Bestselling book on Rome Italy
Bestselling book on Rome Italy



Letters from Italy

Venice: In Grand Style
Italian Eating Habits
Pope John Paul II
Modern Art in Rome
Parking in Rome
Getting around Rome
Christmas in Rome

Parking in Rome
“The Most Precious Fifty Feet on Earth”

Ciao Amici,

Just fifty more feet and the project would be finished -- the last piece of a ramp that leads up to the Gianicolo hill, near St. Peter's and the Castel St. Angelo, under which the city had built an 800-space parking garage to hold tour buses and automobiles in order to alleviate traffic jams that by now are legendary in Rome. At the passing of the Millennium, there was blockage in the city that lasted two days. To give an idea how significant this construction is, you have to remember that Rome has almost no parking lots, that finding a space to leave a car is a madcap scramble that often sees vehicles parked on the sidewalk, in pedestrian strips, and just about anywhere anyone can find the requisite few feet to deposit a macchina. The Gianicolo garage would be a crowning piece of necessary construction to handle both the normal influx of cars in the city, and the expected millions who are set to flock to Rome for the Jubilee of the year 2000. Romans had put up with more than a year of detours, deviations, and blocked streets while the parking lot was built, and now there was just a ramp of fifty feet between the city and 800 precious parking spaces in a patrolled garage that would be open from 7:00 till midnight, 365 days a year, at a cost of just $1.50 an hour.

Work continued during the final few days like any other, but suddenly construction stopped as if a medieval Papal decree had been handed down. Excavation had unearthed the remains of a house dating from the third century AD, and it was clear from the well-preserved frescoes on the walls of the rooms under the surface of the ramp that a possible major work of art and archeology of inestimable value had been unearthed. Immediately the government decreed a moratorium on further work while art historians could study what had been uncovered. Years of planning and projecting, millions of dollar spent, carefully-laid traffic and feasibility studies were useless in the face of the pull of the past in Rome. This is a city where history counts.

The politicians lined up this way and that. Mayor Francesco Rutelli, who of course bears the brunt of the citizens' ire at long traffic delays and the impossibility of finding parking spaces, after 45 days of no bulldozing came out in favor of going ahead with the ramp, saying that the city could not be held hostage to every single piece of ruin that might be dug up in the course of construction. The Culture Minister Giovanna Melandri, who was actually born in New York and belongs the same coalition as the mayor, urged continued construction delay while a final assessment could be made as to the historical worth of the house. Bulldozing the frescoes could result in an irremediable loss, from which the national artistic patrimony would never recover.

The area of the city under the Gianicolo is rife with historical ruins. It is near the ancient circus where St. Peter was crucified, which resulted in the building of the original basilica of St. Peter's, since replaced by Michelangelo's current structure in the 16th century, across the Tiber in an area that had been countryside in ancient Rome. Because of Peter's martyrdom, many clandestine Christians had flocked to the general vicinity, and speculation arose that the house had been home to some of the Rome's early believers. Thus the two sides squared off at the highest government levels, as the national ruling coalition, also of the left, was called upon to decide what to do. Delay indefinitely while the year 2000 rolls along and the garage remains without its principal access, or go ahead and block up the artistic discovery so that Romans have a place to put their cars?

Imagine trying to govern this city, where these types of conflicts are almost commonplace. When you listen to the arguments of both sides, you can't help but feel that they are both right, that Rome's artistic heritage must be preserved at all costs, and at the same time its citizens need services and an infrastructure to deal with the realities of modern life. First it was decided to go head, then to stop, then to go ahead again. It seemed like a decision trapped within a revolving door. That fifty-foot stretch of ramp was fought over as if it were worth its length in gold. The irremovable object had met the irreplaceable force.

On January 31 the Pope blessed the opening of the garage. It has a self-service snack bar with 430 places and a restaurant that seats 36. One can rent a car, buy a newspaper, and leave one's macchina securely within minutes of some of Rome's most famous attractions. The Pope then took the elevator to the sixth floor, where he spoke to the management and workers who made it all possible. The cars and tour buses are pouring in under the Gianicolo, while the ramp designed to handle the largest flow, whose work stopped five months ago, remains eerily empty while internationally-renown experts decide whether to bring the old Roman house to light, or plunge it forever into darkness.

Alan Epstein

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