Rome’s Colosseum (Piazza del Colosseo) just got even more interesting. The great 80,000-capacity stadium, where the masses used to bay for blood at free spectacles involving gladiators, wild beasts and those unlucky enough to get on the wrong side of the Empire, is due to open its underground passageways to the public from late August 2010.

This part of the building was where the afternoon’s entertainment used to cower pre-performance. It will be accessible through the back entrance once used by gladiators, with a new glass lift sinking down into the bowels of the building. The architect in charge of the project, Barbara Nazzaro, says that visitors will be able to see where the lions, tigers, bulls, ostriches and gazelles were kept in cells before being hoisted up on 80 rope-slung lifts to the ground floor. This process was a remarkable theatrical device, as the wild beasts used to appear as if out of nowhere onto the stage. Gladiators and scenery were also hoisted up in the same way. The elephants, however, were too heavy to be lifted up, so used to make their grand entrance through the main gates.

Until now, the Colosseum has been rather more impressive from the outside, but the opening of the underground sections means that visitors will be able to envisage the entertainments held here from a new, if chilling perspective. The other new section of the building that will be opening shortly is the highest part of the remaining seating, allowing spectacular views across the stadium. Rendering visits even more spookily evocative, the Colosseum is open til midnight on Saturdays from 21 August to 23 October 2010.

Other underground adventures

Rome has numerous other places where it’s possible to explore underground, and perhaps nowhere sums up this multi-layered city more perfectly than St Clemente (Via di San Giovanni in Laterano). This is a 12th-century church, lined with a shimmering apse mosaic. But it’s discovering the staircase down to the next layer of history that makes this Rome’s most extraordinary church.

The steep staircase down leads to a 4th-century church, decorated with fading frescoes.  Yet something even more mystical and mysterious lies beneath: the next staircase down leads to a Roman house and a pagan temple, complete with altar showing Mithras killing a bull. And echoing through the ancient temple is the sound of a river flowing even beneath this layer, running through a Republic-era drain.

Rome’s other great underground adventure lies out near the Appia Antica, to the southeast of town. Here are the catacombs, where Christians used to bury their dead, in a kind of warren-like after-dead ghetto outside the city walls. The most famous are the Catacombs of San Callisto (Via Appia Antico 110 & 126), the first official cemetery after the Roman Catholic church was founded at the end of the 2nd century. This spider’s web of narrow tunnels, complete with coffin-sized cavities, opens out into dark subterranean churches – a most evocative way to end an underground tour of Rome.

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