Circus Maximus reopens as Rome frets over vandals

A section of Rome's Circus Maximus, the ancient venue for chariot racing, will be reopened to the public Thursday after seven years of renovation.

Circus Maximus reopens as Rome frets over vandals
The Circo Massimo after its restoration and reopening. File photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

The long-awaited move comes amid mounting concerns about how the Eternal City can protect its unrivalled collection of churches, fountains and other historic landmarks.

The issue has been catapulted to the top of new mayor Virginia Raggi's agenda after one of the city's most famous pieces of public sculpture, Bernini's Elephant and Obelisk, was vandalized earlier this week.

Raggi, a member of the populist Five Star Movement, said she could not envisage works like Bernini's elephant being put behind barriers.

“But we have to put better surveillance in place and try to promote a greater sense of civic responsibility,” she said at the inauguration ceremony for the renovated Circus Maximus.

“It is important to have give such a beautiful spot back to the city,” she said of the renovated section.

Some 600m long and 140m wide, the Circus Maximus was a place where the elite of ancient Rome came to relax, mingle with the masses and put aside political differences, according to Marialetizia Buonfiglio, the archaeologist who oversaw the renovation.

'Bread and circuses'

Races between the Reds and the Blues thrilled the crowds of a population that, in the words of the satirical poet Juvenal, needed only “bread and circuses” to keep them happy.

Long abandoned after the fall of Rome, the area became a residential neighbourhood known as La Moletta but was cleared of its inhabitants under the regime of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1930s.

Only the northwest part of the original circus has been restored with the bulk of it still underground, said Buonfiglio, who hopes it all might see the light again one day.

Bernini's elephant, located in the Piazza della Minerva near the Pantheon, had part of one of its tusks broken off in the early hours of Monday. Police have not yet been able to establish how the damage occurred but believe it was either deliberately broken off or was damaged during a late-night game of football.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini oversaw the sculpture of the pachyderm under a commission from 17th Century pope Alexander VII to provide a support for a recently-discovered ancient Egyptian obelisk.

The damage to the elephant comes after fans of Dutch football club Feyenoord caused outrage in February 2015 by damaging a Bernini fountain that stands at the bottom of Rome's fabled Spanish Steps.

The Steps themselves were recently the subject of a debate as to whether they should be locked up at night following their recent renovation.

Thousands of residents and visitors sit on the steps every evening and some leave reminders of their presence in the form of beer bottles, chewing gum and graffiti.

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Why Friday the 13th isn’t an unlucky date in Italy

Unlucky for some, but not for Italians. Here's why today's date isn't a cause for concern in Italy - but Friday the 17th is.

Why Friday the 13th isn't an unlucky date in Italy

When Friday the 13th rolls around, many of us from English-speaking countries might reconsider any risky plans. And it’s not exactly a popular date for weddings in much of the western world.

But if you’re in Italy, you don’t need to worry about it.

There’s no shortage of strongly-held superstitions in Italian culture, particularly in the south. But the idea of Friday the 13th being an inauspicious date is not among them.

Though the ‘unlucky 13’ concept is not unknown in Italy – likely thanks to the influence of American film and TV – here the number is in fact usually seen as good luck, if anything.

The number 17, however, is viewed with suspicion and Friday the 17th instead is seen as the unlucky date to beware of.

Just as some Western airlines avoid including the 13th row on planes, you might find number 17 omitted on Italian planes, street numbering, hotel floors, and so on – so even if you’re not the superstitious type, it’s handy to be aware of.

The reason for this is thought to be because in Roman numerals the number 17 (XVII) is an anagram of the Latin word VIXI, meaning ‘I have lived’: the use of the past tense apparently suggests death, and therefore bad luck. It’s less clear what’s so inauspicious about Friday.

So don’t be surprised if, next time Friday 17th rolls around, you notice some Italian shops and offices closed per scaramanzia’.

But why then does 13 often have a positive connotation in Italy instead?

You may not be too surprised to learn that it’s because of football.

Ever heard of Totocalcio? It’s a football pools betting system in which players long tried to predict the results of 13 different matches.

There were triumphant calls of ho fatto tredici! – ‘I’ve done thirteen’ – among those who got them all right. The popular expression soon became used in other contexts to mean ‘I hit the jackpot’ or ‘that was a stroke of luck!’

From 2004, the number of games included in Totocalcio rose to 14, but you may still hear winners shout ‘ho fatto tredici’ regardless.

Other common Italian superstitions include touching iron (not wood) for good luck, not toasting with water, and never pouring wine with your left hand.