Over 1,500 years after the Sack of Rome, the city grapples with modern-day vandals

Published July 29, 2010

| Associated Press

ROME (AP) — They knock the noses off statues in a park that was a favorite haunt of poet John Keats and throw dye into the iconic Trevi Fountain.

Vandals are increasingly on the prowl in the Eternal City — and now Italian authorities are fighting back, sending more police, installing cameras and even considering using convicts to protect monuments and artworks.

For the troublemakers nothing is sacred: earlier this month vandals left anti-pope graffiti on the Scala Santa, or Holy Stairs, a major Catholic site that draws pilgrims from around the world who climb its 28 marble steps on their knees.

Compounded by pollution, negligence and a chronic shortage of funding, vandalism adds to the city's difficulties in preserving its unique artistic heritage, forcing officials to use valuable funds in emergency restoration.

What makes protecting the Italian capital especially challenging is the sheer wealth of its treasures.

"You'd need an army of 20 million people to be there every day, every night," says Daniel Berger, an art consultant with Italy's Culture Ministry. "You have to somehow protect them by encouraging people to understand that it's their heritage, and that it's the Western European culture."

Officials have beefed up police patrols of monuments and parks — including sending plainclothes officers mingling with the crowd of visitors — and have installed CCTV.

The agency in charge of keeping Rome clean is working with jail authorities to allow former inmates or convicts released on parole to help clean up vandalized monuments. There is no set date but the initiative might begin in coming months, regional authorities say.

Officials say their efforts are paying off, and that vandals are being caught thanks to the cameras. Still, "it takes 30 seconds to damage a monument," notes Rome's top art official, Superintendent Umberto Broccoli.

One of the most common targets of vandals is the 19th-century park atop the Pincian Hill, where statues of celebrated Italians are routinely vandalized, their noses broken, their faces smeared with offensive writing. The park was frequented by Keats, the Romantic poet whose last home in Rome sits at the foot of the hill. It's right in the center of the Italian capital, and with its breathtaking view of the city is a favorite of Romans and tourists alike.

The Carabinieri police force has increased patrols in the park, sending in six-member squads 24 hours a day. They walk or drive their cars and motorbikes among the park's graveled avenues; at night, they set up a roadblock in the main driveway to the park, checking for drunken youths. Vandalism is often perpetrated by students or young people under the fumes of alcohol.

But the damage keeps happening.

In May and June alone, 13 of the park's 230 busts had their noses broken and four were uprooted and thrown to the ground, said Alessandro Cremona, a chief restorer for Rome's city hall. Another three were vandalized in the promenade atop the Janiculum hill, another classic Rome spot.

The Rome city hall did not provide an overall figure for the funds it uses in emergency restoration. But officials say that each "nose job" costs some euro800 (about $1,000), while for the busts that are toppled the cost soars to about euro1,500 (about $1,950) each.

"It's tens of thousands of euros that could be spent elsewhere and which instead we are forced to spend to remedy stupidity," Broccoli told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

It is not just the parks.

Years ago, a man threw red dye into the Trevi Fountain to the shock of onlookers, an act recently reprised by another vandal. Bandits splashed red and green colors on the white walls of a museum recently built by U.S. architect Richard Meier.

Said Lt. Ciro Aquino of the Carabinieri, speaking during a recent patrol at the Pincio park: "Every corner you turn, there's something that must be protected."

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