After years of bureaucratic delays and stop-and-go attempts to unearth the wealth of history still buried under centuries of city growth, Rome is uncovering its unique heritage in earnest and is ready to show it off in time for next year's millennium celebrations.
In an unprecedented excavation campaign, archaeologists are digging out and cleaning treasures from the past that are confounding theories about the city's ancient urban topography. Along the Via dei Fori Imperiali, the road that cuts through the heart of imperial Rome, small-scale earth movers maneuver around awkward corners in the multilevel digs and huge pink, blue and yellow cranes stand as tall as the Emperor Trajan's column.
The work is part of an ambitious plan to create a grand archaeological park in the area that Mayor Francesco Rutelli recently described as "a mine of formidable knowledge from which we expect even more fascinating discoveries."
While the great arches, temples and columns from the Roman and Augustan forums are a familiar sight along the road, archaeologists over the past 14 months have dug through the medieval-era layers to reach the foundations of three others.
This latest commitment to study further a 15,500-square foot area was made possible through funding for the 2000 Jubilee Year, when some 30 million pilgrims and tourists are expected to visit the Vatican and Rome.
Making the city's ancient ruins more accessible and more understandable to the public -- Encyclopedia Britannica calls the Roman Forum "a confusing boneyard of history" -- is the goal of a 10-year project Rutelli proposed last week to "explore and make usable this heritage, unique in the world, that's still largely buried underground."
One of those areas is the Domus Aurea, or Golden House, the vast palace built by the reviled emperor Nero -- on the ashes of the Rome he watched burn from a tower in 64 A.D. -- as a showcase for his and the empire's greatness.
In one of the most important cultural events of the year, part of the once-sumptuous residence was opened to the public this week after nearly two decades of restoration.
With much fanfare, including an outdoor showing of "Quo Vadis," the 1951 movie starring Peter Ustinov as the megalomaniacal Nero, the doors were opened to 32 of the 150 palace rooms.
Culture Minister Giovanna Melandri said "this is just the beginning of an adventure" that will bring to light the rest of the structure that Nero, the self-proclaimed Sun God, enjoyed for only a few months before he committed suicide (he actually had himself killed by a freed slave) at the age of 31 in 68 A.D.
Consolidation of the structure began in the late 1970s, but the push to restore it increased in the past three years. Extensive analyses were conducted on the climate, with its 98 percent humidity that has so damaged the ancient murals.
Melandri urged visitors to "use your imagination, use your fantasy," to conjure the marble walls, the stucco decorations, the gold leaf that originally adorned the pleasure palace. Fountains, charming courtyards and a magical play of natural light served as the backdrop for the thousands of pieces of art the emperor took from Greece and Asia Minor (Turkey's west coast).
Now, the rooms that were not part of the emperor's residence but rather a vast showplace and reception hall, are austere in their plain brickwork and 10-meter high walls topped with barrel vaults.
Only 13,000 of the 320,000 square feet of frescoes on the wall have been cleared of salt deposits, sometimes more than an inch thick, and mold caused by water infiltration from the park overhead. They show theatrical settings with figures of people and animals in the dark red, ocher and indigo typical of the period.
They also reveal the famous grotesques, the decorative style that took its name from the tunnels, or grottoes, dug by people from the 1400s on, who were curious to see the inside of the palace. Raphael, Pinturicchio and Ghirlandaio were among the artists who climbed down to copy those strange designs.
The palace is believed to have stretched across three of the seven Roman hills, and included gardens, fields, woods and a huge artificial lake where the Colosseum now stands.
While a later emperor, Trajan, who reigned from 98 to 117, is thought to have constructed the baths to show himself as the one who gave back to the public the lands confiscated by Nero, he didn't hesitate to make monuments to himself.
Some of the excavation project's most important discoveries have come from his forum along the Via dei Fori Imperiali.
Only two weeks ago, archaeologists found the base to what they believe was a gigantic equestrian statue of the emperor, estimated to be three times as large as the bronze Marcus Aurelius statue on the Capitoline Hill. "The ancient sources talked about it," said Silvana Rizzo, head archaeologist on the forum excavations. "But we never thought we'd find it, that maybe it was only a legend."
CAPTION: Italian Culture Minister Giovanna Melandri, right, leads journalists on a tour of newly restored Domus Aurea (Golden House) of Rome, built in 64 A.D.