One of the prettiest and most historic corners of Rome will soon be sacrificed for a seven-floor underground car park unless Italy's Minister of Culture orders a dramatic and costly change of course.
Supporters of the car park say it is the way to rid the Tridente, the corner of central Rome defined by the "trident" of streets shooting out from Piazza del Popolo, of the clutter of cars.
Opponents call it "a sacrilegious car park", "a cultural crime", and compare the excavation of the hill in central Rome to the destruction of the Great Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taleban.
Gianni Alemanno, the new centre-right Mayor of Rome, argued against the car park in his election campaign, but work is already under way and if it is cancelled the penalty fees could cost millions.
Culture Minister Sandro Bondi has intervened, saying the future of the hill is a question of national importance and the final word will be his.
It is called the Pincio and towards the end of the Roman Republic, Lucullus, the philosopher-general who conquered northern Anatolia and brought cherries to Europe, built a magnificent villa nearby. The property was later grabbed by the Empress Valeria Messalina, wife of Claudius, who forced its owner to commit suicide. She was later assassinated in the villa's gardens, transformed into a public garden by the 18th-century architect Valadier.
Pincio is home to the Villa Medici, where Galileo was imprisoned during his trials, and boasts great views to St Peter's and beyond. But if plans go ahead, Pincio will became a huge building site as a carpark with spaces for more than 700 vehicles is built.
Giorgio Muratore, a professor of architecture and member of a group appointed by the Mayor to advise on the project, said it was a "monstrosity".
One of the most grievous losses would be that of the panoramic piazza on the hill's flat top, "a large part of which would be redefined merely as the roof" of the car park, with "large ventilator wells, extensive grilles, access stairs and emergency exits".
Environmental groups bitterly oppose the project and Carlo Ripa di Meana, head of the heritage organisation Italia Nostra and former head of Italy's Green Party, has threatened a hunger strike if it goes ahead.
Opponents were heartened by revelations this week that the hill contained a wealth of ancient Roman remains, "a secret Pompeii", which archaeologists have only begun to explore.
- THE INDEPENDENT