As the evening sun caught the upper tier of the world’s best preserved Roman amphitheatre, Thierry Algrin cast a worried glance at the white streaks running down the 2,000-year-old stones.
To the untrained eye they looked insignificant, but to the architect in charge of France’s historic monuments they spelt danger for a building that offers a unique insight into antiquity. After surviving an incalculable number of adventures, the gladiatorial arena in Nîmes, southern France, is starting to crumble as water seeps into its stones and mortar, he told The Times.
Mr Algrin is responsible for saving the stadium, which witnessed the deaths of Christians and lions during the Roman Empire before becoming a bullfighting ring and occasional concert venue in recent times.
“It would be unthinkable to leave such a magnificent building to fall into ruin,” he said, turning his gaze to the scaffolding which marked the start, last week, of the most recent attempt to restore the arena. Seventy per cent of the original structure is still intact – and Mr Algrin must ensure that it survives for centuries more, at the same time preserving its soul and letting the concerts and bullfights continue.
It is no easy task, even if the French authorities have agreed to funding of up to €20 million (£18 million). This should pay for renovation of the exterior, 21m (69ft) high, but not for the interior of the 14,000-capacity stadium. Doubts over France’s commitment to the project stem from its record. Twice in the past two centuries officials have ordered the restoration of the arena, only to abandon the work before it was finished – and Jean-Paul Fournier, the Mayor of Nîmes, was quoted recently in the local press as saying that the latest renovation could take 40 years.
Mr Algrin is more optimistic. “It shouldn’t take that long,” he said. “I am confident that it will be completed this time because there is a real consensus now that something must be done. We can’t just walk away.”
The amphitheatre, which was built between 90AD and 120AD – about the same time as the Colosseum in Rome – brought Roman sport to the area. When the Roman Empire crumbled in the 5th century the arena was preserved by the Visigoths, who turned it into a fort and transformed it into a self-contained town over the next 1,000 years.
By the 18th century the arena was home to several hundred families, a château and two churches. Officials who decided to clear it out and begin the first restoration unwittingly began the process of deterioration, Mr Algrin said. “This seems to be speeding up. The question is why is this happening now, when the building has been there for 2,000 years? The only explanation is that the houses in the amphitheatre from the 6th to the 18th centuries kept the water off.”
Now, he says, the sand and lime mortar that holds the stones together is being dissolved by rain – hence the streaks of white. Some of the stones are cracking and a few of the lintels are breaking up.
His aim is to reinforce the building while replacing as little of the original structure as possible. The second phase – if money is made available – will involve the installation of seating, which would provide protection against water infiltration.