A move by the Italian government to deploy soldiers to replace police in providing security at embassies and diplomatic residences has created a new attraction for tourists visiting the capital – heavily armed soldiers in body armour.
The idea, part of the centre-right government’s law and order policy, is to release police officers for routine police work.
About 3,000 troops appeared on the streets of Italian cities earlier this month, 1,000 of them in Rome. Half of these guard locations deemed possible terrorist targets.
Claudio Caruso, an officer from the Sardinia Grenadiers who is co-ordinating the military operations, said most of the soldiers had been trained for peacekeeping work and had overseas experience.
“Where crowd control, surveillance and security is concerned, they know exactly what they are doing,” he said.
But for tourists exploring the streets of Rome it has created a sometimes incongruous sight.
Outside the Villa Borghese on Sunday, tourists could see four heavily armed soldiers in camouflage and body armour guarding a block of flats occupied by US diplomats.
Emerging from the Galleria Borghese, one nervous-looking Spanish tourist set about pointing her camera at the soldiers before thinking better of it and moving on.
Italian troops have been used in a law and order role before. In the 1990s thousands of soldiers were deployed to Sicily to help combat the Mafia and in Sardinia to fight a war against gangs involved in kidnapping and banditry.
But those were, and still are, frontier regions. This is the first time they have been deployed in the Italian capital.
The visual impact is strongest in the Parioli quarter, a luxury residential area close to the city centre and home to most diplomats in Rome.
In August, well-heeled Romans abandon the city, and in Parioli there is a surreal atmosphere of deserted sun-baked streets and shuttered windows, watched over by squads of vigilant, fully armed soldiers.
Dozens of embassies and residences are now guarded by soldiers. The troops can be seen outside the US ambassador’s palatial Villa Taverna, outside the Turkish envoy’s apartment, in large numbers surrounding the Israeli embassy, and outside dozens of other “sensitive” locations.
Unlike the police officers they have replaced, they do not slouch around or sit in their cars smoking or reading newspapers. They refuse to talk, but do so with the utmost courtesy and friend-liness. The impression is of professional military watchfulness.