Rome: Few in Italy would deny that 2020 was a terrible year but looking back on this annus horribilis it is important not to forget the many good and exciting news stories that were too often buried by doom and gloom.
These welcome windows of light were seized upon by Wanted in Rome where we always prefer to view the glass half full. Here is a look at some of the positive things that happened in Italy during 2020.
Restoration: Important restoration projects continued at the country’s museums and archaeological sites, whose extended closures granted opportunities to carry out vital work without the intrusion of visitors.
It was a busy year for the archaeological park at Pompeii which reopened several buildings following restoration, including the House of Lovers and the House of the Orchard, along with the discovery of a ‘thermopolian’ and the extremely well-preserved skeletal remains of two men, believed to be a master and his slave, immortalised by molten lava almost 2,000 years ago.
One of the most significant restorations to be completed was the Mausoleum of Augustus which has been abandoned for decades. At long last it will reopen to the public on 1 March and will remain free for Rome residents for all of 2021.
Rome also restored a new section of Trajan’s Forum, at Via Alessandrina, on the completion of excavations which were funded with €1 million by the Republic of Azerbaijan and led to the unearthing of marble heads depicting Dionysus and Augustus.
The Parco Archeologico del Colosseo undertook works to restore and strengthen numerous sites including the Temple of Vesta and the House of the Vestal Virgins, the base of Trajan’s Column, the Arch of Titus, the Domus Tiberiana, the Horti Farnesiani and inside the Colosseum itself.
Three days before Christmas, Italy’s culture ministry announced an ambitious plan to construct a new floor over the Colosseum arena, while Parco Colosseo director Alfonsina Russo told Wanted in Rome that restoration on the Arch of Septimius Severus would begin in the coming weeks.
Arts: Although tested to the limits, Italy’s arts sector fought back against the odds, adapting where it could to almost impossible rules.
Rome’s opera house, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, staged outdoor productions in the Circus Maximus during the summer and has since – along with many others in the performing arts including Accademia S. Cecilia – embraced all things virtual and moved online.
Two of the world’s greatest exhibitions of the year opened in Rome: the sumptuous tribute to High Renaissance master Raphael on the 500th anniversary of his death, and the Torlonia Marbles collection which hadn’t seen the light of day for 70 years.
The launch of Raphael’s blockbuster came just days before the spring lockdown but after reopening in May, it welcomed visitors around the clock to keep up with demand.
The Torlonia Marbles show managed to stay open for just a few weeks in the autumn, with curious Romans making a beeline to see the revered collection before it went back under wraps again, for now.
Discoveries: There were some marvellous surprises. Rome archaeologists unveiled the remains of a magnificent Roman villa, or domus, buried for almost two millennia under an apartment block at the foot of the Aventine Hill.
Then there was the discovery of a Roman mosaic floor, in pristine condition, under a vineyard near Verona in northern Italy. The find came after decades of searching for the remains of a long-lost Roman villa outside the town of Negrar di Valpolicella.
Archaeologists were both delighted and baffled by the discovery of a vast stone pool, dating to the fourth century BC, uncovered during a development project between Rome and Ostia Antica.
Balconies: During the spring lockdown Italians made international news by singing from their balconies and lighting up their monuments in the red, white and green of the tricolour flag.
There were also headlines about teenagers playing tennis across rooftops and even people falling in love with each other from terraces on either side of the street.
Anniversaries: 2020 was a year of anniversaries in Italy. We celebrated 100 years since the birth of director Federico Fellini, many of whose neorealist movies were filmed on the streets of the capital.
It was 100 years since the birth of the comic Roman actor Alberto Sordi, a man who made his country laugh a million times.
Italy also celebrated a century since the birth of Gianni Rodari whose books brought joy to generations of children in Italy and all over the world.
Then there was the 600th anniversary of Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence; the 300th anniversary of the birth of master etcher Piranesi and Italy’s oldest bar, Caffè Florian; and 200 years since the Romantic poet John Keats set foot in Italy.
The 10th birthday of Rome’s Museo delle Arti del XXI secolo, or MAXXI, was marked with a new Italian postage stamp and it plans to open its new museum in L’Aquila, the earthquake-hit Abruzzo capital, in 2021.
Italy lost a few greats over the last year, including composers Ennio Morricone and Ezio Bosso, actor Gigi Proietti, and football legend Paolo Rossi, whose legacies were remembered fondly by Italians.
Rome mayor Virginia Raggi announced that the capital would rename the Auditorium Parco della Musica after Morricone and the Globe Theatre after Proietti.
There were several hugely significant projects in Italy in 2020. The northern sea port of Genoa saw the completion of a major new bridge, designed by Genoese architect Renzo Piano, to replace the Ponte Morandi which collapsed in 2018 causing 43 fatalities.
In the capital the biggest breakthrough was the tunnel of the much-delayed Metro C subway finally reaching Piazza Venezia, after fears that the city’s third underground line would go no further than the Colosseum.
However the greatest project of them all was the Mose flood barrier in Venice which has been activated, successfully, several times since the summer.
This is a real game changer for the canal city however there remain some teething difficulties to iron out, such as agreeing on which water level the barriers should swing into operation. That aside, it draws a line under a project long overshadowed by delays and corruption scandals.
In October there was much rejoicing among the United Nations’ agencies in Rome when the World Food Program won the Nobel Peace Prize “as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.” Another major Rome-based UN agency, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), celebrated its 75th birthday.
In a year when entertainment was lacking, actor Tom Cruise raced through Rome in a yellow Fiat 500, filming car chases for Mission: Impossible 7 at the Spanish Steps and along the back streets of Monti.
The Hollywood A-lister added a dash of excitement to the capital this autumn as well as injecting an estimated €18 million into the city’s battered economy.
2020 saw announcements of ambitious plans for the future. There was the proposal to create a “Netflix of Italian culture” streaming platform and a plan to create a hiking trail connecting the country’s 25 national parks, spanning 7,000 km of paths.
Italy is also set to have a new museum dedicated to the Italian language, housed in Florence’s S. Maria Novella complex, a building that played a decisive role in Dante’s masterpiece The Divine Comedy which celebrated its 700th anniversary in 2020.
In a referendum in September more than 70 per cent Italians voted to cut the size of the country’s parliament and senate, reducing the total number of MPs and senators from 945 to 600.
In November Italy’s lower house of parliament passed an anti-discrimination bill that makes violence against LGBT people and disabled people, as well as misogyny, a hate crime. Under the legislation, those found guilty of such attacks would risk longer prison terms. The bill needs final approval from the upper house, where it is backed by the ruling coalition parties, before becoming law.
There were congratulations across the board for Antonella Polimeni who shattered a 700-year-old glass ceiling to become the first woman to be appointed rector at La Sapienza since the venerable Rome university was founded by Pope Boniface VIII in 1303.
It was a year of homecomings as Italy stepped in to rescue its citizens trapped abroad: first there was the release of Silvia Romana, a young aid worker held hostage for 18 months in Somalia.
This was followed by the release of priest Father Pierluigi Maccalli and tourist Nicola Chiacchio who were abducted in Mali in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
Then, just in time for Christmas, Sicily welcomed the return of 18 fishermen who had been held captive in Libya for more than 100 days.
Lastly, 2020 was a better year than usual for the natural world, with Italy’s animals and birds enjoying the lockdowns far more than we did. Ducks splashed in Roman fountains, the boat-free canals in Venice became crystal clear, and whales returned to a boat-free Strait of Messina.
Grass bursts through the cobblestones in a patchwork carpet that brings a countryside feel to Italian cities. The wildflowers will continue to grow as we turn our faces towards spring and the hope for better things to come.