The city of Pula is similar to many other Croatian coastal locales, with sun-dried orange rooftops, a harbor full of fishing boats, and the Adriatic breeze whistling through alleyways in early morning. Most major cities in Croatia have an “Old Town” that boasts historical monuments and cultural artifacts within bygone city walls. Dubrovnik for example, a city marked as an UNESCO world heritage site, has churches, monasteries, and palaces within its enormous stone walls. The preserved architecture of the “Old Town” is flanked by more modern structures on its outskirts.
The makeup of the city of Pula is strikingly different to me from the traditional separation of old and new: in the middle of Pula’s modern day bustle stands a massive Roman coliseum constructed over 2,000 years ago. Nearby, city residents go about their daily business navigating through traffic and sipping coffee on their way to work, all around the impressive structure. It’s amazing to see how the modern and ancient world work together so harmoniously, even though exterior appearances tell another story.
The Pula coliseum is one of the largest and best preserved in Europe. Comparable to the ruins in modern-day Rome, its structure and four side towers are impressively intact. It isn’t simply an artifact either. Since 1932 it’s been repurposed for large public meetings and celebrations. On our visit we saw posters plastered around the city advertising a Sting concert to take place in the coliseum later this year. I was surprised that historical societies would permit something as rowdy as a rock concert to occur in such old ruins, but that goes to show how structurally sound the coliseum still is.
Events such as a classic rock concert are jarringly different from the violent gladiatorial battles that used to occur in the arena. The sand and dust in the central portion of the ruins don’t offer hints of the blood shed thousands of years ago at the violent public gatherings during the Roman era. I observed the underground chambers of the coliseum and was amazed that prisoners, wild animals, and weapons were once held in the same spaces.
Of course, being in a gladiator arena, I couldn’t help but think of the 2000 blockbuster Gladiator featuring Russell Crowe. The iconic song of the soundtrack “Now We Are Free” echoed in my mind as I absorbed the grandeur of the stadium and imagined the intense commotion that once populated the arena. I also remembered what the movie was inspired by: the oil painting Pollice Verso by 19th century French artist Jean-Leon Gerome. It’s said that Ridley Scott, the director of the Gladiator, was so awestruck by the action and intensity pictured in the painting that he decided to sign on without even reading the drafted script for the film.
The painting is done in Gerome’s typical highly detailed style, with extremely realistic depictions of people and architecture. In the painting, the crowd is gesturing the “Pollice Verso”: turning their thumbs to celebrate the gladiator’s success over his opponents. Elements of the painting were inspired by discoveries from the excavation of Pompeii that marked the beginning of the 19th century. The level of detail and care in the painting is incredible, especially considering how Gerome used unearthed gladiator armour and legitimate architectural drawings from the period to construct his image.
Much like the blood shed on the coliseum floor, the walls of the arena are painted with a deep, rich red, color that have since faded to cracked beige on my visit 2,000 years later. You can sense the deafening noise that populated the arena as Gerome uses sight to evoke the sensation of sound in the roaring crowd. I imagine it comparable to the noise level of a rock concert, but entirely produced by spectators.
Pollice Verso was painted around a time when interest in reviving antiquity was in fashion, largely due to the excavations of Pompeii that uncovered intriguing stories of the past. This desire to maintain the history and culture of the past is still present, the preservation of these Roman ruins in Pula as a fine example. Through the centuries of rule by different parties, treasured for its strategic location on the Istrian Peninsula, Pula has been destroyed and rebuilt again numerous times. However, even through the political turbulence the town has faced, and the recent violence of Croatia’s independence from Yugoslavia, the coliseum has provided a sense of stability. Even though it has been repurposed for modern events, the appreciation of heritage still remains. This continued revival and investigation of the past fascinates me, as modern living continues to evolve but the conscious effort to sustain cultural elements of the past endure the passing of time.