Posted Jan 28, 2007, 1:17 AM
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Rome Builds A Subway--In Spite of What's in the Way
The Baths of Diocletian--and a lot more:
January 27, 2007
When Rome Builds A Subway, It Trips Over Archaeologists
Tiny Spades and Artifacts Eventually Will Give Way To Massive Earthmovers
By GABRIEL KAHN
January 27, 2007; Page A1
ROME -- As this city begins work on a new, 15.5 mile subway line, massive earthmoving equipment sits idle while teams of archaeologists with tiny spades sift through dirt.
More than 17.5 million cubic feet of it is being removed by hand, to unearth the remains of tombs and stately residences that once made up the ancient metropolis beneath the surface of the modern city.
"Our guess is that these were probably taverns," said Anna Giulia Fabiani, shouting over the roar of weekday traffic as she surveyed ancient walls and doorways at a dig site across from the Colosseum.
Ms. Fabiani, an archaeologist, spent months excavating the site by hand. She and others are now in the process of documenting what they found. Eventually they will clear out so big mechanical diggers can break ground for what is to be the new metro line's largest station. Some archaeological finds will be preserved and others discarded.
But Rome's new subway never would have gotten this far if two bitter foes -- archaeologists and city planners -- hadn't agreed to compromise over an age-old problem. In Rome, modern progress is often slowed down by the past.
Italy's robust preservation laws make it difficult to renovate, remove or otherwise tinker with anything deemed to be of historical significance, and that includes most of central Rome. The laws have protected the capital from newer architectural eyesores but have left it ill-equipped to deal with the stresses of a modern metropolis.
Rome currently has only two modest metro lines to serve its 2.5 million people, leaving the city's streets regularly clogged with buses, cars and scooters whose pollution coats the historical monuments with grime. Neither line passes through the heart of the old city, an area always teeming with tourists.
But successive attempts by city planners to unclog the center by building underground parking garages and tunnels to handle traffic have run afoul of historical preservationists just about every time a shovel has hit the earth.
"It's like a parody," complains Enrico Testa, the chairman of Roma Metropolitane SpA, the city-owned company that operates Rome's subway. "There are treasures that are underground that would stay buried forever if we didn't have to dig. But as soon as we uncover them, our work gets blocked."
Rome isn't the only city to trip over the remains of its past. Athens, for example, also has strict preservation laws. Workers building the stadiums and venues of the 2004 Olympics frequently dug up pieces of antiquity in the process. An important find can need an all-clear from the culture ministry before work can proceed -- a requirement that delayed Greece's last-minute Olympic preparations. Workers building Mexico City's subway stumbled onto an Aztec temple. It was then integrated into a station design.
Breaking ground in Rome wasn't always so difficult. When the city started building its first metro in the 1930s, dictator Benito Mussolini refused to let history impede his master plan to create a modern Roman empire. Work didn't pause even when diggers clipped off a corner of the foundation of the Colosseum. The plans were crude: Engineers cut a canal alongside the ruins of the Roman Forum. Truckloads of dirt containing many ancient artifacts were carted off and dumped.
Since Italy emerged from World War II, however, preservationists and city planners have fought pitched battles over everything from subway lines to sewage pipes. When the city started work on one subway line in 1962, it tried to keep the state historical preservation office in the dark so as to avoid interference, recalls Giovanni Simonacci, who began working on that project in the 1970s and is chief engineer of the new metro line. It didn't work. "We'd find something and the [preservation office] would swoop in," he says. "We would then have to cover it over and change the route of the line. We lost years."
As workers were digging what is now the Piazza Repubblica metro stop near Rome's central Termini station, Mr. Simonacci says, they ran smack into the Diocletian Baths, a vast, third-century complex of gymnasiums, libraries, sculpture gardens and baths that could accommodate 3,000 bathers at once. "We moved some, destroyed some and changed our plans a bit to avoid destroying more." Trains didn't start running until 1980.
More than once, city officials have lost their cool with the preservation office. Former Rome Mayor Francesco Rutelli once nicknamed Adriano La Regina, former head of Rome's preservation office, "Signor No," because he blocked plans for tunnels and parking garages as the city tried to ready itself for the Catholic Church's Jubilee celebrations in 2000.
The standoff held until a few years ago, when planners and preservationists decided to bury the hatchet and work together on the new subway line. To reduce the line's environmental impact, the subway tunnel will be buried more than 80 feet below the surface, beneath even the earliest strata of archaeological remains.
The two sides got together to plot the best places to build stations and escalators leading down to them. The urban planners also acquiesced in letting archaeologists have first crack at the work sites to make sure nothing of great historical importance would be ruined by major excavation.
For the engineers, to work alongside the archaeologists isn't fast -- or inexpensive. The bill for constructing one mile of metro tracks in the center of Rome is more than $375 million, and the project won't be completed until 2015.
For the archaeologists, minimizing the impact of the subway line by navigating around relics "is like a slalom course," says Angelo Bottini, who took over from Mr. La Regina as head of Rome's preservation office.
Yet Mr. Bottini recognizes that the new line also provides a tantalizing opportunity: "We never get to dig in the center of Rome."
At some sites, the remains of ancient roads lie just four inches beneath the surface. Not far from the Forum, for example, archaeologists dug up the remains of a large patrician home from the second century. It remains to be decided what they are going to do with it.
But there is so much lying below that "for a lot of this stuff, all we need to do is document it and then destroy it," says Mr. Bottini. Everything is photographed and its position recorded. Mr. Bottini's office makes the call about whether finds are preserved in place, taken away or destroyed.
One of Italy's problems is that it doesn't have enough museum space to hold all its artifacts. In fact, in designing the new subway line, the architects planned for the inevitable: a subterranean museum at one of the stations to hold significant pieces of antiquity expected to be dug up during construction.
Write to Gabriel Kahn at email@example.com
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