In the latest installment of tourists behaving badly, a Russian has been fined €20,000 (that’s £25,000, or a million Russian roubles) after carving a giant “K” into a section of brickwork at Rome’s best known monument, the Colosseum.
The 42-year-old man was slapped with the colossal fine and a four month suspended sentence after being caught red handed when a guard saw him carving his initial into the wall with a stone.
The director of the Colosseum, Rossella Rea, said the fine (roughly a year’s salary for the average Italian) was justified as the visitor had damaged “a magnificent and symbolic monument” and “you cannot write on a historic wall, it’s absolutely forbidden”.
But although this is only the fifth case this year, out of about 4 million visitors, Rome’s ancient amphitheater is no stranger to vandalism – the ancient Romans were pretty prolific in making their own markings on the Colosseum’s walls.
In fact, many of them are now preserved and even proudly displayed at the Colosseum. But, said Rea, they are incomparable to modern-day vandalism “There are beautiful designs, which are historic and very important.”
The markings are thought to date from the 3rd century, after the Colosseum was restored following a fire in AD 217. Take a closer look at the many words and symbols on the walls, and you’ll find that these designs include a red palm frond and two phalluses – thought to represent victory and good fortune, perhaps scrawled by a fan as they went to watch their favourite gladiator.
Since then, modern visitors have continued to make their presence felt, as newly discovered graffiti left by tourists in the 17th-20th centuries attests. Bizarrely, vandalism was much worse under the Fascists and was at its peak in the 1930s, Rea added in an interview with the Guardian.
So, where do we draw the line? “It’s human nature to carve your name in something. We’ve all seen graffiti for our whole lives. But when something is old, it becomes precious” said Darius Arya, a Rome-based archaeologist, in an interview on As It Happens.
“Obviously today we appreciate that [graffiti] because it’s another snapshot, a window into that ancient culture,” he said, adding that Roman authorities may have frowned on it back then, but he doubts anyone was punished for it.
Indeed, some of it may even have been authorised. According to Current World Archaeology, conservators have also found evidence of frescoes, a pattern of white leaves on a red background. The presence of blue pigment is also significant, as this colour was expensive and difficult to come by during the Roman period.
Given that the Russian rouble has been reaching historic lows against the euro, that means the man has to pay more than a million rubles. And, with the fine being nearly the average annual net salary in Italy, we seriously wonder whether it will ever be paid, and what authorities would do if it isn’t.
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