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Rome Renovates For 2000

If ever there was a place to throw a millennium party, surely that place is Rome. After all, the millennium celebrates a milestone of the Christian calendar. The Pope has declared 2000 a pilgrimage year and invited everyone to come. CBS News Correspondent Mark Philips reports from the Eternal City.

The Vatican's already started the fun, unveiling the newly restored facade of St. Peter's Basilica. And where the church led, the Romans followed. Thou shalt refurbish has become the 11th commandment as the City of Rome has grown into a construction zone.

Barely a cobblestone or an ancient monument has escaped the restorer's hand. Everything is just as Giovanna Malandri wants it. As Italy's Minister of Culture, she sees her homeland's architectural heritage the way ministers in the Arabian Gulf see oil.

"This country didn't see its culture as an economic resource for a long time. Now it does," Malandri explains. About two billion worth of restoration money has been poured into Rome.

Both the investment and the construction noise sound good to city leaders. When Mayor Trancesco Rutelli when he encounters a renovation site, he exclaims "That is music for my ears...it means the city is improving."

But critics argue that a city designed for horses and chariots and now choked with traffic needs more than just a face lift. It needs subways, not more invading tourist hordes, they say.

The battle over Rome's millennium plans won't be as bloody as the great gladiatorial battles fought in the Roman Coliseum almost 2,000 years ago, but there are those who believe quite strongly that Rome's obsession with its past is jeopardizing its future.

The restoration work has certainly made life more difficult in the present age. Just try getting around town. Giovanni Negri, head of a a citizen's watchdog group, complains "In Rome you wake up in the morning and you try to understand [what] to do. If I have to go there, it will take two hours to go and come back."

What's two hours, the archaeologists ask in defense, in a landscape embracing 2,000 years of history? Rome's ancient ground still reveals long-hidden secrets, they say.

Among non-archaeologists, the word is that everything will all be ready on time for the millennium--the third millennium.

By dressing up the old town rather than modernizing it, Rome is applying a lesson it's learned over its long history. Whatever happens in life, you've got to have what they call la bella figura. You've got to look your best.