Can This Man (And His Loafers) Save The Colosseum?

Robert Polidori

Diego Della Valle, best known as the CEO of Tod's, has given $33 million toward restoring the world's most famous monument. In doing so, he has shifted responsibility for Italy's preservation from the gridlocked government to private philanthropists. 

For the past few years, water has flowed gently, steadily over the ancient, gritty stones of the Colosseum in Rome. Then, coaxed loose by the solicitous brushstrokes of teams of restorers, off has come the coagulated crud from a million Fiats and Vespas. And, beneath that, the grime from Mussolini’s day, and then Garibaldi’s, and then Michelangelo’s, back to the Dark Ages, and the early Christian era before that. 

And what has emerged is something not just lighter and brighter than before—the shade of the newly cleansed travertine has been variously described as ivory or oatmeal or Haitian cotton—but, if possible, even more spectacular. Suddenly the monument emits a different vibe. As Diego Della Valle, the Italian shoe magnate who has single-handedly footed the bill for the restoration, puts it, the site of legendarily gory spectacles from two millennia back has become a “happy” place.

In its long life as a ruin—going on 1,500 years, or three times as long as it was actually used—the Colosseum has suffered through many “restorations.” Concurrently, it has been beset by earthquakes, fires, vegetation, and various man-made disasters, in which popes and noblemen carted off its innards (and outards) for pet projects, including St. Peter’s Basilica. 

But the latest repair job, funded by 25 million euros (then roughly $33 million) from Della Valle, the chairman of the luxury-goods manufacturer Tod’s, is clearly the most respectful, even reverential. Since 2013 restorers have been fixing, buffing, manicuring, and weeding the place. 

On the day I visited in December, work on the facade was nearly complete; the scaffolding that had gradually rotated around the circumference was all but gone, and only a final chunk, by the main entrance, remained to be scrubbed. The water-powered cleaning process had stopped altogether, lest visitors end up as drenched as the marble; keeping a monument open during restauro is not easy. The first phase of the process will be finished this month, when Della Valle and his team will officially hand back the premises to the Italian people. It will be a far more decorous proceeding than the Colosseum’s inauguration, when 5,000 animals were said to have been killed in a single day. 

At that point, the job will still be only half finished. Next will come the restoration of the hypogeum, the labyrinthine ruins at its center, where, beneath a long-gone wooden floor once covered with blood-soaked sand, gladiators and wild animals awaited their turns on stage, and from which stagehands manning pulleys raised men, props, and beasts alike. After that a new visitors center will be built next to the Arch of Constantine, and the Colosseum’s Stygian inner galleries—if anything, even more blackened than the exterior—will be refurbished. 

According to current projections, getting the Colosseum into shape will take about as long as it took to build, and even that may be optimistic. Still, by Italian standards—or, to be fair, just about any other country’s—it will have happened relatively expeditiously and painlessly, which is what happens, Della Valle says, when private enterprise and pride of country are grafted onto the usual lethargic bureaucracy. 

By picking up the tab, Della Valle, 62, may have made himself the most important man at the Colosseum since the emperors Vespasian, who began erecting it around a.d. 72, and his son Titus, who finished it up eight years later. Or, at the very least, the most critical since Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe, the director and titular hero, respectively, of Gladiator, the Oscar-winning 2000 film that helped to solidify its status as Italy’s premier tourist attraction by transforming the place from a noble wreck into a living, breathing, pulsating thing.

“The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate; it’s the sand of the Colosseum,” a senator named Gracchus, disgusted by the lowbrow tastes of the Roman rabble, tells one of his colleagues in the movie. Other landmarks, such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Grand Canal of Venice, may be as iconic as the Colosseum, but none are as central to Italy historically, psychologically, or geographically. This perpetual appeal is what made restoring the building so pleasing a project to Della Valle, who first visited the place as a nine-year-old after an eight-hour journey with his class from his native village, Casette d’Ete, near Italy’s Adriatic coast. 

When, in the summer of 2010, the then mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, offered him the chance to help fund the restoration, Della Valle agreed so quickly and decisively—insisting that Tod’s pick up the entire tab rather than split it with anyone else—that he quite literally left the mayor breathless. 

“When one looks at it,” Goethe once wrote about the Colosseum, “all else seems little; the edifice is so vast that one cannot hold the image of it in one’s soul.” But these days Goethe might have needed additional superlatives; to Della Valle, the Colosseum, which he gets to inspect periodically during helicopter trips in and out of Rome, somehow looks not only brighter than before but bigger. 

For all his success, nothing has afforded Della Valle the prominence, nationally and even internationally, of this project. By stepping into the void left by Italy’s increasingly enfeebled government, and setting an example for—or shaming—his fellow Italian entrepreneurs, Della Valle has effectively helped privatize historic preservation in Italy. Thanks to him, the care of Italy’s historic and architectural legacy resides increasingly not at Palazzo Chigi, in Rome, where Italy’s prime minister lives, but a few blocks away along Via Condotti, where Italy’s toniest brands have their flagships.

Until Della Valle came along, Italy had little tradition of private philanthropy—a problem because, over the past decade, the budget for restoration has shrunk by nearly 75 percent. But since he stepped forward, several other executives have followed. In Rome, Fendi poured $2 million into the Trevi Fountain. Bulgari is fixing the Spanish Steps, and Brioni is refurbishing the Babuino Fountain. And the largesse has radiated. The owner of Diesel, Renzo Rosso, has donated $6.5 million to repair the Rialto in Venice, and Salvatore Ferragamo has given more than $800,000 to restore a wing of the Uffizi, in Florence. Clearly inspired by Della Valle (though too late to do him any good), in 2014 the Italian culture minister, Dario Franceschini, tweaked the tax laws to allow donors henceforth to deduct 65 percent of their gifts over three years. 

In contrast to his soft-spoken benevolence in his English-as-a-second-language, Della Valle in his native Italian is not exactly the retiring sort. This is someone who built Tod’s from a small family-run operation (the cobbler’s bench once used by his grandfather Filippo is one of the few aged appurtenances in the sleek corporate headquarters designed by Della Valle’s wife) into a fashion powerhouse and, in the process, made himself one of Italy’s wealthiest men.

Della Valle is a man of great style and panache, sometimes flying in his plane from one of his offices in Milan for lunch at home in Casette d’Ete, several hundred miles away. Along with his younger brother, he has since 2002 owned a major Italian soccer club, ACF Fiorentina, guaranteeing him considerable attention and, when the team’s not so hot, abuse. It’s a bone of contention between him and the Agnellis, the family that owns the archrival soccer team, Juventus FC of Turin, and has long controlled Fiat, but it’s evidently not the only one. When I asked Della Valle which wealthy Italian families had not yet stepped up for Italy’s endangered monuments—others needing tending include Pompeii, the Royal Palace of Caserta, and the cathedral at Assisi—he mentioned only the Agnellis by name.

Della Valle has long been rumored to have political ambitions, and has taken his shots at such Italian leaders as former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and the current one, Matteo Renzi. He told me he hopes his gift prompts Italian politicians to do better and the Italian people to not put up with them if they don’t. In Italian, at least, he does not mince words: Four of the six culture ministers he’s dealt with on the Colosseum project, he told the Financial Times last September, were “imbeciles” (but Franceschini, he says, he likes).

Upon announcing his donation, Della Valle quickly encountered resistance from politicians and those who dismissed his gift as a gigantic marketing ploy and tied things up in court. “A stupid, stupid game,” he calls the maneuvering. Skeptics predicted that the Colosseum would soon be enshrouded in material bearing Tod’s corporate logo, as indeed another company seeking to underwrite the restoration, Ryanair, of Ireland, had proposed doing—that, in effect, the distinctive gommini, or rubber spikes, found on the soles of Tod’s shoes would soon be sticking out between the Colosseum’s cracks. Only in January 2011 was an agreement signed. 

In fact, Tod’s logo appears—very inconspicuously—only on a small sign at the base of the building. Self-promotion, Della Valle says, was never his motivation: It’s John F. Kennedy, who spoke so famously of giving back to one’s country, whose portrait hangs in Della Valle’s office. (He also owns Kennedy’s wooden commuter boat, which he moors in Capri.) Not far from the Kennedy portrait is a photograph of Barack Obama, a gift from Della Valle’s friend Anna Wintour. Decidedly not one of his role models is Donald Trump, Central Park, then plastered his name all over it. “I think, for us, it’s much better if Donald Trump stays in New York,” he says. 

With Heydi Dato, a professional restorer who still becomes charmingly emotional when discussing her work on the Colosseum, as our guide, we made our way to the top of the structure. Thousands of workers, most of them slaves, are said to have built the Colosseum, but the restoration team numbers about 30, and during my visit only a few of them were toiling away. We saw one woman working with water, a sponge, and buckets of mortar (in several different colors and consistencies, depending on the surface), repairing tiny pieces of the wall. 

From the nosebleed seats, to which Roman women and the poor were once consigned, we “enjoyed” a spectacular view of Rome—the Forum, the arches of Titus and Constantine, clear to the Vatican—generally unavailable to visitors. I say “enjoyed” because for me, petrified of heights, standing up there was anything but fun. (My only consolation was learning later on that when Della Valle was up there, he had felt pretty much the same way.) 

Meanwhile, on the lower rungs of the Colosseum, visitors milled. Estimates of the crowds it accommodated in its heyday vary, from 50,000 to 80,000. Anything would pale compared to that, but the day of my visit the numbers seemed especially paltry. Even the modern-day gladiators, who smoke cigarettes through their helmets and pose for pictures for a price, hadn’t bothered showing up. It was partly the time— mid-December—but also the times: In a cruel twist on a Yogi Berra quote (“Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded,” he supposedly said), the Colosseum’s very popularity makes it tempting for terrorists, or so people fear. But it has seen, and survived, worse times than these. Take the night of May 3, 1938, when flames silhouetted the Fascist soldiers inside its arches. That was when Hitler visited Rome. 

Eternal symbol of the Eternal City, the Colosseum is simultaneously a monument to constant change. Almost from the moment it opened it has undergone alterations. Initially it was a matter of basic safety: to keep the stones from loosening and crushing people. And balanced against the periodic maintenance was piecemeal dismantling and grand schemes of adaptive reuse, like turning it into a woolen mill or a saltpeter factory.

Only a few hundred years ago, under prodding from Pope Benedict XIV, was it resolved to leave it intact, as a monument to Christians martyred there, though there is no evidence such martyrdom actually occurred. The papal edict preserved the place once and for all, but that only ushered in new struggles, with the elements, and, most notably, the seeds deposited by wind and birds. From out of the structure’s cracks sprouted all manner of flora: 420 different varieties, according to one botanist with a clipboard. “In the crevices and in the vaulted roofs, grows a multitude of shrubs, the wild olive, the myrtle, and the jasmine, and intricate brambles, and entangled weeds, and strange feathery plants, like disheveled hair, such as I never saw before,” the poet Shelley wrote. All that foliage conferred additional, complementary power to the Colosseum. Now it commemorated not only spectacle and cruelty, but vanity and evanescence.

Edgar Allan Poe described lizards slithering where Caesars once sat. So did Mark Twain. Indeed, descriptions of the Colosseum, like the water being sprayed on its stones, have been regularly recycled; with its parade of literate celebrity visitors, it’s hard to top what has already been said. 

More often than not, these visitors came by at night; in the 18th and 19th centuries there appear to have been an inordinate number of full moons over Rome, because everyone seemed to see the Colosseum under one. (To Longfellow, it resembled “a cloud resting upon the earth.”) In time, the amorous, rather than the architecturally interested, congregated there nocturnally: In 1927 a reporter for the Washington Post described the ire of elderly American tourists happening upon couples in flagrante and flappers singing jazz songs accompanied by ukuleles. In the 1960s, the local police called the Colosseum “a gigantic brothel.” These days it is again open for lunar inspections—but only by appointment.

  A short ways up from the onetime stage, where the Roman middle class once sat, is the office of Rosella Rea, the Colosseum’s managing director. She told me that the project was both on time and on budget, in part because some of the key decisions, notably on restoration techniques—for instance, that no detergents or solvents would be used—had been made 15 years ago. This was true, she said, even though the stones proved even dirtier than anticipated, and the grime, especially when oil-based, more tenacious. 

The ancient restorations, she went on, were actually better than more recent ones. Some of those recent changes were irrevocable: In the ’30s, she noted, some walls considered beyond repair were removed. By now, she estimated, only half the Colosseum actually dates back to its origins; the rest is a historic pastiche. But the original stones still contain sur-prises, like the red painted numbers—in Roman numerals, naturally— that have emerged over the entrance arches, designed to help direct patrons to those stony seats so discomforting to ancient behinds.

  As the restoration proceeds, so does the maintenance, most notably the constant battle with ever-resurgent foliage, which threatens continually to crack and pockmark the stone. The Colosseum’s technical director, Barbara Nazaro, pointed out, for instance, some skeletal branches at the top of the edifice. They were the remains of a fig tree, recently poisoned. Pretty but destructive flowers—yellow in fall, purple in the spring—regularly pop out of the Colosseum. Everywhere are little microsplotches of green: the next generation of growth. In its persistence, the vegetation is itself a kind of gladiator, perpetually jousting with the travertine and its human defenders. 

Last summer Italy earmarked 18.5 million euros (about $20.2 million) for a proposal, backed by Culture Minister Franceschini, to reinstall the Colosseum’s floor and make the place a venue for cultural events—all very tasteful and dignified and sans gladiators. That has provoked a predictable storm, and not just because the plan would cost Italian taxpayers nearly three-quarters of Della Valle’s investment. As is often the case, Italy’s greatest defenders are not Italian but English. In the Guardian last year, for instance, art critic Jonathan Jones called the scheme “totally barbarous,” designed only to make the Colosseum look more like it did in Gladiator.

Managing director Rea would leave things as they are. So, too, would Della Valle. Not that, for all the money he’s poured into the Colosseum, his view should be decisive. “It isn’t mine,” he points out. 

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Photo Credits: Robert Polidori