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Providence's WaterFire to light up Rome

Almost 20 years after WaterFire's Artistic Director Barnaby Evans '75 first illuminated the Providence River, the renowned festival is traveling halfway across the globe. This weekend, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras will travel to Italy for the inaugural lighting of 30 braziers on the Tiber River in the first WaterFire Rome.

"WaterFire deals with our ancient fascination with the interplay of firelight and water," Taveras said in a press release. "I cannot think of a more magical place to introduce WaterFire to Europe." 

Italian Consul General Giuseppe Pastorelli attended the Sept. 13 press conference announcing WaterFire's expansion and ceremoniously opened a recent WaterFire Providence. 

On weekend evenings May through October, WaterFire illuminates the Providence River with bonfires. The installation was originally dubbed "First Fire" when it was first held in 1994 as a celebration of the tenth anniversary of First Night Providence, the city's New Years Eve festival, according to WaterFire's website. Two years later, Evans put on "Second Fire" as part of an international architecture conference, which drew participants from around the world. 

The success of these first two festivals drove artistically-minded area residents to persuade Evans that the tradition should occur more regularly, said Peter Mello, managing director of WaterFire

Since then, WaterFire has established Providence as a global city and has drawn 15 million people to the lightings. Throughout the event's 18-year history, it has become "a big economic driver for the state and the city," yielding $70 million to local businesses and directly contributing $5 million of sales tax to the state, Mello said. 

Few other public art events generate crowds in the same numbers as WaterFire does - a fact that has garnered attention from people around the world, including Rome's Mayor Giovanni Alemanno

Putting on an event like WaterFire involves coordinating with a large number of government entities, and the complexity is compounded when transported to a foreign city, Mello said.

After obtaining the necessary permits only last week, Evans and the team of artists and coordinators at WaterFire had 10 days to create the first WaterFire in Rome. "It's a pretty short timeline to make this happen, but as (with) all WaterFire events and WaterFire volunteers, they will do an amazing job over there," Mello said.

Volunteers from Rome and Providence have come together to organize the event, including students in Rhode Island School of Design's Rome program. The event will be sponsored by the city of Rome, as well as GTECH Holdings Corp. - a major employer in Providence - and Lottomatica, GTECH's holding company. 

"It is our hope that ... a bridge will be formed that will encourage closer cultural and business links between the two cities," said Senior Vice President of GTECH Bob Vincent at the press conference.

WaterFire's expansion to Rome will not only strengthen current connections between the two cities but will also recall elements from Rome's vast history of art and festivals. "Rome was a great stage theater for all sorts of festivals," said Massimo Riva, professor of Italian studies. "In a sense, WaterFire continues on in that tradition that goes back to the Renaissance." 

The Tiber River, located in the heart of Rome, will provide a much different setting for the festival. 

"The river is bigger, there is more water, the current is stronger," said Italian native Lorenzo Moretti '14, who hails from Udine. Because of the Tiber's wider expanse, the braziers cannot be arranged like they are in Providence - they would either need to be bigger or interspersed with other decorations, he said.

But if adapted properly, "I think the context would actually make it more beautiful," Moretti said.

In Providence, gondolas adorned with lanterns float down the river, much like those seen gliding through the canals of Venice, but "with that I would be a little careful," Moretti said - many elements of Italian culture are city-specific. 

"It's a very bad idea to have a gondola in Rome" because Venice and Rome are very different cities, he said. Roman boats called "gallias" could be used as an alternative, Moretti added.

Moretti said a long-running festival where people can come and go through the night and attend many times might gain more success in Italy. He added that WaterFire Rome might be an opportunity to raise awareness of the influence of Italian immigration to the United States.

After showcasing in Singapore last year and now expanding to Rome, WaterFire might spread to other Italian cities in coming years. The popular event has been ranked by Greater Travel as one of the world's greatest destinations after dark, along with Paris. 

"It was born here and it lives and thrives here," Mello said of the festival's home city. "It's an iconic symbol of Providence and Rhode Island, and I think doing
it in another place like Rome is only good for our city and our state."


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