ROME — Can we ask people to take more selfies in front of monuments rather than autograph them?
We know that all it takes is a key, just waiting for the right moment, and you can pull of a feat for life — leave your name indelibly on a masterpiece.
The most skillful are able to scribble a heart or the name of their boyfriend or girlfriend. The most naive, as we found out last May, can only manage an initial, when a 16-year-old Brazilian boy on a school trip scratched an "M""onto the wall of the Valadier terrace, the beautiful 19th century viewpoint that overlooks the Colosseum.
A mere prank, you say, but in January — again at the Colosseum — two Australian tourists were caught leaving their traces in eternal memory. One of them was a 12-year-old boy using a rock. The other, keeping watch, was his 45-year-old father. Bravo, dad.
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At the Colosseum — Photo: Yortw
For every tourist caught, how many get away with it? At the Colosseum there is just one security guard for every 2,500 tourists, so it's likely that more than a mark or two will elude them. At the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps there is almost always a patrol of guards, but they are more preoccupied with the scores of hawkers and pickpockets in the area.
The sheer mass of those who manage to leave their mark is unfortunately and quite literally written on the monuments themselves. At the Colosseum the long trail of names of those who decided to leave their scratches for posterity begins at the entrance, on the dark stone walls near the ticket office, and continues all the way up to the second floor. Bricks, marble, whatever — if there's space, there are names and drawings.
A public good
Across town, at the Pantheon, the four walls just before the giant bronze doors are completely covered with names, and almost seems like a post-modern monument to the tourists of yore themselves.
Along the Trevi's marble edges, where it should be better protected, there's also a collection of signatures. At the top of the Spanish Steps, the Trinità dei Monti church and obelisk are not quite disfigured, but we're getting there.
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The Trevi fountain — Photo: Pete Sheffield
Anna Maria Cerioni, in charge of the restoration of the Capitoline Superintendence, remembers when, back in 1995, she had to intervene in the removal of a signature. "Underneath we found letters 50 centimeters high and it wasn't possible to remove them."
This isn't a phenomenon limited to Rome or famous monuments — from Venice to the abandoned villages in the bottom of Italy's boot, there's eagerness to sign on to the beauty of the past.
Usually, people use keys and stones or paint to leave their mark. In the latter case, it's sometimes impossible to remove the damage; in the former it's always hopeless.
Even if they're caught, the tourists still manage to reach their goal: to leave their mark on the monument permanently.
"It's what they want," says Giuseppe Roma, director general of the CENSIS institute. "The idea that public goods are actually owned by everyone makes people feel that they're entitled to put their hands on things and make it into the history books. It's a material appropriation, not intellectual: Anyone who studies monuments respects them."
So, what if instead of putting your name on a monument you took a selfie in front of it? Aren't photos just as eternal?