Magazine article The Spectator

All Roads Lead to Rome

Magazine article The Spectator

All Roads Lead to Rome

Article excerpt


Rome's mayor, Francesco Rutelli, recently joked on national television that his citizens might as well leave town next month, as on 2 May the city will be taken over by half a million pilgrims attending the beatification of Padre Pio. It is fitting that Signor Rutelli laughs now, for next year he could be crying.

In an effort to make this city look its best for the forthcoming millennium celebra

tions, II Giubileo, Rome's most famous edifices (including the Colosseum, the Forum, St Peter's, Palazzo Farnese) are currently cloaked in green netting, scaffolding and cranes. In the quiet of afternoons that once were reserved for siesta, hammering and drilling now jostle for position. And on cobbled roads that used to carry priests, nuns and laity to and from Vatican City, workmen now dig and block traffic for hours.

The mayor and the Agency for the Preparation of the Jubilee Year have promised faithfully that this disruption of roads and covering of national treasures is only temporary, and that all will be ready when the Pope opens the holy door of St Peter's on Christmas Eve this year. Yet according to most newspaper reports (and most Italians) no such completion is in sight. In a city that once inspired Henry James to write that `Rome was . . the source of an incalculable part of our present conception of beauty', at present there is very little beauty to see. And Romans and art lovers alike may not wish, as Signor Rutelli suggests, to leave town for 13 months.

The spiritual home of 1 billion Catholics lies in the heart of Rome; pilgrims have flocked to the Holy City since Pope Boniface VIII declared in 1300 that every 50 years would be a time of Giubileo, a time of `joy and universal pardon', and granted an indulgence of redemption to any of the faithful who made a pilgrimage to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles (St Peter's) and various other Patriarchal churches. The very act of undergoing the discomfort of a long and exhausting voyage is seen as an essential part of penance, and the hardship of having to live elbow to elbow with strangers is part of the cathartic procedure. The 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ, therefore, is not a pilgrimage that can be denied to believers.

The size and nature of pilgrimage, however, have changed dramatically over the last few decades. In a century where travel has become far more accessible and easier, and where the scale of religious demonstration has reached populist and commercial heights (the Pope's CD recently reached the top ten in the charts in Italy), there is a precarious balance between the needs of the pilgrims and the social and cultural needs of Rome. In 1900, the Jubilee year witnessed around half a million pilgrims, in 1950, around 2 million. Next year, it is estimated that more than 30 million travellers will visit Rome. They will arrive by aeroplane, train, or on one of 35,000 coaches. Special events, such as World Youth Day, the Jubilee of Families and the Jubilee of the Workers, are expected to attract additional numbers in excess of 7.8 million per event. Quite naturally, many Romans are asking at what cost, both financial and cultural, can the city support such a tide. Recently, a woman gave birth in the back of a Fiat, while engineers tried desperately to move the crane that blocked the entrance to her local hospital. …

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