New attitude to archaeology was not built in a day

City Life, Rome
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The Independent Online

On Monday, 3,000 people flocked to the 35-hectare site of the Villa Quintili on the old Appian Way, the remains of one of the biggest constructions of ancient Rome. The event felt like a big village fête; some locals even took the floral displays home as mementoes.

On Monday, 3,000 people flocked to the 35-hectare site of the Villa Quintili on the old Appian Way, the remains of one of the biggest constructions of ancient Rome. The event felt like a big village fête; some locals even took the floral displays home as mementoes.

Further along the Appian Way visitors were able to explore the monumental tomb of Cecilia Metella, only just opened to the public.

Rome has this week been living a four-day archaeological extravaganza, with the reopening of important monuments and the inauguration of the Museo Nazionale Romano, one of the city's showcases for ancient Roman art. There are concerts, theatre and - inevitably - cultural debates. Today, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, entry to archaeological sites, ruins and museums is free.

Call it the " Gladiator effect" if you like, but Romans - traditionally offhand, verging on hostile, towards the history beneath their feet - are rediscovering their roots.

Underground finds are usually linked to the difficulties of living in a modern metropolis - the third metro line had to be ditched when it ran into some ruins, and tunnels and underground car parks have been abandoned. But Tourist Office figures show that more residents of the city are now visiting its archaeological sites and museums.

"Romans wouldn't be Romans if they didn't complain about everything. They object to the fact that digging works cause traffic problems, or that pedestrianised areas mean they can't take the shortest route," said Signor Orlando a laconic character at the Trajan's Markets ticket desk.

"But when they actually come to a concert or an exhibition or bring their kids, they leave with big beaming smiles. And there are lots of teenagers coming of their own accord, which is a good sign," he said.

The events of this week reflect a sea change in the politics of archaeology in the city. Until five years ago digging was at a virtual standstill, many sites were not accessible to the public and efforts to renew and restore were dogged not just by bureaucracy and political bickering, but by a severe shortage of funding.

But the Culture Minister at the time, Walter Veltroni, and Rome's mayor, Francesco Rutelli, were keen to make Rome shine for the 2000 Jubilee and its expected influx of visitors. They helped unblock money and ensure co-ordination between the central and city authorities.

The new approach in the Imperial Forum is to allow archaeologists to continue work, but to let visitors in at the same time. A tunnel connects the Roman and Imperial Forums, and eventually Trajan's Markets - perhaps the world's first shopping mall - will be linked to the sites.

The ambitious project to create a single archaeological area embracing the two forums, the Colosseum, Capitoline Hill, Circus Maximus and the area including the Bocca della Verita through to the Portico D'Ottavia was first proposed in 1981.

Adriano La Regina, Rome's cultural superintendent, says: "The problem was that our plans envisage the closure and removal of Via dei Fori Imperiali, a road with a strong historical significance. It was built under Mussolini and is perhaps the most powerful symbol of that Fascist period. So what should have been an archaeological, town planning, cultural debate became improperly political." The proposal sparked a row and 15 years of paralysis.

The inauguration on Tuesday evening of the Museo Nazionale Romano, in the ancient Baths of Diocletian, marks the completion of a network of archaeological sites and museums designed to house some of the city's immense collection of treasures and to improve public access to them.

The chain of museums includes Nero's Golden House, the Domus Aurea, Palazzo Massimo, Palazzo Altemps, Villa Quintili and the Capitoline Museums.

"Before, there was little logic in how and where different artefacts and statues were displayed," said Mr La Regina. "Now each site has its own museum and together they give an extraordinary overview of what went on in our city in centuries past."

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