The Colosseum was damaged by earthquakes in the fifth and sixth centuries, again in 847, and perhaps in the fourteenth century as well. Originally it was entirely surrounded by a double arcade, but in the course of these earthquakes the outer ring of arches fell along the whole southwestern side, forming a mountainous quarry which for centuries furnished building material for the palaces and churches of Rome.
Such plundering stopped in the eighteenth century, and early in the nineteenth the popes began to strengthen the broken ends of the walls with buttresses. Unbroken though it looks from its least damaged side, less than half of the great building stands today.
Medieval tradition played strange tricks with the purpose and appearance of the Colosseum. The early form of the Mirabilia simply mentions it, saying, 'Before the Colosseum was the temple of the Sun'--referring, perhaps, to the nearby Temple of Venus and Rome. A later version embellished this simple statement to read: 'The Colosseum was the temple of the Sun, of marvellous greatness and beauty, disposed with many diverse vaulted chambers, and all covered with an heaven of gilded brass, where thunders and lightnings and glittering fires were made, and where rain was shed through slender tubes. Besides this there were the Signs supercelestial and the planets Sol and Luna, that were drawn along in their proper chariots.' Here there seem to be confused echoes of the 'old chronicles' to which the twelfth-century compiler of the Mirabilia referred. One of these may have been the description by Suetonius of Nero's Golden House, written about half a century after that emperor's death: 'There were dining rooms with fretted ceilings of ivory, whose panels could turn and shower down flowers and were fitted with pipes for sprinkling the guests with perfumes. The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolved day and night, like the heavens.' The Middle Ages, from whatever source they had their information, took the Mirabilia's description literally and pictured the Colosseum with a dome.
The ruins of the ancient building have seen many uses. There are records of mystery plays held there in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In 1490 the Confraternity of the Gonfalone, a group of citizens vowed to charitable works, produced in the Colosseum the first of its Passion Plays--a mystery in seven acts in the Roman dialect. Arnold of Harff, a German visitor to Rome in 1497, wrote of seeing: 'A magnificent ancient palace, called the Colosseum, round in shape, vaulted and with various orders of architecture, and having in its centre a round open space surrounded by steps which made it possible to ascend to the upper part. In ancient times, they say, men sat on these steps to watch combats between gladiators and wild beasts. I saw there, on Holy Thursday, the Passion of Jesus Christ. Living men represented the Flagellation, the Crucifixion, the Death of Judas, and so forth. Those who took part were youths of well-to-do families and everything was conducted with great order and decorum.'
Considerable disorder was reported from time to time, however, and the plays were finally abolished under Paul III ( 1534-1549) because they had become too secular to be countenanced by the Church.
The use of the Colosseum for religious spectacles did not prevent the popular imagination from peopling it with the devils who were always ready to take over pagan monuments. A bull is said to have been sacrificed in the Colosseum to appease the demons during a pestilence in 1522; Benvenuto Cellini tells the classic tale of sorcery there in his Autobiography.
In 1534 he and a renegade Sicilian priest decided to consult the demons which were said to haunt the place. 'We went together to the Coliseum,' he wrote, 'and there the priest, having arrayed himself in necromancer's robes, began to describe circles on the earth with the finest ceremonies that can be imagined.' The ceremonies having brought little result (they saw only several legions of devils that night) they returned again and were well rewarded. 'In a short space of time the whole Coliseum was full of a hundredfold as many as had appeared upon the first occasion.' The boy who served as a medium 'shrieked out in terror that a million of the fiercest men were swarming round and threatening us. He said, moreover, that four huge giants had appeared, who were striving to force their way into the circle' and again that 'the whole Coliseum is in flames, and the fire is advancing on us'. When the devils were finally routed and the party was going home, the boy 'kept saying that two of the devils he had seen in the Coliseum were gambolling in front of us, skipping now along the roofs and now upon the ground'.
Meanwhile the popes had entertained various plans for the Colosseum. Sixtus V proposed to turn it into a cloth manufactory, for which he had Fontana prepare drawings, but at the pope's death in 1590 this idea was abandoned. Clement IX in the seventeenth century stored saltpetre in it for use in a neighbouring gunpowder factory.
In 1744 Benedict XIV moved to put an end to both plundering and superstitious practices by consecrating the arena to the memory of the Christians martyred there, whose numbers tradition had now brought into the thousands. He also set up the central cross and its stations, which appear in so many pictures of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These were removed for excavations in the eighteen-seventies, but the cross was renewed in 1927.
By the nineteenth century the broken walls were in danger of collapse; more stone had been brought down by an earthquake in 1703. Pius VII began the work of strengthening and supporting them by buttressing the outer wall of the east end between 1805 and 1807. Leo XII erected a similar support for the outer wall of the west end in 1825, and Gregory XVI and Pius IX continued the work in 1845 and 1852. Leo XII's great western buttress of 1825, which appears in the views most widely known, has become so familiar as to seem an integral part of the structure. Turner's drawings and paintings of 1819 are among the last well-known pictures to show the old, vertical crumbling edge instead of the present smooth and sloping line. This new buttress must have been barely completed when Corot painted his views of the Colosseum in 1825 and 1826.
Excavation had begun early in the century and was continued for many years, until the whole area of the arena, originally covered with removable wooden flooring and later filled with the earth and debris of centuries, was finally laid bare, revealing the dens where beasts were kept for performances and the chambers which housed the mechanical contrivances used in the elaborate settings of spectacles.
Despite consecration and excavation the Colosseum had a bad reputation after nightfall, and from time to time it was closed at dusk or patrolled by guards. One hazard against which no guard could avail was the 'Roman fever', believed to haunt its shadows after sunset. Lovers of the romantic, moonlit peace of the great ruin were quick to blame this on the excavators, who had opened long-closed vaults and, it was said, disarranged the ancient drainage. Yet in spite of its ill-repute, visits to the Colosseum by night grew more and more popular in the nineteenth century, moonlight and meditation replacing Cellini's spectral flames and demons.
In 1787, as the romantic movement was taking shape, Goethe had written: 'Of the beauty of a walk through Rome by moonlight, it is impossible to form a conception, without having witnessed it. All single objects are swallowed up by the great masses of light and shade, and nothing but grand and general outlines present themselves to the eye. . . . Peculiarly beautiful at such a time is the Coliseum. At night it is always closed; a hermit dwells in a little shrine within its range, and beggars of all kinds nestle beneath its crumbling arches.'