As Rome Modernizes, Its Past Quietly Crumbles

ROME — The Eternal City is anything but.

Collapses this spring at a couple of ancient sites here caused weary archaeologists to warn, yet again, about other imminent calamities threatening Rome’s precarious architectural birthright.

Meanwhile, the smart set went gaga when an ostentatious national museum for contemporary art, Maxxi, opened recently, along with an expansion to the city-run new-art museum, Macro. That was just after Rome’s mayor, Gianni Alemanno, convened a conference for planners and architects to mull a bid for the 2020 Olympics as an incentive to update Italy’s capital. Contemporary architecture now promises to be the engine and symbol of a new creative identity for Rome that, if development is done right for a change, would complement the city’s glorious past.

“What does Rome want to be when it grows up?” is how Richard Burdett, a planner from London with Italian roots, put the situation the other day. He meant the situation of Rome at a crossroads, struggling ahead, falling behind.

Change is never easy here. When a museum designed by Richard Meier, a glass and marble building to house the Ara Pacis, opened a few years ago, Romans howled. But then, it resembles a clunky, fascist mausoleum. Maxxi, whose style presents a whole other set of problems, has fared much better in terms of public approval, attracting some 74,000 visitors in its first month and accelerating talk by leaders like Mr. Alemanno about Rome in the 21st century.


Especially when some of the best [monument] of it is falling down. Exhibit A: the Domus Aurea, the Golden Villa that Nero built near the Colosseum, where a vaulted gallery fell this spring. Nobody was hurt, fortunately. That’s because the place has been closed since 2008, plagued by structural problems and humidity, which threatens the frescoes. To much fanfare, the city opened part of the site for tourists in 1999. Then heavy rain collapsed a section of roof, the site was closed, reopened a while later, then closed again.

A commission assigned to address the problem spent millions but didn’t forestall the latest mishap. Construction workers were fussing with earthmovers, bits and pieces of ancient columns, broken pots and scaffolding one recent morning. Fedora Filippi, a veteran archaeologist lately put in charge, pointed out where the roof gave way in what is actually an adjacent gallery built under Trajan, after Nero. Rain seeped from a park above, she said. Everybody has known about the leaking for ages. But the park is city-owned, and the Domus Aurea is national property, so the problem is no one’s to solve.

After the Domus Aurea gave way, some chunks fell off the Colosseum. Salvo Barrano, vice president of Italy’s Association of National Archaeologists, afterward listed threats to the aqueducts, the Palatine. The country is basically one giant archaeological site, Mr. Barrano said, with every town and region vying for resources, no politician willing to make hard choices, and too few qualified engineers and archaeologists in charge.


New Rome, old Rome. Roberto Cecchi, in charge of overseeing the city’s prized but crumbling archaeological sites, had a strikingly similar refrain: “Roman engineers worried 2,000 years ago about maintaining the city,” he said. “We must set down methods and rules. We must start to think ahead, not just respond when crises happen.”

So in theory everyone’s on the same page.

But who knows? This is Rome. Some things are eternal. (Bron: The New York Times, samengevat)


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