Image: cobblestone streets
Pier Paolo Cito  /  AP
Workers remove cobblestones from a street in Rome, July 22. The ancient stones are costly to lay and maintain.
updated 7/25/2005 3:05:13 PM ET 2005-07-25T19:05:13

The Eternal City’s centuries-old cobblestone streets may soon be relegated to a few tourist-friendly pedestrian squares as Rome paves over the huge slabs that first appeared more than 2,000 years ago.

During the next two months the city council plans to resurface one major central thoroughfare, Via Delle Botteghe Oscure, and stretches of the roads that run alongside the River Tiber. It is part of a broader plan to restrict the use of cobblestones to pedestrian areas, city officials said.

Besides the obvious shortfalls — the stones are pothole-prone and expensive to replace — the vibrations from cars and buses passing over them pose a danger to the monuments and palaces that line the Italian capital’s streets.

The plan elicits mixed feelings among Romans, fed up with driving their scooters over the potholed roads but attached to the picturesque stones, known locally as “sampietrini,” or “little stones of St. Peter’s.”

Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni did make one concession to tradition, promising while announcing the plan last week that the sampietrini in Piazza Venezia — the large square in the historic heart of Rome — would be left in place.

Stones add atmosphere but also inconvenience
Romans say that the cobbles contribute to the atmosphere in the city, though some have grown tired of negotiating the sampietrini with cars, scooters or high heels, and accept the plan to scale down their use.

“My heart aches,” said 35-year-old shopkeeper Andrea Orlandi, while conceding something needs to be done with the old stones.

Several reasons have been given for the replacement of the cobblestones.

Italo Fazio, the municipal boss in charge of Rome’s roads, said a main problem is the labor-intensive, costly repairs needed to lay and maintain the stones, which frequently get displaced, creating gaping, hazardous potholes.

Fazio said there are only eight people left trained to hammer the stones into place, a task that requires considerable skill and, he says, “no little muscle,” while supplies of the cobblestones themselves have been stretched in recent years as the last workshops producing them closed down.

Cobblestones produced from volcanoes
The stones were produced from deposits of volcanic rock that once spewed from the hills around Rome.

Though sampietrini that are removed are recycled, the city resorted to importing machine-made cobblestones from China amid efforts to spruce up Rome for jubilee celebrations in 2000. Fazio said that the experiment was dropped after engineers complained about the quality of those stones.

He also pointed to the vibrations triggered when buses or trucks pass over the sampietrini, which are laid directly onto earth.

Maurizio Galletti, an official at the Culture Ministry responsible for Rome’s architectural heritage, said the vibrations had damaged some of the city center’s grand Renaissance palaces and caused small fissures in the frescoes that adorn their interiors.

“It’s difficult to find a balance in protecting the city’s landscape,” Galletti said. But he argued that the protection of the city’s monuments, to which the vibrations cause “continuous damage,” must be a priority.

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