In the Holy Year (Anno Santo) of 1675, as part of the Jubilee celebrations, Pope Clement X (r. 1670-76) declared the Colosseum to be a sacred site of martyrdom for all the Christians who had perished there. A cross was duly erected in the centre of the arena.
In the Holy Year of 1750 Pope Benedict XIV (r. 1740-58) dedicated the Colosseum to the 'Passion of Christ and the Holy Martyrs' and installed the fourteen Stations of the Cross around the perimeter of the arena.
Pope Benedict XIV also had a plaque erected on the exterior of the building. The long Latin inscription reads (in translation): 'The Flavian Amphitheatre, distinguished by triumphs and spectacles, dedicated to the gods of the heathen in unholy reverence, purified of unclean superstition by the blood of martyrs. In the year of the Jubilee of 1750, tenth of his pontificate, lest memory of their courage should lapse, Benedict the Fourteenth, Pontifex Maximus, undertook to have rendered in marble the memorial painted on the whitewashed wall in the year of the Jubilee of 1675 by Clement the Tenth, Pontifex Maximus, and effaced under the assault of time'.
However, there was no concrete evidence then, nor is there any now, that Christians were ever martyred in the Amphitheatrum Flavium, to give the Colosseum its proper name.
And yet, ironically, the largest amphitheatre ever built might owe its survival to the belief that it was once a place of martyrdom. During the first half of the 19th century, several popes ordered great brick buttresses to be erected to arrest the decline of the structure.
The central cross and the fourteen Stations of the Cross were removed in 1874, three years after Rome became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy.
In 1926 Mussolini had a new cross erected in the Colosseum to replace the one that had been removed. It still stands on the north side of the arena.
To this day, the Colosseum remains an integral part of the Easter celebrations in Rome, with the pope attending a ceremony there on Good Friday.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
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