Five hundred miles north of the Eternal City, on a sun-drenched Saturday in Budapest, I wasn’t expecting the Arch of Titus to pop up around the corner amid more local scenes of Magyar cowboys and Austrian archdukes. But there it was, hung in the Hungarian National Gallery as if the most natural thing in the world. Not the real thing of course - a painting done in 1860 by a Hungarian artist visiting Rome - but still such an intriguing find so very far away. The accompanying info panel took care to highlight the angle the Arch was painted from; not with the Colosseum behind, as is typical to create a more dramatic effect, but facing the humbler remains of the Forum with a caravan of merchants streaming through. It’s an interesting counterpoint to the typical all-consuming nature of the Colosseum; rarely throughout history has this monument not commanded full attention.
Rome wears her history on her sleeve, ancient monuments atop every craggy hill and down every winding cobblestone lane. But Budapest, despite being a city almost as antique in origin, and capital of not a few kingdoms and empires herself, is a city that feels less weighted down with past glories. Its most famous piece of architecture, the Hungarian Parliament, hadn’t even been conceived of in 1860; the Royal Palace that dominates the Danube and was then Budapest’s biggest landmark had already been reconstructed a half-dozen times and as it now stands only dates to the days of Kennedy and Khrushchev. So it is less shocking upon further inspection that a painter might forsake Budapest for Rome, what with the latter’s far greater proliferation of historical panoramas ripe for the canvas. Throughout Western history, as imperial capital, holy city, and aesthetic Eden, Rome has been looked to as a symbol of glory and of grandeur. It was the original tourist destination as the finale of aristocrats’ 18th century Grand Tour and that flood of visitors has hardly trickled since. The painting in Budapest? But one of a million relics across the world celebrating and immortalizing Rome in its own unique way.
This is all to say: when we look to Rome, alas, what we are looking at often eludes us. Through selfie sticks and Insta posts and Snapchat stories history is inevitably leached away, even from such icons as the Colosseum. We are far from alone in this. Even in mediaeval times, the original purpose of the Flavian Amphitheater was completely forgotten to the Frangipani who transformed Vespasian’s arena into an impregnable fortress. Just as modern tourists unfailingly feature Il Colosseo in the background of their vacation pics striving to look cool, look like true travelers with enviable lives, so too did the dynasties of yore fortify the Colosseum as a monument to their own power and superiority. There is, of course, a world of difference between mediaeval power brokers and today’s jet-setters; but the common thread is the perception of the Colosseum as exciting, as inspiring, as an icon with some undefinable je ne sais quoi to rub off evermore on every visitor. Vespasian inaugurated it as means to burnish his own image, and in ways both big and small it has done so for two millennia since.
For so many, standing atop the Colosseum’s highest belvedere, it was hard not to grin. So few of the untold numbers of visitors to the Colosseum ever make it past one or two lazy circuits of the main level; and to be quite literally on another level from them, to look out over the vast expanse of Rome from a whole new vantage, was a true thrill. Going back to that idea of the elision of meaning, though, I was suddenly reminded of this arena’s true raison d’être: killing. Estimates peg the number of deaths on the Colosseum’s sands between a quarter and a half million; as a place of mass murder, Rome’s most beloved icon would not be surpassed until the World Wars. So why do we treat this as such a wonderful space? So many dream their whole lives of seeing the Colosseum, and every day countless thousands smile within its walls. It speaks, perhaps, to the slow erosion of meaning over time; just as the Colosseum has been stripped of so many travertine and tufa blocks, so too has it been shorn of its true significance? By imbuing this landmark with so much power, by giving it such an iconic status, we have taken from it its ability to move us with the sheer tragedy of what happened inside these walls. Maybe that painter chose to exclude this building for good reason.
Then again, for the Romans? Perverse as it may seem to us now, this altar of violence was the absolute pinnacle of all their revelries. To the Caesars and to their generals, to the patricians and to the plebeians, all the way up to the wooden bleachers where the women craned to get a good view, this place was where all walks of life came together to have some fun. In that way, then, we 21st century folk may be carrying on the real meaning of the Colosseum, if often times without realizing it, and maybe then we haven’t lost our sense of history at all - the Colosseum is always and has forever been a good time.