ROME (Reuters Life!) - As Rome's ancient Colosseum literally crumbles from neglect, the cash-strapped Italian government is looking for private sponsors willing to help pay for restoration work in exchange for advertising rights.
The vast Roman amphitheatre which housed bloody public spectacles including gladiator fights, mock sea battles and animal shows is one of the most famous monuments from the ancient world.
But it has suffered badly in recent years and only 35 percent of the structure is now open to the public.
The urgency surrounding the state of the Italian capital's archaeological treasure was highlighted in May after chunks of mortar plunged through a protective netting.
A string of collapses at the nearby forum have also raised fears about visitor safety and whether the buildings can remain standing for much longer.
However the dire state of public finances in Italy, one of the most heavily indebted countries in Europe, means that funds are short and the government is having to turn to private investors to plug the 25 million euro ($32 million) gap.
"It's a remarkable experiment," said Francesco Giro, the undersecretary for Italy's heritage ministry, which is running the tender with Rome's city council.
"If all goes to plan, by 2013 the Colosseum will have been cleaned from top to bottom but even more important, it will be fully accessible to visitors," he said.
The restoration project will see visitors offered multimedia tours of relatively unexplored areas, from the maze of underground chambers where the gladiators and wild animals were kept, to the uppermost terraces with their spectacular views.
"Using non-invasive lights and the latest multimedia technology we hope to give visitors a physical and perceptual experience of the history of this majestic structure," said Giro.
It is the first time in Italy that a tender will be used to find private sponsors for a restoration project of this scale.
With advertisements in major international newspapers from next week, the organizers hope to find funding within a year for work on the ancient amphitheatre, completed in 80 AD.
It will be a complex task: the Colosseum will stay open to visitors, with each sector undergoing restoration one by one but the government hopes the model will help pay for the upkeep of other parts of Italy's rich store of cultural treasures.
"I think it's a working hypothesis which we can continue to elaborate as far as other Italian monuments are concerned," said Culture Minister Sandro Bondi.
(Editing by Steve Addison)