Sunday, February 04, 2007

March of progress

Last weekend's Wall Street Journal had a piece about the recent truce between Rome's subway operator, Roma Metropolitane SpA, and the city's preservation office.

Metro wants to provide subway service to the tourist-clogged old city, but in most of that district, you can't plant a sapling without hitting a piece of antiquity with your spade. In the past, city planners got things done by trying to hide projects from the archaeological community until it was too late to do anything about it.

In the most egregious example, under Mussolini, builders of a canal alongside the ruins of the Forum trucked out their excavated dirt, artifacts and all, without pausing to examine any of it. Then they clipped a corner off the foundation of the Colosseum. Work continued uninterrupted.

When city preservationists asserted themselves in the 1950s, the result was gridlock. When construction of the Metro A line began in 1962, it ran smack into the Baths of Diocletian (much of which were repurposed into St. Mary of the Angels and Martyrs, a 16th century basilica). Plans were redesigned, sacrifices were made, and the first train didn't run until 1980.

Fortunately, the city preservation office understands that a tourist mecca with 2.5 million people needs to continually improve and maintain its mass transit. They have worked with Metro to hash out the current subway plan, which will run 80 feet underground—below the oldest archaeological strata—and allow the archaeologists to get first crack at any dig site. The WSJ article featured a photo of workers excavating an ancient tavern near the Colosseum.

Ironically, the subway project, which is scheduled for completion in 2015, has been an unexpected boon for the preservation office. "We never get to dig in the center of Rome," said Angelo Bottini, the head of the office.

I'll actually be in Rome in a few weeks (!), so I'll try to get some photos of the dig.

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