Cultural sites reopen in Italy, sparking hope among beleaguered residents

With the easing of coronavirus restrictions, museums and cultural sites reopened this week in most of Italy with pomp and circumstance — as well as new health-monitoring protocols.

The only thing missing were the tourists.

The first visitors to Rome’s Colosseum, when it opened Monday morning, were treated to a performance of Giacomo Puccini’s famed opera La Boheme, performed by students from Rome’s Sant Cecilia Conservatory. Alfonsina Russo, director of Parco Archeologico del Colosseo, was on hand as doors opened, saying that for her it was “a joy to finally reopen the site to the public.”

Visitors also had to pass through specially-installed heat sensors designed to detect anyone entering with unusually high body temperatures, something that could be a sign of coronavirus infection. Visitors were kept a safe distance from each other while inside and there were multiple stations with hand sanitizers available for passersby.

Crowds were also modest in size. Before the coronavirus arrived in Italy, long lines of visitors who sometimes waited hours to enter the Colosseum were commonplace. But it was a different scene this time around. There was a small scrum of visitors outside just before doors opened on Monday, but the massive, nearly 2,000-year-old structure quickly absorbed them all even though visitors had to stay two meters away from each other while inside.

“It’s definitely not the same as it used to be,” Anna Luisa Cattaneo, 33, an unemployed waitress, told Xinhua, referring to the health checks, social distancing rules, and relatively small crowd sizes. “But none of it really matters to me right now. I used to come here on crowded school trips and now I’m back in the middle of a pandemic and it feels so wonderful to be able to do something ‘normal.’ It almost made me cry to come here.”

There were a few big crowds when a few of the cultural touchstones around Italy reopened. Local newspaper Corriere Della Sera reported there was a long line waiting to enter Turin’s famous Egyptian Museum when it opened its doors Monday, for example.

But the opposite was more often the case. In 2019, before the pandemic, Florence’s Uffizi Gallery attracted an average of nearly 8,000 visitors a day, according to Statista, a data firm. But when it re-opened this year, just 776 tickets were sold for the first day. The historical site of Pompeii, an ancient Roman city destroyed by a volcano in 79 AD, attracted just 175 visitors, compared to nearly 9,000 per day before the pandemic.

There were multiple factors behind the low visitor numbers, according to media reports, ranging from economic hardship to health worries to the fact that tickets have to be bought ahead of time online. But the biggest factor was clearly the lack of tourists due to coronavirus fears and international travel restrictions.

Xinhua spoke to nearly two-dozen tourists at four different cultural sites in Rome on Monday and Tuesday and all of them were residents of the city. Officials working at the sites said they could not recall more than a small handful of visitors who stuck out as being from abroad or even from other parts of Italy.

But those who ventured out to enjoy some of Italy’s vast number of cultural sites this week said all the issues in the background could not detract from their experience.

“Just look at this, look at it,” Antonia Caputo, an office manager who has been working almost exclusively from home since May, told Xinhua. The 51-year-old was gesturing at the majestic Fountain of the Four Rivers made by Renaissance sculpture Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the center of Rome’s Piazza Navona. “Every time you look at something like this, you forget everything else.”

Marco Pellegrino, 40, a bank employee who has been working only one day a week since the crisis began, told Xinhua being able to go out and enjoy some of his city’s history was helping him look at the challenges facing Italy in a new way. Pellegrino had just exited the Imperial Roman Forum, the ruins of what had once been the heart of ancient Rome.

“It’s easy to feel down about everything that’s happened, but you look at all this and you see what the city has been through,” he said. “Rome has been sacked and suffered through plagues and natural disasters and foreign occupations. We made it through all that and we’ll make it through the coronavirus as well.”