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Rome's Lighthouse Sends Signals to the City

March 05, 1989|NINO LO BELLO | Lo Bello is an American author and journalist living in Austria

ROME — On the top of Janiculum Hill is a real lighthouse hiding 20 miles from the Mediterranean Sea.

Il Faro (the lighthouse) continues to flash its beam every night from dusk till dawn to ships that aren't there--to a sea that is too far away to be seen from any of Rome's seven hills.

What's a lighthouse doing inside Rome?

Although the Romans take the lighthouse for granted and consider it as much a part of the city as the Colosseum or Via Veneto, tourists who see it are truly puzzled, especially if they come upon it in the early evening when the lighthouse is sending out its colored flashes.

It even has a foghorn, but when the sound mechanism works, it can't carry farther than three miles.

Forty feet high, the lighthouse is about 300 yards from the main square on the pinnacle of Janiculum Hill. Also there, a statue of Italy's Risorgimento hero, Giuseppe Garibaldi, reigns supreme and where the crowds gather every day at noon to watch the traditional cannon boom, which in itself is a curiosity.

Overlooks Rooftops

If you walk north along Janiculum's paved, descending roadway the lighthouse will be on your right, overlooking Rome's rooftops. No one, however, is permitted to enter.

Most of the people who work on Janiculum and those who live nearby are not quite sure how Il Faro ever got there or what it is supposed to accomplish.

A government official found in the archives a dossier that showed that Italian residents of Buenos Aires gave the lighthouse to Rome as a gift in 1920.

Luigi Luiggi, a delegate of the Committee of Italians in Argentina and himself an engineer, delivered a speech on Sept. 19, 1920, on the day of the presentation to Mayor Adolfo Apolloni and other VIPs.

According to the handwritten text of Luiggi's talk, the lighthouse had been offered as a "tangible sign of affection for the fatherland" on the occasion of Rome's half-century anniversary as the capital of unified Italy.

'Vow Beacon'

Luiggi explained that the reason a lighthouse was chosen as a present was not necessarily to beam warning signals to craft at sea but to provide a "vow beacon," much in the same way a "votive fire" was installed at the tomb of Dante in Ravenna.

City Hall documents also show that the original scheme was to flash the flag colors of Italy (green, white and red) across the city whenever there was a major holiday.

Immediately after the unveiling, however, city officials decided that the tower was to send out its flashes daily, and the order is still being carried out.

Only during World War II was the light turned off because of enemy air raids.

In 1970, on the occasion of Rome's 100th anniversary as Italy's capital city, a composer wrote an opera in which the Janiculum lighthouse figured heavily, but the opera was never staged.

As is the wont of every Roman, the quips began to fly. Said one wit who set out to one-up all the others:

"His Honor the Mayor was looking for something very dramatic. And what the composer did was produce a light opera that was not on the beam."

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