Against a background of nostalgic protests on the one hand and down-to-earth relief on the other, the historic cobblestones of Rome are now being pulled out of their beds in the citys busiest thoroughfares and replaced by bland asphalt, a minor revolution that crowns the almost complete transformation of the city that has been taking place over the last 15 years.
Already some three million sampietrini (as the cobbles are called) have been extracted from old resting places at 15 points in Rome, especially along the Lungotevere embankments. Soon they will be taken up in many other places, especially where they lie hidden beneath layers of asphalt, now dangerously holed. However, Fabrizio DAndrea, spokesman for public works councillor Giancarlo DAlessandro, dismissed as exaggerated reports that sampietrini are due to vanish from as many as 170 more streets.
He said, however, that as from next January they would probably be sent packing from Via Nazionale, which would be excellent news for everyone whose spine gets shattered as they bump along it in even the newest buses, not to mention Romes scooter owners for whom the sampietrini present dire peril, above all when rain-washed, as hospitals orthopaedic wards attest. As public works councillor DAlessandro explained: Nobody wants to get rid of them altogether. Its simply a matter of reconciling history with the present, and vice-versa.
These reassurances are partly to mute an outcry in the foreign press, which is far more alarmed by the feared demise of the cobbles than the Romans are themselves. The New York Times wrote last month: For some of the millions of tourists, the repaving seems a surrender The world seems to feel better believing that Rome will stay exactly as it is.
In much of the old centre its belief will hold firm, since the uprooted cobblestones will carpet alleys and squares earmarked for the pedestrian precincts of an even more attractive city.
The mayor, Walter Veltroni, explained recently that cobbles are now to be restricted to pedestrian zones because maintaining them in areas of heavy traffic has become too expensive. He went on: Anyway, the stones now being used no longer have much to do with Rome: we import the lot from Hong Kong. That in turn is because quarries near Albano, which had furnished the hard volcanic flint since ancient Roman times, closed down two decades ago.
The mayor has promised that an exception is to be made for Piazza Venezia which, although it is not much more than a traffic roundabout nowadays, is nevertheless one of the citys historic squares. It will therefore be restored and have its cobblestoned bumps ironed out.
But whence the word sampietrini? DAndrea said it derived from the fact that the cobbles were first laid in the mid-16th century along the streets converging on San Pietro, replacing the far larger Roman paving stones which can still be seen today on stretches of Via Appia Antica where it passes between Roman tombs.
All over Rome the cobbles, which come in three sizes, have been arranged by skilled selciaroli, or pavers (now a mini-tribe of only half-a-dozen), in three different patterns: tiered rainbow arches, peacock tails and herringbone spines.
Joining the chorus welcoming a more limited use of cobblestones is Maurizio Galletti, superintendent of the Rome architectural heritage department (soprintendenza per i beni architettonici e per il paesaggio), who pointed out that not only is the traffic noise greater on cobbles than it is on asphalt, but the passing vehicles also set off vibrations that threaten the capitals monuments and works of art. Getting rid of cobblestones along Via della Lungara in Trastevere, he pointed out, had saved the frescoes by Raphael in Villa Farnesina.
However, one of Italys foremost architects, Paolo Portoghesi, who was responsible for the design of Romes mosque, is hostile to any messing with the cobbles. Its an absurd idea. They are part of Romes history and should be safeguarded. All they need is better maintenance
He is echoed by Mario Mecetelli, who heads an association of residents in the historic centre (associazione per la tutela del centro storico di Roma): We oppose removal of the cobbles. They belong to a past handed down to us from far back. All they require is proper upkeep. I mean a hole is a hole, whether in cobbles or asphalt.
Mecetelli sees the removal of many cobbles as the finishing flourish to what he thinks is the destruction of the city centre over the past 20 years, its transformation from a countryfied and artisan Rome to a rowdy and trendy place monopolised by commercial sharks. Once we all knew each other in our rione. My mother chatted with every soul around us. But now nobody knows anyone any more. Weve become chic. Were filling up with film people, journalists and foreigners, those who can afford 3,000 a month for a two-or-three-room flat.
A fourth-generation Roman, Mecetellis was a pained, personal lament for a vanished Rome. He reminisced: You know, there was once a carriage maker in Via Teatro del Pace. They were filming Ben Hur and he was the one who made all the chariots for it. Now its a pizzeria. Then in Via della Tor Millina, off Piazza Navona, where I live, there used to be an ecclesiastical tailors. They proudly made the vestments for John XXIII and showed them off in their windows. Now its a pub.
However, the fight to safeguard the historic centre continues. Mecetellis association, together with one called Centro Storico, led by Vivian Di Capua, is now on the warpath against the unchecked spread of restaurant tables over the pavements and streets. Mecetelli is also against the creation of any more pedestrian precincts before residents have been given alternative slots for their cars. The overall goal: to prevent Rome turning into just any other city.