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Cobblestone cabaret PDF Print E-mail
Jan 25, 2008 at 07:02 PM

          As someone who gets around Rome on two wheels (a ciclomotore, a small motorcycle, not a bicycle), I was delighted to read the other day that this spring the city will be going ahead with its plan to replace the sampietrini (cobblestones) of Via Nazionale with plain old smooth asphalt. This, thank goodness, has already been done on the Lungotevere roads on both sides of the Tiber and on several other major central-city arteries such as Via delle Botteghe Oscure and Via Po. Much to the disgust of cyclists and many motorists as well, Via Nazionale, the avenue that runs from Piazza Venezia (although the first bit is called Via IV Novembre) up to Piazza Esedra, the oval piazza in front of Diocletian's Baths, has been a hold-out, making for rocky riding that is damaging for the back and the neck, bad for your kidneys, hell for hemorrhoids and which in wet winter weather can become downright dangerous.

          Much to the disgust of cyclists, cab drivers and and many ordinary motorists as well, Via Nazionale, the avenue that runs from Piazza Venezia (although the first bit is called Via IV Novembre) up to Piazza Esedra, the oval piazza in front of Diocletian's Baths, up to know had been a hold out (as is Piazza Venezia). The result, rocky riding that is damaging for the back and neck, hell on your kidneys, bad for hemorrhoids and which in wet winter weather can become downright dangerous.

       Unfortunately for those who hoped to see additional changes to this major artery, the Rome Superintendent of Architecture and Environment has nixed many other aspects of the municipality's Via Nazionale refurbishing that was designed to improve the flow of public transport: "no" to the idea of an energy-saving tram because, they said, the wires would ruin the view up the 19th century byway and "no", for similar reasons, to a plan for a central, buses-only two-way traffic lane. The only concession to the past, is to be a meter-wide strip of cobblestoned pavement in the gutter alongside each sidewalk

        This, of course,is unlikely to satisfy the purists, extremely distressed about the disappearing serci as romans call the cobblestones first used in places like St. Peter's square ( thus the name, sanpietrini or the phonetically better sampietrini) in the 17th century and subsequently laid down on Roman roads in to make wagon and coach travel smoother and less subject to mud and mire. Their view is that the 10 -15 cm basalt stone cubes, the serciaroli (the workers who lay them) with their metal wheelbarrows and pointed hammers (the classic cobblestone tool is called a mazzapicchio) are part and parcel of the city's history and should be kept intact, with little importance given to the difficulties involved in using them to pave streets in a developed, 21st century urban center, especially one where the motorbike is a major form of transportation (Italy has more motorbikes in use than any other Western country).

         Reportedly, close to three million sampietrini have already been removed and are being used, gradually, to repave some of the downtown streets and piazzas reserved for pedestrian-only use such as Piazza di Montecitorio where the lower house of parliament is located, Piazza S. Lorenzo in Lucina, off the Via del Corso, part of Piazza del Popolo, and in the near future (but how near, no one really knows) the elegant shopping area between the Corso and Piazza di Spagna that is known as the Tridente.

        The sampietrini have been prized by some urban architects because the spaces between them allow water and air circulation and adjustments to minor shifts in the earth's crust. But maintenance is highly labor intensive and therefore hard to keep up in current-day Italy. In Trastevere where I live all the streets are made of cobblestones and in many, if not most, areas the malta which is used to fill in the cracks between them is long gone, meaning that every time a pipe bursts or a cable needs to be replaced, workmen must dig up the cobblestones, pile them along the side of the roads where, collecting dirt and all sorts of litter, they remain until the city finally gets around to re-hammering them into the ground. And as one can imagine, with streets paved in sampietrini, the elderly risk their hips and ankles, the handicapped are more or less forced to stay indoors and women with high heels - of which there are many - take their lives into their hands.

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