In Unprecedented UNESCO Bid, Italy Bets on the Ancient Appian Way

Thu, 01/12/2023 - 17:01
Exploring the ancient Appian Way
Exploring the ancient Appian Way / Photo: Fabio Nodari via Shutterstock

Italy is seeking UNESCO recognition for the ancient Appian Way, a key strategic route during the Roman Republic. The process has already been, one might say, a long road.

The UNESCO bid breaks new ground, as this is the first time the Italian Ministry of Culture has directly put forth a bid for inclusion on the list of World Heritage Sites — at least from the outset. Typically, bids are first presented by local or regional governments, universities or private groups, then later receive ministerial support.

The protocol agreement for the remainder of the nomination process was unveiled at a January 10 ceremony held at the Baths of Diocletian in Rome. Surviving stretches of the historic commercial, military and cultural exchange route pass through four regions — Lazio, Campania, Basilicata and Puglia — all of whom had representatives on hand at the ceremony to sign the agreement.

An additional 12 provinces, 73 municipalities and 25 universities — as well as the Pontifical Commission of Holy Archaeology and numerous parks — are involved in the project. 

A road well traveled

The Appian Way is one of the first and most important roads built by the ancient Romans (construction began in 312 BCE.) The ambitious artery ensured a swift and direct link between Rome and Brundisium (Brindisi in today’s Puglia) and was a primary tool for Mediterranean relations with Africa and the East. At the time — and still today — it was considered a feat of civil engineering, with a vast network of bridges, viaducts and galleries spanning the route.

At the January 10 ceremony, Culture Undersecretary Gianmarco Mazzi acknowledged the technical complexity and value of the Appian Way, calling it an example of Roman “greatness” and the “prototype” for future Roman roads. But the “cultural crossroad” element will be played up in the push for UNESCO status: “[The Appian Way] was part of the cultural and social system of the Roman world,” Mazzi said. “This was perhaps its main importance and this will be the aspect on which we focus.” 

The long road to possible UNESCO inclusion

Countries are eligible to submit nomination proposals only if they have signed the World Heritage Convention, “pledging to protect their natural and cultural heritage,” according to UNESCO guidelines.

The January 10 ceremony was hardly the beginning (and certainly not the end) of the road to inclusion for the Appian Way. In 2006, Italy took the first step in the rigorous acceptance process by submitting Via Appia “regina viarum” (The Appian Way, Queen of Roads in Latin) to its UNESCO State Party Tentative List. 

After that came the arduous work of preparing the nomination file. The nearly two decades required for this phase was not atypical: For many UNESCO campaigns, this process often takes many years. It involves intense preparation, including advice and direction from the World Heritage Centre to ensure all necessary documentation and maps are included in the final product.

After the nomination file is completed, it is sent to UNESCO’s two advisory bodies for independent evaluation. Once a year, the World Heritage Committee meets to make the final decision on all nominees, basing their decision on whether it has outstanding universal value and adheres to all criteria.

The imminent next step for the Appian Way project comes on January 20, when the application will be evaluated by the Italian National UNESCO Commission before being sent to UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

If approved by UNESCO, the Appian Way will become the second longest site to make the list after the Great Wall of China.

“The Ministry has already invested €19 million in restoration, conservation and in the preparation of the file,” Mazzi said. “We hope to succeed. When Italians play united, no result is impossible.”