Shining Rome

Italy: The Eternal City is scrubbed and polished for its jubilee year, and the faithful are turning out in record numbers

May 21, 2000|By Paul French | Paul French,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Anyone traveling to Rome this year will be part of a tradition that goes back 700 years. This is a jubilee, or holy year, which gives the Eternal City a chance to show off its ancient trappings in grand style. And against all odds, Rome is ready for the onslaught.

When the pope calls the faithful home, the people come. This year Rome is expecting upward of 30 million visitors. An average year brings slightly more than half that number.

So what can you expect on a Roman holiday? A biblical crush of humanity and some outstanding new attractions to boot.

Pilgrimages to holy places were one of the earliest forms of tourism. Here is where the idea of the souvenir blossomed, a kind of proof of faith to show that you actually made the trip.

Since 1300, popes have been savvy marketers to the tourist trade, calling faithful Catholics the world over to make a trip to Rome in holy years. They came by horseback and by donkey and many walked the fabled pilgrim's route from Canterbury, England.

The pilgrimages were so great for business, both spiritual and commercial, that over the years the popes upped the number of Jubilee celebrations from one a century to two and now four. By all accounts, this year is the biggest yet.

In preparation, a massive renewal program the likes of which Rome hasn't seen since the days of the Caesars has scrubbed centuries of grime and grit from the facades of churches and palaces. Ruins have been reinforced and spruced up to look like, well, spruced-up ruins.

And then there are the modern touches -- new roads, parking facilities, museums and theaters. There are 50 new churches being built, as if Rome didn't have enough, and one, by American architect Richard Meier, with its bold concrete shells, symbolizes the city's determination to add modern monuments to its collection of ancient ones. Behind the scenes, there has been some serious planning, hand-wringing and plenty of frustration for Romans.

"We have reversed the bad Italian habit of using big events to carry out rhapsodic and uncoordinated public works," said Rome's mayor, Francesco Rutelli, in a foreword to a recent book on Rome.

In fact, he sees the jubilee as a mere test from which even grander infrastructure schemes will develop in the next decade, paving the way for the transformation of the city along the lines of what Paris, Barcelona and Berlin have undertaken. "No city can survive on its past merits," Rutelli wrote. "And Rome is now playing all its cards."

As the scaffolding comes down, a glistening city is on display -- and it has already upset some purists. St. Peter's Basilica, the biggest church in the world, has had a glorious facelift. Stunning multicolored hues of ocher, red and green columns grace the Loggia delle Benedizione, where the pope stands to bless the crowds.

Some restoration authorities claim the enhanced color scheme clashes with the original design and was motivated more by the church's role as the central stage for the jubilee than by faithful restoration.

New look for Colosseum

The Coliseum has added amenities and, like most antiquities throughout the city, better lighting for nighttime viewing. New access to the famous amphitheater's arena level reveals the winch-driven elevators that used to carry wild beasts to the stage.

Fanciful stories of the sacrifice of Christians to the beasts, alas, has no historical basis. Plants of exotic origin growing in cracks of the highest arches of the Coliseum must be treated with care: Their seeds were carried in the cages of captured lions and brought to Rome two thousand years ago.

Excavations of the Imperial Forums are progressing but won't be completed for the jubilee. Still, the archaeological dig that began in 1998, the largest under way in the world, will bring to light 45,000 square feet of ancient Rome, an area roughly equal to that already exposed. New walkways and interpretive stations have created an open-air museum for the continuing work.

Surprisingly, this ancient city is lacking in certain amenities expected of an international metropolis, such as a concert hall. The jubilee was the incentive to build one -- Italian architect Renzo Piano's complex of three beetle-shaped auditoriums is scheduled to open this summer.

As happens so frequently when building anything in Rome, ancient ruins were uncovered in the northern suburb near the Olympic stadium, bringing construction to a halt.

Plans were redrawn to incorporate the new-found Roman villa, which will be visible through a glass wall in the foyer. Some of the more important artifacts will be on display in a museum at the complex.

The three theaters themselves face onto an amphitheater with 3,000 seats for outdoor performances. Piano's multilevel design will create a hanging garden with linden, cypress and oak trees, essentially placing this new Roman landmark in the midst of a forest.

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