Pandemic in Rome

Italy has been in the headlines and the attention of the world is focused on the European country with the most (though not the first) cases of the Covid-19 virus. We have an excellent public health care system and the medical profession moved quickly to extend Coronavirus testing wherever there was suspicion of outbreaks (one of the reasons for the particularly high numbers of positive results). For a country famed for often talking a lot without acting, the serious response is commendable.

Most of Italy is now under lockdown: schools, museums, libraries all closed and travel extremely limited. Trips this spring have been cancelled (or, better, postponed).

The pharmacies, like this one near my studio, are on the frontlines performing heroically

I am in Rome, a city much less affected so far (the main outbreaks have been in Lombardy and Veneto in the north) but strangely quiet, with so many people staying home. Tourism has all but ceased and my current study abroad programs have been suspended, with students sent back to the US. This leaves me a lot of time to reflect and retool and consider the reality of distance learning. I’ve already led my first classes at Sapienza to students following on their screens from their homes. 

Since it is unclear how long the emergency will take place, I’m shifting my focus towards the technologies we have available for communication without contamination. How can we promote engagement without endangerment? 

I’m finding that we have had the tools for years but have been slow to use them. The technology is (almost?) available to allow a person sitting in Boston or California to don a headset and experience — through VR —a walk through Rome, stopping to examine something, asking questions to fellow travellers or to a guide. I’m sure it’s coming.  This experience would be even richer than “virtual” VR; it would be “augmented” (AR). This means the traveler at her desk or in his armchair, when the discussion turns to Raphael, could instantly call up a sketch or a biography or even have a conversation with a fictional Raphael played by an actor. The 21st century street scene could be replaced by a virtual reconstruction from any historic period. Shall I go on?  

Over the next few weeks I will be dedicating some time to this since TRA_20s essential product, walking tours and workshops, will be on hold for a while. Much is unclear of course. Will people pay to participate in a group “seminar” in which a guide or scholar or other expert leads them through Rome virtually? Will followers around the world be interested in supporting non-profit initiatives in support of Italy in this time of plight, initiatives which will allow some kind of remote engagement in cultural projects here? The non-profit I work with, ISAR, plans to move ahead with its summer programs in cultural heritage but some may opt to participate from afar and has already seen a tiny spike in donations. Will virtual travel partially reduce the carbon footprint of real travel?

I hope and expect that things will return to some kind of new normal in a few months or a year, and people will again be able to appreciate the experience of real travel. If these difficult times teach a lesson to travellers I hope it is to travel less but travel better, to relish the places they travel to in all of their richness. If the experience is no richer than can be achieved through augmented reality and online shopping, why bother flying? Folks can save the fuel, avoid the emissions and leave their destination for the appreciation the few who will truly savor it. People will come back to Italy, and people will continue to appreciate Italy through other, newfound, virtual channels, both.

Apart from this speculation, I’ve already started experimenting with a series of Rome Remote videos linked below. Please follow and keep in touch, remotely.

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