It is a mark of the persuasiveness of the deputy prime minister in the last Italian government, Walter Veltroni, who also doubled as the nation’s minister of culture, that the grandest archaeological project to be undertaken in Italy in the last fifty years is passing virtually without sniping in mainstream newspapers and is being hailed by the specialist press with a range of superlatives unseen since Mussolini effectively enforced censorship of the nation’s newspapers.
The most politically sensitive archaeological area in Italy, the excavated ancient fora, which occupy a vast sector of central Rome, is now being overhauled.
In antiquity the fora served as the political and administrative centres of Republican and then imperial power. With the fall of empire, the fora were abandoned and largely built over until Mussolini undertook a vast programme of excavation in 1932.
First, he relegated hundreds of inhabitants to the outskirts of the city; then he personally supervised the demolition of all the residential buildings and churches that stood in the way.
An army of archaeologists was mobilised to resurrect the vestiges of Rome’s greatness. Working day and night they uncovered more of ancient Rome than the world of post-antiquity had ever seen. But in 1932 two-thirds of the newly excavated remains were submerged in cement by Mussolini’s Via dell’Impero which connects Piazza Venezia, the centre of Fascist administration where Mussolini had his offices, with the Colosseum. The Via dell’Impero was used to stage spectacular processions of Fascist soldiers against the backdrop of Roman ruins, labouring the continuity between the military might of ancient and modern Rome.
No other archaeological project has been so hotly contested in Italy in the last twenty years as the question of what to do with the ancient fora. Archaeologists have persistently called for the demolition of Mussolini’s road, renamed the Via dei Fori Imperiali after World War II. It slashes diagonally through the right-angle arrangement of the fora, making the excavated remains at its fringes difficult to interpret. But the road carries much of central Rome’s traffic which makes its demolition virtually impossible.
Proposals floated in the Eighties to excavate the vast unexplored areas on the fringes of the Via dei Fori Imperiali were rejected or endorsed by politicians according to their allegiances. Francesco Rutelli, Mayor of Rome for the last five years, has been an enthusiastic supporter of excavations, but until last year his plans have been scuppered by political opponents.
Excavations are now underway to connect the ancient remains on either side of Mussolini’s road, as part of Italy’s plans for the Jubilee in the year 2000 (The Art Newspaper, No.81, May 1998, pp.34-36). The road itself was built on a sequence of arches which support its weight. If all goes according to plan, by the year 2000 these underlying arches will be excavated and will remain exposed, turning the Via dei Fori Imperiali into an elevated structure resembling an ancient aqueduct. Visitors will then be able to walk through the arches underneath the road as they visit the vast archaeological park that is to be created.
Extensive excavations are underway at Caesar’s Forum where an extra third is to be excavated by 2000. The visible area around the Temple of Peace will increase sevenfold, while an extra 50% of Trajan’s Markets will come to light.
By autumn 1999, an archaeological pathway will lead visitors to the recently uncovered monuments and sites. The main entrances to this pathway will be created at Trajan’s Markets and at the Clivius Argentarium, the Roman road which ran between the Capitol and the Quirinal Hills.
The remains of the Basilica Ulpia, where the Romans administered justice, are to have their own museum built around them. The cellars of medieval buildings and ancient water pipes, unearthed during recent excavations, will be used as underground pedestrian routes between Trajan’s Forum and Caesar’s Forum. The latter is to be re-connected to Nerva’s Forum through the cellars of medieval buildings and a stretch of the Cloaca Massima, the Republican drainage system which served a great portion of the city.
The planned network of pedestrian routes may change as work proceeds. It will probably be on several levels, some at street level, others underground. Via Alessandrina, all that remains of the sixteenth-century centre dismantled during the Fascist period, will eventually be demolished. An international competition may be launched for the reorganisation of some areas.
To prepare for the two million annual visitors expected, information points are to be built along the pedestrian paths as part of a larger multimedia information system.
This vast urban excavation project, which entails the almost total reconstitution of the ancient city in a modern setting, would never have been possible if the bureaucratic obstruction that turns many a public project in Italy into a Herculean task had not been bypassed. The situation in this case might be aggravated by the shared jurisdiction over the area between the government and the city of Rome. An agreement is now being drawn up between the leaders of the various bodies responsible for the project: the Soprintendente, Adriano la Regina; his colleague from the City of Rome, Eugenio La Rocca, and Mario Serio from the ministry of culture. The agreement is designed to simplify the decision-making process and to guarantee sustained funding for the project. The first phase of the project is expected to cost L19 billion (£6.8 million; $11.5 million).
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Where archaeology becomes power'