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Rome's Cobblestone Get A Modern Makeover

Want to get around Rome? Better bring walking shoes.

Each year 7 to 10 million tourists visit the Eternal City. Whether it’s climbing the smooth marble stairs of the Spanish Steps or tossing a coin over your shoulder at the Trevi Fountain, most of it is explored on foot. Cobblestones do a number on high heels and unsuspecting feet. With a city as old as Rome, even the streets themselves are taking a beating—just ask the only eight men in the world licensed to repair them.

In Italy, cobblestones are called sampietrini, when translated means the “little stones of St. Peter”.

 

While most tourists find charm in these famous black squares, most locals consider them a nuisance—like giant foam fingers leading tourist groups or August’s sweltering heat. Day after day, uneven edges of cobblestones carve notches in footbeds and shred the toughest of tires.

 

Walk anywhere in Rome and you’ll hear the loud slap of  uneven rubber tires ripple through alleyways and side streets.

A local newspaper once wrote, “Only the tourists and the angels love the cobblestones unconditionally. The rest of us, those who have the stones under our feet or under our wheels every day, detest them, or fear them… or admire them from a distance.”

Sadly, the problem with cobblestones begins at street level. What is happening beneath these cobbled streets is an even more sordid affair. Years of rumbling of cars and motorinos stampeding over the rigid stones are destroying the stability of nearby structures.

Ancient  problems call for modern solutions.

Ten years ago, Rome’s mayor and the Commissioner of Public Works decided it was time to do something about the growing problem.

 

Citing safety concerns over old buildings, moving vehicles that skid like skates after a rain, and the expensive of volcanic hand-cut cobbles themselves, the city opted to remove the stones in key locations and replace them with paved asphalt.

 

This modern approach to ancient roads drew scores of Romans to either embrace or scorn the idea. Those in favor say cobblestones are a part of Rome’s history.  

As of today, only eight men are qualified to repair cobblestones. These men are called 'Selciaroli' and are artisans who have learned the trade through generations of family experience. They chisel each 3×3 inch square of volcanic rock by hand and hammer them into place using their keen eye of placement. Make no mistake, these men take pride in their work and with good reason. One look at the craftsmanship of the arched lines of stone embracing the Piazza di Espana is enough to make one stop and take a picture.

When the quarry which supplied cobblestones to Rome closed twenty years ago, many selciaroli claimed the government began purchasing inferior stones from China and Vietnam—a rumor that city officials have fended off for more than a decade. Workers say the stones they are using now are slightly darker in color and cheaper in cost. The selciaroli also note asphalt isn’t as cheap as the government wants Romans to think. While it might take only a few hours to spread a layer of asphalt or concrete over roads, St. Peter’s little stones, the sampietrini, will last a lifetime if installed correctly.

Just like the great debate over form or function, change comes very slowly to a two thousand-year old city. It’s taken a decade, but high-heel lovers and fashion aficionados can finally strut their stilettos on Via del Corso, Via Petroselli, and Via del Teatro Marcello, where cobblestones have been leveled out with an even base of concrete.

 

As for the rest who love the way the volcanic stones glimmer after a morning mist or the way their carved lines that seem to squiggle in every direction, fear not. No matter how hard Rome tries, she can never get rid of her charm or her sampietrini. Like love and beauty, cobblestones are too ingrained in her history.