Saving Italy's history becomes fashionable

As the government struggles to maintain the country's historic ruins and monuments, Morley Safer discovers it's become fashionable to help

The following is a script of "Saving History" which aired on Oct. 19, 2014. Morley Safer is the correspondent. David Browning and Sabina Castelfranco, producers.

It's estimated that Italy is home to two-thirds of the world's cultural treasures. Trouble is, the country is too broke to keep its historic ruins, churches and monuments from crumbling to dust. Italy is up to its neck in debt. Taxes go unpaid. Corruption in an overstuffed bureaucracy is rife. But now some of its most treasured and endangered landmarks are being saved, not by the government, but by a more respected Italian institution: the fashion business. It's stepped in to rescue some of Italy's most iconic sites. Among them, the very symbol of its rich, violent and inventive history: the Colosseum in Rome.

With its stunning, timeless sights, it's justifiably called the eternal city. A holy place to billions. A vast landscape of the sacred and profane. An architectural delight, especially when viewed at sunset.

And smack in the middle is the Colosseum, the greatest surviving wonder of the ancient world, a memorial to the rise, decline and fall of imperial Rome. A place truly colossal.

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Kimberly Bowes: We think it seats about 50,000 people. But this number depends on how wide you think the Roman behind was. If you think that they had big behinds, then you calculate less. Small behinds, you calculate more.

Backsides aside, Professor Kimberly Bowes is the director of the American Academy in Rome and an expert on ancient Mediterranean history, who knows every inch of the Colosseum. She's taking us to the very top level, far above where tourists tread, for a sight that over the centuries very few people have seen first hand.

Kimberly Bowes: The view is terrifying! And the view is extraordinary. Look at this; this is where the poor people sat. You really get the scale of this building here, though. Look how big this is. Look how big this is! People are ants!

The place was built by the hands of slaves in just 10 years, finished a mere half century after the crucifixion. The performers here were gladiators, wild animals, even comedians.

Morley Safer: I gather that this place was the entertainment center, the Broadway of its day, yes?

Kimberly Bowes: In a way. The whole point is to produce marvels, to produce a spectacle that would have amazed the audience.

Kimberly Bowes: The people with the most power, the senators, are down at the bottom. And the people with the least power, the slaves and the women, are up at the top.

Morley Safer: Women?

Kimberly Bowes. Women. Like you don't want women to get too close to gladiators. You have to keep them separate. Because your greatest fear, you have two fears if you're a Roman man. One is that your slave is going to kill you one day in your bed. And your second fear is that your wife is going to run off with a slave, like a gladiator. This is what everyone's afraid of, so you've got to put the women up on the top.

Morley Safer: So even though the gladiators were slaves, they were kind of the movie stars of their day.

Kimberly Bowes: They were.

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And we turn to Hollywood for an idea of how it all might have looked.

Kimberly Bowes: There's a moment in "Gladiator" where Russell Crowe walks out to right where we are.

Professor Bowes gives the filmmakers high marks for the historical accuracy of their computer recreation of the Colosseum.

Kimberly Bowes: The whole drama is really the reenactment of Roman conquest. The continual expansion of the empire.

"We have not one piece of evidence that any Christians were ever killed in this building."

Backstage was actually underground: the basement.

Kimberly Bowes: Until recently this was just filled with dirt.

A labyrinth of corridors: dungeons for slaves, cages for animals, all brought from the far reaches of the empire. And wooden elevators, raised by ropes and pulleys, leading to trap doors in the stage.

Kimberly Bowes: There's a wonderful scene in "Gladiator" where the tiger pops out of the floor.

Kimberly Bowes: This is exactly the kind of thing that would have been used to wow the audience.

Since the 18th century, the Roman Catholic Church has venerated the Colosseum as a symbol of the early Christian martyrs who were put to death for their beliefs.

Professor Bowes tells visitors there were indeed early Christians quietly executed elsewhere in Rome. But as for the Colosseum...

Kimberly Bowes: We have not one piece of evidence that any Christians were ever killed in this building. Not one. There are, I think, really interesting reasons for this. If you take a group of people who, by all accounts, are extraordinarily brave in the face of certain death and you put them in this space and put them on display, who's everyone going to cheer for? They're going to cheer for the Christians, right? Because they show such extraordinary bravery. This is not a smart thing to do politically.

[Man: So I'm in the famous Colosseum...]

Six million tourists a year visit here, snapping selfies and posing with rent-a-gladiators who pass the time with cigarettes and cell phones. The place has survived fires and earthquakes over the centuries. Now there's a new crisis: finding the money to manage the crowds and keep up with basic maintenance. The director of the Colosseum is Rossella Rea.

Rossella Rea: The money isn't there. There's very little, totally inadequate funding. Only five percent of what we need.

Too little money and from the Italian parliament, too much red tape.

Morley Safer: A lot of people say the bureaucracy is so top heavy that that's the reason why things don't get done.

Rossella Rea: Bureaucracy is not just heavy, it is extremely heavy. And we are the first victims. Bureaucracy for us is a killer.

But that scaffolding you saw earlier is a sign that help is on the way. The Colosseum is getting a badly needed facelift, with money from an unlikely source.

To prevent further ruin, a benefactor is spending an arm and a leg - $35 million - on a place where, two thousand years ago, gladiators and slaves literally lost arms, legs and lives, and all in the name of show business.

The benefactor is Diego Della Valle, a prominent Italian businessman, who knows a lot about the business of showing. Della Valle is CEO of Tod's, the luxury leather goods company. Crafting stylish shoes and bags has long been an Italian specialty. Having made his bundle, Della Valle decided to give some back to the state.

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Morley Safer: Why spend so much of your own money, millions upon millions, to fix this wreck?

Diego Della Valle: Why not? Well, I am Italian. I am very proud to be Italian. And there is a very famous Kennedy speech, no? Is the moment that what is possible for us to do for our country, we need to do now.

The shoes that made Della Valle's fortune are assembled the old-fashioned way: by hand, stitch by stitch. And the work he's funding at the Colosseum is also about as low tech as it gets.

It's being cleaned literally inch by inch to get rid of centuries of caked-on dust, grime, air and auto pollution. The stone is travertine, a kind of limestone. No chemicals are allowed, only purified water and elbow grease: days, weeks, months, years on end of scrubbing. Built by hand, saved by hand.

"I think we have to face with the reality. The reality is that, they don't have money."

Morley Safer: How long is it going to take?

Diego Della Valle: The Colosseum, I think three years from now.

Morley Safer: And what will it look like, do you think, when they're finished.

Diego Della Valle: I am very curious.

To get some idea, we were shown a few sections that have been completely cleaned. Two thousand years old, and looking almost brand new.

And in the world of high style, it's become fashionable to follow Della Valle's example. An entire parade of fashionistas are bankrolling similar worthy causes. The Fendi fashion house donated three-and-a-half million dollars for some new plumbing for a familiar waterworks.

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It's the Trevi Fountain, where 54 years ago Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg went wading, in Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," the sweet life. Forever linking Rome and romance.

Silvia Fendi: This movie helped a lot to build this powerful image of the Trevi Fountain. Cinema has big power.

Silvia Fendi's grandfather started the business 90 years ago. And as we spoke, huge crowds had a last chance to throw in a coin before the closing of the site for repairs.

Silvia Fendi: It means that you will be in good health in order to come back. So it's very important for us. This country gave us a lot. And so it's nice at a point to give back something.

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Elsewhere in Rome, the Bulgari fashion house is paying to clean and repair the Spanish Steps, where tourists stop to rest their feet. A Japanese fashion company with ties to Italy is restoring the Pyramid of Cestius, built to honor a noble Roman two decades before the birth of Christ, after the Roman conquest of Egypt. And in Venice, the four hundred year old Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal will be cleaned and strengthened, thanks to seven million dollars from this.

[Man: Renzo Rosso.]

Morley Safer: Is the government too poor, too broke, to maintain its treasures?

Renzo Rosso: No, I think we have to face with the reality. The reality is that, they don't have money.

"The bureaucracy will have to change in order to actually make it possible for someone to come and say, 'Here, do you want $25 million?' Without the bureaucracy saying, 'Well, I don't know. I'll have to think about it.'"

Rosso is a farmer's son, a self-made man known as the jeans genius. As in Diesel jeans. He built the brand from the ground up, expanding into other businesses and becoming a billionaire several times over.

[Renzo Rosso: I want it more short.]

His sleek headquarters rival anything in Silicon Valley, what with the espresso bars and day care, where kids learn the international language of business.

[Woman: Clap out ... clap in.]

But the fashion industry is a rare bright spot in the stagnant Italian economy. And these workers are the lucky ones. Elsewhere, fully half the country's young adults are unemployed. There's corruption, public and private, and widespread tax evasion.

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Renzo Rosso: The Italian people are tired of this corruption. Because we have too many people that steal, too many people that put the money in his pocket. We have 40 percent of people who don't pay tax. Can you imagine? Forty percent. It's unbelievable.

Pope Francis talks about the problem in scathing terms, saying corrupt politicians, businessmen and priests are everywhere. And the country's young new prime minister, Matteo Renzi, has declared war on the political establishment, saying the whole system should be scrapped. Diego Della Valle agrees.

Diego Della Valle: I think it's possible now to open a new way. The old point of view was without any sense. I hope in the new point of view. I push for the new point of view.

But as Della Valle's scrubbers continue their work, it's worth noting that his generous offer to restore the country's greatest monument was mired in the bureaucratic mud for nearly three years before work could begin.

Kimberly Bowes: This is the real challenge that Italy has. This is why sites are closed and monuments are falling down. The bureaucracy will have to change in order to actually make it possible for someone to come and say, "Here, do you want $25 million?" Without the bureaucracy saying, "Well, I don't know. I'll have to think about it."

But time has a way of standing still for Italians. Past glories are always present. The food remains superb and the noble wines still lubricate the conversation. On the surface, it's still la dolce vita. The sweet life. As for the future - that's somebody else's problem.

  • Morley Safer

    Morley Safer’s distinctive style and the broad range of his much-honored work have made him a giant in broadcast journalism and a mainstay of 60 Minutes since 1970.