Published: July 2006
Paul Bennett

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

To get access to restricted underground sites, I enrolled in an eight-week course in urban speleology offered by the city of Rome. When we weren't sitting in a classroom learning how to map underground caverns with a compass and laser, my classmates and I spent our time spelunking in some of the most amazing places I've ever been: in a 2,500-year-old sewer called the Cloaca Maxima, under Emperor Hadrian's villa, and in the mushroom-filled mines that supplied stone for structures in Caffarella Park. This experience gave me a sense of what underground Rome means to the speleologists, archaeologists, and historians who make it their work—a place where some history-changing find might be waiting around the next curve. At the end of the eight weeks— notwithstanding my mediocre Italian and mental block when it came to telling the difference between tufa and travertine—I passed the exam (bravo, as they say) and became a certified spelunker for the city of Rome.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

We wanted to familiarize ourselves with some of the preservation issues surrounding the underground spaces of Rome, so architect Nick De Pace took me to Lake Albano, just outside Rome, to see an ancient water conduit and filtration chamber carved through a mountainside. The local municipality is now dumping raw sewage into this precious artifact.

The filtration chamber is an intricate series of rooms stepped on top of each other, and what little of the conduit we could explore by balancing ourselves above the methane-burping cesspool indicated this was a marvel of Roman hydraulic engineering.

As we were packing up to go, Nick—who had spent countless hours of documentation here and knew his way around better than anyone—somehow slipped into the conduit, throwing up a putrid splash of sewage. I felt bad for him. An hour later, as we found ourselves stuck in typical Roman traffic in a small Fiat with Nick's rank pants, boots, and shirt lying at our feet, I felt bad for all of us.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

One night photographer Stephen Alvarez and I went to visit the nightclubs built into the side of Mount Testaccio. Stephen's assistant, Geoff Bowie, and our fixer, Petulia Melideo—an avid clubber in her own right—joined us.

Mount Testaccio was the Mount Trashmore of ancient Rome, an artificial hillock created by several million discarded clay amphorae. And the structures dug into it are all lined with clay sherds and other fragments of antiquity. This sets up amazing contrasts: young club-goers and DJs partying all night surrounded by two-millennia-old museum objects. While Stephen scouted for the perfect shot, I tried to interview club kids when the music wasn't blaring. By 4 a.m., we found ourselves in a Goth club buying a drink for a sexually ambiguous kid in a black cape with fingernails longer than my fingers. I decided against asking his/her thoughts on the legacy of Imperial Rome and simply admired the astounding way that these spaces are woven into the fabric of everyday life.