One of Italy’s most awe-inspiring buildings, this amphitheatre is second only to the Colosseum.
Built by Augustus, and then restored by Hadrian in 119, it was also later embellished by order of Antoninus Pius. The monument, which was destroyed by the Saracens under the leadership of Gensericus, lay waste for several centuries and was despoiled of many of its elements. Its columns and stones were used to build the Cathedral and many buildings in the city, this too having been devastated by the sack of the Vandals. Only in recent years has it been reappraised and been the object of a strengthening and restoration project.
The building originally had an elliptical plan, on a larger scale than the Flavian amphitheatre in Rome, from which it took architectural inspiration. Although no longer intact, the building was illustrated by numerous scholars in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. At the time of its splendour it was referred to by a name thought to mean ‘round fortress’, but which probably derives from the word for ‘bear den’ in the Germanic language, in allusion to the spectacular wild animal hunts that took place in the arena. The edifice had 4 floors, of Tuscan order; the arches on the second and third floor were adorned with statues, and it was here that Venus, Psyche and Adonis were found. The terrace was divided into 5 caveae with 4 enclosures; the caveae were divided into 16 cunei. Above was the colonnade, built of monolithic marble columns by the Emperor Hadrian.
At the entrance are two well-preserved arches, inside which the depictions of two divinities - Ceres and Juno - can still be seen.
The underground areas are similar to those beneath the Flavian amphitheatre at Pozzuoli, but are much larger. There are 10 corridors, three major ones following the major axis, one circling around the arena, with the other 6 being covered by vaults and having various openings. A small room in the spacious underground area was converted into an oratory and remains of paintings and some fragments of the altar are visible here still. The corridors also preserve the remains of frescoes, mural paintings and stuccoes. By following the corridors it is possible to walk round the entire cavea. The steps have been destroyed, but it is possible to climb up to see the upper part of the monument.
The area in front of the amphitheatre is a garden where fragments of sculptures and architectural decorations from the monument are exhibited. It was here that the School for Gladiators stood, where in 73 B.C. (before the amphitheatre itself was built) the revolt of the slaves led by Spartacus broke out, which was repressed with difficulty by Crassus two years later.
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