April 20, 2006

Gum battle marks St Peter’s 500th anniversary

By Rachel Sanderson

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Michelangelo designed its dome and
Bernini created its columns, but St Peter's Basilica has the
modern age to thank for the chewing gum stuck to its floors and
the graffiti marring its walls.

As the Vatican launched a 500th anniversary celebration of
St Peter's on Thursday, the prelate in charge of the upkeep of
Christianity's largest church was considering how to save it
for another half millennia.

"People have no idea how much time and energy is wasted
removing chewing gum," Cardinal Francesco Marchisano told a
news conference on Thursday to launch a year-long series of

"It gets stuck all over the place and finds its way into
the crevices in the marble. Ah, that poor marble!"

As many as 30,000 visitors stream every day into the
basilica, which marks the burial place of the apostle St Peter
and was built by some of Italy's most famous architects,
including Michelangelo, Donato Bramante, Raphael and Gian
Lorenzo Bernini.

Visitor numbers have swelled further since the death of
Pope John Paul II last April and thousands daily queue for
hours to visit his tomb deep in the bowels of the church --
some of them dropping gum and scribbling on the marble as they

An army of Vatican workers, known as "sanpietrini" (little
St Peters), work full time trying to repair the damage and
remove the stains left by visitors.

Marchisano said upkeep was not cheap. Although he declined
to give a precise figure, he said most of the funds were met by
tickets sold to those wanting to visit the giant dome or

Aid has also sometimes come from the guilty.

Marchisano recalled a rector from an English university who
sent a cheque for 1,500 euros ($1,850) after he discovered his
students had signed their names on the ceiling of the cupola
designed by Michelangelo in 1558.

One place the vandals could not damage is the necropolis of
St Peter, where only 50,000 visitors are allowed in each year
because of its tiny space and the need to protect the ancient
paintings and relics from humidity, he added.

The Vatican is marking its year-long celebration of St
Peter's with a series of events. A major exhibition about the
basilica's history, including the first display of the stone
marking St Peter's 2,000-year-old tomb, will open in October.