Vatican City, Apr 21: Michelangelo designed its dome and Bernini created its columns, but St Peter's Basilica has the modern age to thank for the chewing gum stuck to its floors and the graffiti marring its walls.
As the Vatican yesterday launched a 500th anniversary celebration of St Peter's on Thursday, the prelate in charge of the upkeep of Christianity's largest church was considering how to save it for another half millennia.
''People have no idea how much time and energy is wasted removing chewing gum,'' Cardinal Francesco Marchisano yesterday told a news conference to launch a year-long series of events.
''It gets stuck all over the place and finds its way into the crevices in the marble. Ah, that poor marble!'' As many as 30,000 visitors stream every day into the basilica, which marks the burial place of the apostle St Peter and was built by some of Italy's most famous architects, including Michelangelo, Donato Bramante, Raphael and Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Visitor numbers have swelled further since the death of Pope John Paul II last April and thousands daily queue for hours to visit his tomb deep in the bowels of the church, some of them dropping gum and scribbling on the marble as they wait.
An army of Vatican workers, known as ''sanpietrini'' (little St Peters), work full time trying to repair the damage and remove the stains left by visitors.
Marchisano said upkeep was not cheap. Although he declined to give a precise figure, he said most of the funds were met by tickets sold to those wanting to visit the giant dome or ''cupola''.
Aid has also sometimes come from the guilty.
Marchisano recalled a rector from an English university who sent a cheque for 1,500 euros (1,850 dollars) after he discovered his students had signed their names on the ceiling of the cupola designed by Michelangelo in 1558.
One place the vandals could not damage is the necropolis of St Peter, where only 50,000 visitors are allowed in each year because of its tiny space and the need to protect the ancient paintings and relics from humidity, he added.
The Vatican is marking its year-long celebration of St Peter's with a series of events. A major exhibition about the basilica's history, including the first display of the stone marking St Peter's 2,000-year-old tomb, will open in October.