The street that died from 'La Dolce Vita'

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VIA VENETO is dying. After Harry's Bar, the Caffe Strega, and Doney's, the famous pavement cafes around which swirled the legendary, star-spangled dolce vita of the Fifties and Sixties, now the most famous of all, the Cafe de Paris, has been closed down.

The tables are gone, and only the old signs still hang over the semi-deserted pavements where paparazzi would wait to snatch a shot of Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Ava Gardner or Kim Novak with their new amours; where their eyes would be blackened and cameras smashed by proud escorts or Frank Sinatra's bodyguards; where beautiful girls would parade in the hopes of catching the eye of some film director or Roman prince.

But where the jet set cruised in open cars on a warm summer's evening, passers-by are choked by the stench and deafened by the racket of today's traffic. The Mondadori bookshop, beloved of the journalists, writers, politicians and intellectuals who frequented Rosati's and the Caffe Strega, is gone. So are many of the smart shops, even airline offices: 30 businesses have closed in the past 12 months.

Most tourists have long since deserted the Via Veneto; only groups of Japanese wander through, doubtless wondering what on earth all the fuss was about. The odd cafe is still going. I had an orange juice in one the other day. There were only two other people there and when the bill came I realised why: it cost more than pounds 5.

In the late Fifties and Sixties Rome, and especially the Italian cinema centred here, was brilliant, giddy, scandal-loving and fun, and its heart was the Via Veneto. And the heart of the Via Veneto was its cafes, its night-clubs and restaurants for, as the writer Ennio Flaiano once quipped, the Via Veneto is 'a strictly gastro- sexual experience'.

Flaiano and the film director Federico Fellini immortalised the street, its glitter, its elan and its dissipation, in their film La Dolce Vita. Tanio Secchiaroli, the most dynamic and cynical of the cameramen, inspired the role of Paparazzo, and the name has remained that of the prying, freelance photographer. Marcello Mastroianni, the journalist-star opposite the glamorous Anita Ekberg, hung out in the Cafe de Paris.

Old habitues say the film was also the beginning of the end of the Via Veneto. People began to behave as in the film and what had been genuinely a gathering place for the film world, intelligentsia, high society and tourists, became a parody of itself.

And the world has moved on. The Italian cinema is not what it was, although Fellini and Mastroianni are still big names. Tanio Secchiaroli lives once again in the working-class suburb he came from. He does not think much of the paparazzi of today, but admits that the shots of the Duchess of York topless were 'the biggest scoop since the war'. Anita Ekberg is now a large, but still attractive lady living with her dogs in the country.

But above all the demise of the Via Veneto reflects the decay of street life in Rome, where elegance and glitz have given way to vulgarity, suffocating traffic, garbage and neglect. The Cafe de Paris, where the gourmet ex-King Farouk of Egypt used to dine with his leggy blondes, was closed down, ingloriously, because its kitchens were filthy. The city authorities, gripped by the political crisis that pervades all Italy, apparently cannot be bothered to save what was once their most famous street.

Some Roman personalities are proposing that the Via Veneto be turned into a pedestrian precinct and revived, not as it used to be for those days are inevitably over, but once again as a place where people can stroll, sit, see and be seen. But people have been talking about reviving it for years.