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DESTINATION: ITALY : Polished up for the Holy Year,
the Eternal City restores antiquities, reopens museums
and adds other sites to its already impressive array

Rome Renewed

August 27, 2000|DALE M. BROWN

ROME — Of the many schemes the cities of the world have devised to mark the new millennium, Rome's offers some of the most permanent benefits. The marble of its churches, palazzos and monuments has been scrubbed clean, glowing with sugar-cube brightness.

The face lifts are just the beginning. Old museums have been refurbished, and new ones have opened. And in some places, Rome has managed the all but unthinkable: It has banned traffic, turning about 100 piazzas into oases of calm.

My wife, Liet, and I discovered these changes on a June visit. Whenever we're here, we are drawn to the Roman Forum to dream away an hour or two wandering among the ruins. But this time we found something new: In the most expensive of the city's Holy Year projects, archeologists have been busy digging out the later Imperial Forums of the emperors Caesar, Augustus, Nerva and Trajan just next door. Visitors now don hard hats and enter the site, where they are escorted by archeologists.

Mussolini, in a rush to drive a grand new avenue from the Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum, ran roughshod over the area in the 1930s. In creating the Via dei Fori Imperiali, he ordered dozens of medieval and Renaissance buildings torn down to make way for the boulevard, which sliced the Imperial Forums in two, and even had some of the Roman remains covered over; they were rediscovered as the structures were removed.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 3, 2000 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Bernini sculpture--In a story on Italy ("Rome Renewed," Aug. 27), a sculpture by Giovanni Bernini in Rome's Borghese Gallery was incorrectly identified. It is a sculpture of Apollo and Daphne, not Cupid and Psyche.

When the excavation is complete in 2001 at a cost of $10.5 million, the reconnected forums on both sides of the avenue will be the world's largest archeological park. (The Roman Forum is already a public space, now free to anyone who wishes to wander through it.)

It's humbling to enter the imperial complex through an ancient sewer that's big enough to walk through. It took us under Via dei Fori to the end of the long and narrow Forum of Nerva. Ahead, we could see a segment of the road that once led into town.

Farther on, in the Forum of Trajan, we came across archeologists sifting the dust, searching for clues about the place. To build his forum and the adjacent market, Trajan ordered much of one of Rome's seven hills carted away. It was a thrill to stand on the flattened site--on the pavement the emperor had put down--and to see Trajan's name carved on a broken piece of entablature that the archeologists recently unearthed and left where it had fallen during an earthquake in the 9th century.

Other archeologists have unearthed the remnants of the 2,000-year-old Balbi Crypt, in its heyday a vast arched courtyard. The finds made during the 20-year excavation and restoration have been installed in a newly opened complex that dates back to the Middle Ages. These offer vivid insights into the evolution of the city from Roman times to the 20th century.

The Colosseum has also undergone a make-over. Its interior walls were strengthened and brought back to their original color, and a segment of the arena floor was rebuilt in oak and will double as a stage for evening performances of drama and music.

Out on the Appian Way, the Tomb of Cecilia Metella has been readied for visits. An exhibition has been mounted in the adjacent Caetani Castle showing examples of rich funeral decorations from some of the other magnificent tombs erected beside the famous roadway.

The restored treasure that truly captured our imagination was the Domus Aurea, the Golden House of the Emperor Nero, near the Colosseum. Closed for 17 years, it reopened in April after a million-dollar restoration. In Nero's day it had 250 rooms and numerous gardens on 125 acres that a fire (the one that supposedly started Nero fiddling) cleared. When Nero died, much of the original structure was demolished and the surviving chambers were filled with--and buried under--rubble, most of which has since been removed.

Descending a ramp into the Domus Aurea is like entering a cool, dim cave. It was an eerie feeling as we moved from one shadow-filled chamber to another, taking in what Nero's debauched revelers had once seen in a drunken haze. The emperor's octagonal dining room, illuminated by a round skylight, is still largely intact. A marvel of its age, the original ceiling revolved.

Not content to retrieve its ancient past from the clutch of time, Rome has also lavished money on some of its great cultural institutions. Atop the hill of the same name, the Capitoline Museums--the Palazzos Nuovo, Senatorio and Caffarelli--have been architecturally renewed. An underground passageway now links the Nuovo and Caffarelli, with a stairway rising to the Tabularium, an ancient archive, which offers outstanding views of the Forum and Palatine Hill from its arched walkway.

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