It's still shocking to me that 90 percent
of all films watched by Italians, and a good portion
of their television programs, are American productions—all
of which are dubbed, for that extra dose of verisimilitude.
Personally, I have a hard time believing Meg Ryan
as an Italian. But then again, I don't need help
imagining America—I live here. The truth is
that when Italians want a sense of community, of
national or civic pride, they go for a walk through
historic streets or switch on the TV at match time.
They vote. But if it's pure entertainment they're
after, they generally don't go looking for Rossellini,
Fellini, Antonioni or even Benigni.
does anyone else. When we, the virtual spectators
of the world, want to be wowed in complete safety
and silence, without the threat of death or any
sense of responsibility, either personal or collective,
we go to the movie theater to see the latest (usually
American) super hit. Here, in this dark and wonderful
place, surrounded by sounds that make us feel like
we're a part of the action, we watch gladiators
fight and die heroically. We watch ships sink and
planets explode as beautiful prostitutes tame egocentric
millionaires into virtuous pussycats. Or we stay
at home and join the virtual crowds in front of
ER and Buffy the Vampire Slayer,
surfing channels or the web during commercials.
In this way, we feel, sort of, connected.
you find yourself yearning to be a part of a real
crowd again, just fly to Las Vegas. Here, in a place
that is more like a development of pseudo-places,
a global mirage, you'll see spectacles as awesome
as those once found in Rome—including Rome
itself. When you get there, check into Caesar's
Palace, a hotel fit for a modern-day emperor. Relax
after your trip with a bath in the enormous, man-made
pools. Have your emotions stirred at the roulette
wheel or the slot machines. If luck is in your favor,
buy a ticket for Siegfried and Roy's exotic white
tiger show. In the afternoon, stroll up and down
"The Strip" with thousands of others past
the pyramids of Egypt, the canals of Venice, the
Eiffel Tower and the Brooklyn Bridge. Stop at the
Mirage to watch the life-like volcano erupt (every
15 minutes) to choreographed music and lighting
and then dine on the ship at Treasure Island, as
swashbuckling pirates try to steal your gold.
you get back to the palace, head strait for the
Roman Forum (of Shops), where a painted sky turns
from dawn to dusk above the fashion gods of Nike,
Armani and Banana Republic. Nero would be so envious.