As one of the most iconic buildings in the world, you’d forgive Rome’s Colosseum for being a little over-exposed. 6.4 million visitors last year alone, immortality on the five (euro) cent coin, a background role in countless Hollywood movies… you’d assume there isn’t a stone unturned.
Not content with simply unveiling new details like an 1,800-year-old gladiator bas relief as part of a 33-month deep clean (and an ongoing restoration project funded by fashion brand Tod’s), Roman authorities have now gone one step further. Earlier this month, the top level of the structure opened to visitors for the first time in 40 years. First restored in the 1800s, after centuries of inaccessibility, the floor had been forced to close due to safety concerns.
“It’s a unique view of the Flavian amphitheater and of the city, in a monument that’s the symbol of Italy to the wider world,” Italy’s culture minister Dario Franceschini told reporters when he previewed the site last month.
And so it is. Perched 130 feet above the arena floor, in the area where the “plebs” sat–the cheap seats, in other words, with restricted views of the action and precariously angled wooden benches rather than the stone seating on lower levels–the perspective from the quinto ordine, or fifth level, is unlike anything you’ve seen before—other than on a birds-eye view, panoramic postcard. There’s an intense sense of depth.
The amphitheatre seems more oval than ever. The tour groups at floor level, on a partially reconstructed stage, look like walking toothpicks. Away from the masses following the standard routes below, the skin starts to prick, and you can almost hear the roar of the crowds from 80 A.D., when it was first inaugurated. It’s a visceral experience.
And then there are the views: 270-degree panoramas that give a completely different take on Rome, turning away from the Forum and putting the spotlight on lesser known sights like the 2,023-year-old marble pyramid of Testaccio, gleaming after a recent renovation, and the defunct gasometro of Ostiense, which held gas for the city in the nineteenth century. Make sure to look out for the dome of the mini St. Peter’s at EUR, the business district built by Mussolini southwest of the city centre which meshes classical and Fascist architecture together. Closer by are the hills–the Caelium, Palatine, even the Gianicolo–suddenly at eye level. Olive trees, spindly pine, and cypresses dominate the landscape.
Only a small stretch of the fifth level exists today; the rest crumbled centuries ago. The restoration work to make this possible has cost Rome’s authorities €1.4 million ($1.6 million) and has unearthed far more than a new selfie spot. The visit—only possible via official guided tours in groups of up to 25—includes an access corridor, never before open to the public, with white plaster and traces of color uncovered during the restoration. The walls show blocks of travertine which were recycled after a devastating fire in 217 A.D., complete with notes scrawled on them in red by the men who quarried the stone in nearby Tivoli. Other bits and bobs—a piece of column here, a relief there—were upcycled from other places during the post-fire restorations. There are even remnants of the original toilets.
This isn’t the first time the Colosseum has opened a restricted area to visitors. Since 2010, the Sotterranei, Terzo Ordine, e Belvedere (underground, third level and lookout) tour has been popular with those in the know, taking visitors down into the bowels of the building to see the system of elevators and pulleys used to deliver animals and gladiators onto the stage, and finishing on the third level with its terrace overlooking the Forum.
But this, 50 feet higher up, is on another level, in more ways than one.
Back in the day, the fifth level was covered, sheltering the crowds from the fierce sun (and obscuring their view in the process). Today, it’s exposed to the elements, a mere few feet below the gulls who nest on the top ridges of the buildings.
HOW TO BOOK
Tours—in Italian, English, and Spanish, booked through coopculture.it or by calling +39 06 39967700—will start from the ‘Colosseo: Un’Icona’ exhibition on the second level, then wind their way up to the top “ring,” taking 75 minutes. Be warned that the steps are steep and purposely dark, as the lighting in the corridor has been set to mimic that of the flaming torches that used to light the way. The tour cost is $11 ($18 if you want to visit the underground part, too), plus the $14 entrance fee for the Colosseum. A small price to pay for setting foot where few people have been since the last show, in 523 A.D.