07/17/2014 12:15 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2014

Living History: Saving the Colosseum

Living History Show: Episode No. 2 Saving the Colosseum (on Vimeo).

"I've always dreamed of seeing the Colosseum, but I can't enjoy it because of all this scaffolding ..." a lament we hear more and more as the epic monument undergoes an even more epic clean up.

Who doesn't dream about seeing the Colosseum? The nearly 2000-year-old monument was the site of the Roman empire's amazing physical contests and setting for one of the most memorable movies from the 20th century: Ridley Scott's Gladiator starring Russell Crowe. But like every cultural heritage monument around the world, the Colosseum had succumbed to time, nature and pollution; it was in dire need of help.

In 2013, the Italian Ministry of Culture and Tourism implemented an innovative public- private partnership with luxury leather goods company Tod's, whose 38 million dollar donation funds an ambitious project involving more than just cleaning. Thanks to Dottoressa Rossella Rea of the Superintendency of Rome and Tod's Mariacristina Modenesi, I had the chance to see first hand what the project entails.

There are job sites, and then there are job sites. The so-called Colosseum Clean Up is the biggest scrub down in Italy and the mother of all scaffolding I've ever seen. From below, you'd need binoculars to see the workers diligently cleaning travertine blocks that constitute the amphitheater's arcades.

Up close is a different story. In one area, workers in plastic suits intensely direct water mist on travertine stone surfaces to loosen up accumulated grime and pollution. There is a network of water tubes, pumping loud and constant. The effect is like being on an oil rig. In another area, conservators are applying stucco to cracks and openings. A last minute touch up as the work nears completion and scaffolding is slated to be removed by the end of this week. Then, on to the next section.

I get to the top of the Colosseum. And when I say that, I mean beyond the nosebleed seats, the tippy top, the place where the sailors stretched out the awning to keep the viewers in the Colosseum in the shade on bright summer days. It is a surreal moment. I ask myself "Who will ever stand here again?" I am looking into the ancient world's largest amphitheater, at 50 meters, sharing the view only with Rome's seagulls. Size and scale are mind-blowing, and it is in this moment, again, that I realize more than ever how precious this monument is and how important it is to invest in heritage monuments.


Living History is a video project at the crossroads between history and travel.
Written by Darius Arya. Filmed and edited by Martin Wetherill (@travelagentm).