ROME -- These streets once carried troops fresh from battles en route to their glorious entrance into the Colosseum. This afternoon, though, it's a different march of victory. More gays and lesbians from all over the world than even the World Pride organizers dared dream have shown up for this most controversial event.
It's a route originally denied the parade by authorities under pressure from the Vatican, who then relented on the eve of the event when it was clear the marchers would go there with or without official approval.
In the end, it's a stunning triumph. For a week, the newspapers of Rome carried news pro and con about gay discrimination. Even articles meant to dis the event, such as a piece in Il Messagerro about a drag queen who had a hissy fit about a thousand-dollar hairdo only called attention to queerness in a country in which the motto is "Be gay if you must, but stay silent."
Perhaps it's a bit too soon to say definitively what it all means for gay/lesbian life in Rome and around the world, but one thing is clear. The Vatican has been badly outmanoeuvred by organizers who made Gay Pride the one event of this special jubilee year that everyone in the Holy City will remember.
The bad news for the Vatican begins a week before, when the RAI state TV channel carries live coverage of the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Then, on Monday, at a conference on religion and homosexuality, renegade bishop Jacques Gaillot of France -- long a thorn in the side of papal authorities for supporting the idea of married priests and a greater role for women in the church --shows up even though he'd got a call on his cellphone the night before ordering him not to participate.
Like an apparition, he floats through the lobby of the swank Hotel Ciccerone, a Metro stop from the Vatican, expounding in French for enthusiastic reporters.
Bespectacled and diminutive, he chooses his words carefully. "We have to talk to each other," he says with graceful ambiguity. As for himself, he says, "I am showing my obedience to the pope."
Revolutionary words Not revolutionary words, but enough to get his picture on the front page of morning papers under headlines like "Split in the church."
And on the conference panel itself, the speaker who gets the warmest applause is another recalcitrant man of the cloth, Father Franco Barbaro, a member of a grassroots Catholic group that's trying to keep the reform spirit alive.
Barbaro, who announces proudly that at 62 he rode a motor scooter for the first time to get to this gathering, says Catholics must begin their own work of changing the Church from within.
"If we wait for the hierarchies...," he says, letting his voice trail off to make his point. "Those who turn away from joy and creativity, I don't know if they serve God."
As the day of the parade nears, gay and lesbian tourists arrive in their rainbow shirts, sharing subway platforms with curious pilgrims who've come to see St. Peter's Square and the Sistine Chapel.
When I meet the main neo-fascist leader and anti-Pride protestor in his office, Danile Giannini of the Movimento Sociale Fiamma Tricolore has the air of a man who knows the tide has turned against him.
He's stocky, with blond hair, and wears olive-green combat pants and a white shirt with delicate blue checks. His office is decorated with a drawing of gladiators and pictures of Fascist-sympathizing poet Ezra Pound that have pithy sayings like "The only country I know is ideas that turn to action."
Giannini's group has plastered Rome with posters that ask incredulously, "Gay, lesbian, bisexual -- are we crazy? Italy needs children!"
The country has the lowest birth rate in Europe, Giannini explains to me, and the problem will only become worse if gays succeed in redefining the family by changing the law to recognize same-sex couples like heterosexuals.
What about the idea, I ask him, that people should be allowed to live their lives?
"I agree with Amnesty International that people should not face the death penalty for being gay," he says. "Live and let live -- that's what we have in Rome," he says, repeating my phrase. Rome has a lot of gay establishments, he admits, but the country is suffering economically because it does not have enough people.
"Young people can't get a car or an apartment. The family is not progressing."
On Tuesday night, at the Circo Massimo, a huge park that used to be the scene of chariot races, thousands attend the much-anticipated fashion show -- and hundreds more beg to be allowed to enter. Those who have given up ring the perimeter to catch a glimpse.
The next night, a dance performance's final, mesmerizing moments seem to be a direct hit at the pope. As the male and female dancers move about the stage, the narrator says hypnotically, "The nose, the cock and the asshole -- everything is holy."
It wouldn't be an Italian parade if it were well organized. This one certainly isn't.
The newspapers will peg the crowd at about 200,000. But the organizers claim there are three to four times that many.
Unnatural acts By 2 o'clock Saturday afternoon, everyone has gathered at the Piramede subway stop. There are so many people that two stations have had to be closed. Masses of people have spread out in all directions, but not even the police seem to know in which direction the parade will move.
The local lesbian group is still nailing the sticks onto the back of their flatbed truck to hold their rainbow-coloured balloons.
Federico Magnani and his 10-member gay group named Pianetaurano have come from Verona in northern Italy, where the right-wing city government has passed a bylaw forbidding "unnatural acts."
Imme Battaglia, the jubilant president of the parade's organizing group, gropes for the meaning of all this splendour.
I suggest to her that the march will have a huge impact on Italy. "No! No! No!" she protests. "The Church is all over the world. This is about freedom for all gay and lesbian people."
Two hours late, the parade moves out, with the drag queens, as always, attracting most of the photographers' attention. But there are lots of moms and dads walking in the parade and watching in the shade.
Spying three guys under a tree who look as if they'd ordinarily be at home watching European football, I ask one of them what he thinks of it all.
"It's a lesson for the country," says a 50ish and balding Sergio Bertolissi. "These are nice people, they're normal," he explains, holding up his index fingers to make quotation marks.
The parade finishes, though not all the floats make it to the end. Some just stall in the middle of the street and become instant dance parties.
Back at the Circo Massimo there's more triumphant speech-making and a tremulous address by a priest from Naples. "I know that I will be punished tomorrow for being here today," says Father Vitaliano della Sala. "But I don't care. I will remember the happiness in your eyes. Don't see yourselves as sinners. See yourselves as brothers and sisters."
The next day, the pope goes on the offensive. "In the name of the Church of Rome, I cannot express the bitterness for the affront to the Grand Jubilee of the year 2000 and for the offence to the Christian values of a city that is so dear to the hearts of Catholics," he says.
On the street, Romans are shaking their heads. Not at the invasion of the Holy City by gays and lesbians, but at the pope. Il Papa is badly out of touch.