On the first Saturday of August, a funny thing happened to 150,000 people on their way to the Forum.
While a pianist and sax player set the mood, people looked upward and watched anxiously as acrobat Andrea Loreni made his way slowly on a tightrope stretched across Via dei Fori Imperiali, the wide avenue flanking the Roman Forum and leading to the Coliseum.
The acrobat’s walk was meant as a metaphor, a bridge reuniting ancient squares.
Dictator Benito Mussolini built the avenue in the 1920’s as a tribute to Fascism’s imperial aspirations. In the process, he destroyed a densely populated neighborhood and separated the forums of the emperors Trajan, Augustus, Caesar and Nerva.
In 1953, the thoroughfare was immortalized by Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck on a scooter ride in the movie Roman Holiday.
Since then, traffic has gotten out of control, with some 1,600 motorists an hour using it at peak times. But now, pedestrians won’t have to plug their ears against beeping horns or duck for cover from speeding SUVs. The new restrictions mean the Coliseum is no longer a traffic circle.
Buses and taxis will still be able to use the via dei Fori Imperiali leading up to the Coliseum, but a 20 mile-per-hour speed limit has been put in place.
The mayor, Ignazio Marino, hopes to eventually close several more streets around the ancient monuments, ultimately leading to the Apian Way, to create what he calls the biggest archaeological park in the world.
However, several of his predecessors tried, but failed to limit cars.
On Saturday, tens of thousands strolled toward the Coliseum – one of the greatest works of Roman architecture and engineering.
Entertainment filled the avenue and the ancient Roman Forum was open for visitors. From now through October, tourists and archaeological buffs will be able to take moonlight guided tours of the ancient temples and civic buildings, and walk in the footsteps of Julius and Augustus Caesar.
The crowd was young and old. Many came by bike. Parents pushed strollers, kids on fathers’ shoulders admired the massive Maxentius Basilica.
“I think it was long overdue, I think it was necessary somehow, I’m enjoying the night, I like the idea of having everything pedestrian and walkable and cyclable, it’s much nicer this way,” said visitor Barbara Marcotulli.
Marino became mayor in June, and by banning private traffic along this avenue he fulfilled a decades-old dream of archaeologists and conservators.
“We will have a place where people can bike, walk enjoy this incredible archaeological site, we need to give back this place to the entire planet,” he said.
But Romans are dedicated car lovers. There are 980 cars per 1,000 people — three times as many as in London – and many are opposed to the traffic ban.
Still, the mayor is on a crusade.
He plans to widen the pedestrian area as much as possible in order to create what he envisions as the largest archaeological park in the world.
“This incredible place is living testimony of our art, culture, literature, in other words, everything that has to do with our civilization,” he says.