There exists within the southern boundary of Rome a city within a city, without parallel elsewhere in the peninsula, where they have now begun to kill off a reputation that has clung to Italy for centuries.

It is the so-called military city of Cecchignola, a drab fascist-period agglomeration of army training schools 2 km south-east of EUR. The reputation is that of the Italian fighting man as a Falstaff-ian figure of fun with a marked tendency to run a mile at the first bang.

A drastic change has now come over the Italian army, acknowledged General Gaetano Romeo, commander not only of Cecchignola but of all training establishments in Italy, including the army officers academy of Modena in Emilia Romagna, the countrys equivalent of the British Sandhurst.

The gradual transformation of the army over the past decade came to a head in January 2005 when Italy, way behind the rest of Europe, finally abolished the widely hated leva, or compulsory military service.

But surely the end of the leva made it harder to find recruits?

Just the opposite, said the general. There are far more out there than we can handle. Last year, about 100,000 lads applied to enlist. We only had room for 12,500. Hence the selection process has become much more severe. Thats why weve got a better quality recruit than before, because they go through two choices before getting here: first their own, second, ours. So the education level is now higher: 60 per cent have upper school leaving certificates (terza media superiore) and five per cent have university degrees General Romeo did not mention other regulation requirements, such as abstention from excessive drinking and from even the occasional use of drugs. Recruits also had to be of impeccable behaviour and morality.

A former tank battalion commander from near Reggio Calabria, the general went on: As a result the Italian army of today is a totally professional outfit, more motivated, better trained and better equipped than ever before. In fact, in terms of equipment, its now up to British or American standards. He implied that was all a far cry from even not very long ago, when the Italian soldier was looked down upon both at home and abroad as an ill-paid, sloppy figure slouching around in thin boots with an ancient rifle.

But why does anybody want to sign on in the first place?

Look, outsiders seem to think we only get volunteers because they cant find a job elsewhere. It is simply not true. Money comes into it of course; they get about 750 a month from the day they join. But the main reasons are two. One: reflected glory. Recruits realise theyll be joining an army now held in much higher esteem by the public than before. Why? Because of our peace-keeping missions. The public now sees us as demonstrating Italys respect for other, worse-off people around the world, our peaceful vocation. And theyre glad to see Italianity being exported abroad, that is, lets say, our special human approach to operations, such as in the treatment of civilians. Two: recruits now hanker after the adventure and prestige of such a calling. And of course, sharing danger with other nations troops appeals to their youth.

But there was also a huge novelty about todays army. More than 50 years behind Britain, Italy has finally got around to admitting women among its ranks. They were apparently among the best too: one woman corporal had a degree in philosophy.

Cecchignola, built under Mussolini as a transit-camp for recruits being sent off to the battlefronts, is today attended by roughly 6,000 military personnel on courses at any one time, their partners living beyond the 10-km long perimeter. One of its four schools, the engineering wing, turns out men with the trickiest jobs in the whole army.

They are Italys top bomb-disposal experts, the same who neutralise those second world war bombs that keep being discovered on building sites and the like, who defuse booby-traps and clear land mines. The schools commander is Lt. Colonel Giovanni Alesi, a burly, resolute character with a trimmed white beard, and he showed us around classrooms and outdoor sites bristling with nasty objects of evil intent, from midget mines disguised as dolls shoes to disembowelled Skud missiles. Gifts from former Warsaw Pact countries were on display as well since one of the schools recent tasks had been to figure out how the booby traps worked.

Then Col. Alesi led us off through the drizzle to what looked exactly like a huge water boiler. They found this in a cemetery in Vicenza and called us in. Just as well: it was packed with high explosives. You British called these things Cookies. It must have been ditched by a some bomber of yours limping home...

A shy lieutenant just back from Nasiriyah in Iraq was with us. What had been his own diciest moment?

We were trying to decipher the workings of a pretty big trap. We were getting nowhere when we realised it was a decoy for the real trap right behind us. We dealt with it and then saw wed had only seconds to spare.

It must require a certain mentality, this job?

My men enjoy a scorn for danger, the colonel answered quietly. Theyre lucid and cold.

Their wives cant appreciate their calling very much.

Were professionals. The profession comes first, wives second.