STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Every few decades, wherever you may live, people build a new stadium or renovate an old one. It's nearly the same in Rome where the Colosseum is getting a makeover after a couple thousand years. This was the biggest arena in the ancient world, so huge that in later centuries, people took tons of stone from it, turning it into a quarry to build things like palaces for popes. And yet most of the Colosseum is still there. Now a restoration will let visitors see it a little more like it was. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli had a look.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Before the pandemic hit 14 months ago, Rome's ancient Colosseum was Italy's most popular tourist site - 7.6 million people visited in 2019. Today, the massive arena stands quiet and forlorn. Mass tourism has not yet returned. Nevertheless, the Italian government has ambitious plans. It's approved a $20 million high-tech floor that will lie where gladiators once met in mortal combat. The plan calls for a flexible platform of hundreds of slats that can rotate like window blinds to allow natural light into the underground chambers. Culture Minister Dario Franceschini calls it an extraordinary combination of rational conservation and technological innovation.
DARIO FRANCESCHINI: (Speaking Italian).
POGGIOLI: "Visitors will be able to walk in the center of the Colosseum," adds Franceschini, "seeing it the way visitors did in past centuries." And it will host high-quality cultural events such as classical concerts and plays. The arena was built in 80 AD by the Emperor Titus. Its four arched stories held 80,000 spectators in a city of 1 million. Seating was according to social class and gender. Women were relegated to the top tiers so as not to be disturbed by men during the raucous spectacles. Gladiators were mostly prisoners of war and enslaved people who fought exotic animals from across the Roman Empire, as well as each other. Their fate depended on a collective gesture of the Roman crowd, either a thumbs up or thumbs down. And although there's no historical documentation that Christians were martyred inside the arena, it's precisely that image as a place of slaughter and brutality that Italian authorities want to reverse. At the moment, just one small section covers the underground chambers. It was installed 21 years ago for a one-time performance of Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex." Giovanna Melandri was culture minister at the time.
GIOVANNA MELANDRI: We are giving back to its theatrical function, this great monument, but no blood and no cruelty but culture and art.
POGGIOLI: Italy depends heavily on tourism and hopes visitors will soon return to see its many cultural and natural beauties. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Mario Draghi announced that as of mid-May, tourists who have been vaccinated or recovered or tested for COVID-19 can enter Italy with no quarantine.
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PRIME MINISTER MARIO DRAGHI: So it's time for you to book your holidays in Italy. We look forward to welcoming you again soon.
POGGIOLI: But don't expect to walk out onto the center of the Colosseum anytime soon. The new high-tech floor won't be ready until 2023.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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