The Eclipse: Italy - World shares a strange ceremony of science, superstition and awe

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The Independent Online
THE POPE joined millions of Italians scrutinising the sky yesterday after cutting short his weekly audience so as not to miss the last eclipse of the millennium. "I'll stop now, as I know that some among you are in a hurry to view the eclipse," he told his audience in the Vatican before flying by helicopter to his holiday residence at Castelgandolfo in time for the event.

Press reports had indicated he would watch the entire event from the helicopter but pictures shot by Vatican television showed him staring through tinted glass from the terrace of his summer residence with a group of Polish astronomer friends.

With most Romans having fled the city, those left behind poured into the streets to glimpse the astral phenomenon. The few remaining functionaries at the Prime Minister's office flocked on to the terrace and the labourers involved in roadworks ahead of the Holy Year 2000 took a break from their diggers.

Though the Sun was only 84 per cent obscured over Rome, the sky darkened and there was a slight drop in temperature. In most cases, eclipse-viewing glasses were scarce, after a last-minute run on opticians and hardware stores. Welders' helmets and sheets of special glass were shared around.

Four babies were born in Rome during the eclipse. Two young Israeli boys on holiday in the city took advantage of their parents' distraction and disappeared but were found soon afterwards in a nearby street. Police in the capital had issued warnings that thieves might go into action while the city was distracted, but there was no reported surge in thefts. In Italy's economic centre, Milan, where there was a 92-per-cent eclipse, thousands of people abandoned offices and shops to gaze upwards. In Naples, the superstitious played Lotto numbers pertaining to the eclipse.