Danny from Dublin knew his stuff. He sped a puffing group of 19 visitors from Piazza di Spagna This was once known as Piazza di Francia to the junction of Via di Propaganda and Via della Mercede: The big house on the corner there was where Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the genius of baroque Rome, lived. If youre not acquainted with him, you can take it from me youll be hearing his name an awful lot while youre here.

A few giggled. Relaxed, hands in pockets, Danny smiled with them. In his early twenties, with a degree in Italian and history from University College Dublin, he was beginning to win the wary ones over. Although he was a controversial figure and arrogant, Bernini needed a house of that size because he had quite a way with women and had 11 children. Now they all laughed.

How did he die? someone demanded. Of natural causes. He was 82. Ooohs of wonder.

In front of the Trevi fountain the group was then treated to a learned disquisition on how it symbolised water as the fount of life. Interestingly, Danny pointed at little-noted vegetables sprouting under its gushing influence. The connoisseurs turn up their nose, but this is baroque art so you can do what you like. Its all very over the top

You can see all this and not understand. Its nice to have someone pull it together for you, remarked a lady from Massachusetts. Too much hot air for me, retorted her stooping husband.

Danny works for one of Romes many allegedly not-for-profit cultural associations, whose guides are meant to show only association members around, though Dannys flock, on a three-hour trudge, had paid out 20 for the privilege of joining. Such guides run the constant risk of being checked out by fine-toting police, though they are less vulnerable than independent free-lancers, mainly foreign students, who waylay tourists around the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. Guiding for all means bread-and-butter, of course, but for brave ones like Danny it is also a way of preparing for a brutally severe examination that would-be official guides have to undergo in order to earn their licence, the so-called patentino.

Competition is fierce. Trials are organised by the province of Rome only once every two or three years, and candidates for the last one numbered 4,400. Only 492 made it. The examinees first face a written multiple choice quiz: questions with three answers to choose from. For example: 1. What are the colombari? a) An ancient Roman family; b) a place of burial; c) an aviary. 2. The church of S. Maria Egiziaca is built in: a) the Temple of Ercole Vincitore; b) the Temple wrongly called the Temple of Vesta; c) the Temple of Portunus? 3. Which famous tower in Rome is known as Neros or Mecenates? a) Torre dei Conti; b) Torre delle Milizie; c) Torre del Grillo.

Those who score 70 per cent or more are later summoned for a 35-minute sadistic, nit-picking grilling by five university lecturers. Olivia, an Anglo-Italian, got through the ordeal, but one hurdle she failed to clear was the subject of a canvas by Piazzetta in the Galleria dellAccademia di S. Luca, off Via del Tritone. It hoards pictures by the score. (Giovanni Battista Piazzetta was an 18th-century Venetian artist.) She was able, though, to identify the coat-of-arms in the courtyard of Palazzo Spada near Piazza Farnese.

The exam was so prickly, she explained, because the world of Romes 1,200 professional guides was almost a closed shop, hostile to newcomers and especially scornful of people with qualifications such as degrees. But, she said, she was unaware that in Rome the coveted patentino could be the product of shady shortcuts, as various unlicensed guides hotly alleged, but she did acknowledge predictable bad blood between the official and unofficial camps. Once it ended in a punch-up in the Roman Forum itself, with people being beaten up. But Olivia, who now works independently, added: It doesnt bother me because I so enjoy the job. Its the pleasure of sharing the experience of discovery with people.

I dont like my people to get into fights with the illegals. I ask them to be civilised and to leave the illegals alone. After all, they get paid enough, said pipe-smoking, tweedy-looking Gianluca Ciccoloni, general manager of CAST, one of the two rival unions to which all recognised guides must belong. He understandably had it in for the less gifted Dannys of Rome. They dont have the culture and they cannot assume responsibility for people as we do. CAST grouped 300 members, boasted a staff of 30 full-time guides, and in the peak season handled, by phone and via internet, some 50 requests a day for guides for Rome and all over Italy.

The other union is the bigger and older Tourist Guide Center of Rome, or SNGT, which charges claimed official tariffs, that is 87,80 for taking around groups of up to 20 for up to three hours, and 15 per cent more on holidays. Romes provincial tourist board on Via Parigi warned that only the unions guaranteed putting tourists into the hands of real experts, but, elastic nonetheless, it is ready to hand over a list of 30 other bodies offering guided tours. Were their guides gilt-edged too? The girl behind the counter fluttered her hands and smiled sweetly. Lets hope so.

The unions: CAST, Via Cavour 184, tel. 064825698, e-mail: cast@uni.net. Ask for Sig.ra Luisa. Tourist Guide Center of Rome (SNGT), Via S. Maria delle Fornaci 8, tel. 066390409, e-mail: guiderm@uni.net. Ask for Sig.ra Laura. Quiz answers: 1. b; 2. c, though usually called Tempio della Fortuna Virile; 3. b. Piazzettas subject: Judith and Holofernes. Spada crest: that of the Mignanelli family.