Take 20 leaders of the nations with the world’s biggest economies, bring them to a beautiful, chaotic city with cobblestone streets and ancient ruins, add in delegations with a sprinkling of foreign and finance ministers, spouses, and a few children. Toss in a Queen and a Prince and some heads of UN organizations, throw in the Pope and the mandatory visit to the Vatican, 10,000 police and other security, over 1,000 accredited journalists, stir it all up and you have a recipe for three days of G20 MADNESS.
Covering all that was what I was doing together with a big AP team from all over the globe. Colleagues from Lisbon, Istanbul, Bucharest, Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, Washington, and London flew in to help the Rome bureau staff. For the TV coverage we divided ourselves into two teams, the team “in the bubble” and the team “outside the bubble.”
The bubble was the high-security red zone around the EUR neighborhood in Rome. EUR is the area of Rome built in the Mussolini years for the Universal Expo in 1942, hence the acronym that stuck as a permanent name, Esposizione Universale Roma (EUR). EXPO42 never happened because World War II got in the way. Nevertheless, it was designed to contrast the chaos of central Rome with large buildings and avenues, the most notable structure the Square Colosseum, a fascist nod to the Romans, its proper name is Palazza della Civilità Italiana.
The G20 Summit was held in the nearby “Nuvola” or “cloud” in Italian, an architectural jewel designed by the Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas and completed in 2016. Built as a conference center, in 2021 it was used as a vaccination hub and was where I got my two Pfizer jabs. The Nuvola, the nearby Palazzo dei Congressi, which was converted into a press center, and several kilometers around them were turned into a red zone where only people with official passes, accreditations and covid tests could go.
They were so precise about the covid tests that journalists had to get a test near where they picked up their accreditation and the pass had a chip in it with the date and time of the swab test. If a journalist went out after 48 hours and then tried to get back in, he or she would be blocked at the entrance and would have to go back and get another swab test. My foreign colleagues complained that the Italian sanitary personnel were so aggressive with the swab that they felt they were leaving the insides of their noses behind in Italy.
To get to the press center and the testing facility, the bubble team had to go through massive security blocks and checks and take special buses.
APTN Rome’s Senior Producer, Maria Grazia Murru, was coordinating all the activity inside the bubble, I was dealing with the outside of the bubble official part of the coverage which included visits of the heads of state to the Vatican, Trevi Fountain, bi-lateral meetings at the Italian President’s Palace or the Prime Minister’s office, APTN video-journalist Paolo Santalucia was coordinating coverage of all the demonstrations.
And if anyone is wondering how AP colleagues communicated and transmitted between the bubble, the bureau and the world I can say that as a proper modern media organization we use slack, whatsapp, facetime, zoom, liveUs, nimbra, expedat and many more. We were all doing so much communicating on-line I worried my eyeballs might pop out of my head and get glued to the screens.
Italian officials said there was a total of 10,000 men and women involved in the security for the event. They even had a new security role that I had never heard of : 50 “drone hunters” – specialists up on top of buildings carrying instruments that could deactivate any unwanted drones from a distance.
Two-thousand traffic cops were on the streets blocking off different sections of Rome depending on the event or the passing motorcade. Saturday evening there was the gala dinner at the Quirinal Palace hosted by the Italian President, and on Sunday morning there was the G20 coin toss in the Trevi Fountain and in between there were motorcades careening around town between the Vatican and bi-lateral meetings at embassies and villas.
President Biden’s motorcade alone consisted of 80 cars and an additional 17 vehicles between motorcycles, helicopters, and drones. When a US President travels abroad two of his armored, bomb-proof, bullet-proof cars known as “The Beast” are flown in for him. When President Biden went through Rome there were always two beasts, and we were never quite sure which one he was in. I guess that is the point. (By the way, a big theme of this G20 was climate change, did it occur to anyone that they could save a little pollution with a slightly smaller motorcade – are 97 vehicles really necessary?)
Perhaps it was just as well that Biden skipped the 9am Sunday morning coin toss into the Trevi Fountain or his motorcade would have blocked up the entire city center. But Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi was there to welcome Angela Merkel, Narenda Modi, Emmanuel Macron, Boris Johnson, Pedro Sanchez, Scott Morrison, Moon Jae-in and others.
The Trevi Fountain, a masterpiece of baroque architecture, was designed by Nicola Salvi and completed in 1762, built at the terminal point of a Roman aqueduct. The work is known as “Taming of the Waters” and at the top is Oceanus, God of the Waters, riding three winged horses led by Tritons with cascading falls of water around them. The fountain has featured in a variety of films but most famously for the romantic scene in “La Dolce Vita” with Anita Ekberg frolicking in the fountain as she calls to Marcello Mastroianni to join her.
The legend in Rome is that if one throws a coin in the Trevi Fountain, he will be sure to return. Thousands of coins are thrown in the fountain every day and the city regularly cleans them out and gives them to the Catholic charity group Caritas.
Each leader was given a one-euro coin with Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man on the back, symbol of the Italian G20. The leaders lined up in front of the majestic fountain and together threw their coins into the turquoise waters. But no one is hoping for the group to come back any time soon.
Many of the leaders crossed the Tiber for a visit with Pope Francis taking their motorcades to the Vatican and snarling up traffic in another neighborhood of Rome. The Presidents and Prime Ministers drove in through St. Peter’s Square and into the San Damaso Courtyard where they were greeted by a lineup of Swiss Guards and Vatican Gentlemen before being led through the Apostolic Palace to the Pope’s study. Following a private conversation in the study the leaders introduced their spouses and delegations to the Holy Father in the Papal library and exchanged gifts.
The partners of the G20 leaders had a schedule of their own which included, among other things, a private tour of the Colosseum, a visit to Rome’s Capitoline Museums followed by a drinks on a terrace with one of the finest views in the city, out over the Roman Forum to the Colosseum. My video-journalist colleague from Berlin, Pietro De Cristofaro, got spouses’ duty and when it came time to edit the video, the two of us struggled to identify the various partners of leaders.
There were the obvious ones Jill Biden, Carrie Johnson and Brigette Macron, but who would know the spelling for the name of the companion of Charles Michel, President of the European Council, Amelie Derbaudrenghien, or be sure about the name of the wife of the Director-General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. It is Kidist Birhane.
We got really stuck on a striking, blond woman who got into the Russian delegation car at the end of the Colosseum tour. Vladimir Putin did not come to the G20, so she was obviously not his spouse. With some back and forth of freeze frame shots and photos from our London desk and our Moscow bureau we concluded that she is the mistress of the Russian finance minister. She remained “Russian delegation” in our story. We never figured out who was the blond woman in the body-hugging pink dress. I discovered reading an Italian paper the next day when they said Argentinian first lady, Fabiola Yanez, was dressed up as a “pink confection.”
AP Television video-journalist Fanuel Morelli had to cover a tea with First Lady Jill Biden and Premiere Madame Brigitte Macron and came back and told me he couldn’t figure out which was one which. I thought he was crazy until I looked and the video and, honestly, with the same style tailleur and similar hair color they do look like sisters.
JOE AND JILL AT MASS
One unexpected event was the Joe and Jill Biden attending 6pm Mass on Saturday. My colleague, AP Vatican Correspondent, Nicole Winfield, heard that the President never misses mass and given the full schedule on Sunday wondered if he might go to the 6pm Mass at the American Catholic Church in Rome, St. Patrick’s. Given that the pressure from US bishops not to let politicians who support abortion rights receive communion, and the fact that the day before President Biden had met with Pope Francis and said the Pope had given him his permission to take communion, Nicole was eager to see if Biden would be taking communion in Rome.
At 5:30 Nicole wrote to me from the church to say that they had brought in a German shepherd bomb-sniffing dog and were doing a security sweep. I rushed out of the office with my mini osmo camera to zip over there. But two blocks away from the church the area had been completely closed off and they wouldn’t let me through. I went around the block to the back of the church and with my most righteous face, marched past the Italian police, lifted up the police barrier tape across the road and said, “I am going to Mass.” “Certo, Signora,” said the Italian policeman. But at the next corner I found an American Secret Service Agent coming towards me aggressively. I tried it again, “I am going to Mass,” I announced in English without slowing my step. “Ok, Ma’am” he said and let me pass.
Inside I joined Nicole sitting in the third pew from the rear in a nearly deserted church. She had just received a message from a boss in the AP Washington bureau saying we could not film the President inside the church, but it was too late to move. At five to six we started hearing sirens and helicopters and at six sharp in came the President and First Lady and sat right behind me, two pews back. I turned around and looked at the President and raised my eyebrows and he smiled and raised his back. Mask-wearing communication. Nicole managed to sneak a photo from under her arm.
When it came time for communion, I made my way to the front of the church, the President behind me and secret service beside me along the central aisle. It was a tad unnerving. Then I slipped out so I could at least film him coming out of the Mass and getting into one of the two beasts that were parked outside.
BRAZILIAN PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO
Biden went off-schedule to go to Mass, while Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro found the time to wander around the center of Rome, leaving the Brazilian Embassy to wander around Piazza Navona and the Trevi Fountain glad-handing with fans. While most of the other leaders left straight from Rome to go to the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, Bolosnaro, who is not particularly concerned about global warming, headed north visiting towns in Veneto and Tuscany.
Sunday evening they issued their final declaration and each leader held a press conference. AP staffers divided themselves between Biden, Macron, Merkel, Johnson, Erdogan and others. I got to handle Macron for TV. He seemed to talk forever. And then it ended. Don’t ask me to go into the details of the final declaration or tell you about what Prince Charles said or why Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron kept on bickering over fishing and submarines. It is over. With a buzz of helicopters flying overhead, the G20 leaders left with their motorcades, security, and their delegations and Romans settled back to celebrate November 1st known as “The Day of the Dead.” After three days of madness, all of us on the AP team were feeling just that, dead.
AP TELEVISION COLLEAGUES AT WORK
Unfortunately I do not have photos of some other key colleagues involved in our coverage: Ayse Wieting, Pietro De Cristofaro, Giuliana Ricozzi and Gordon Walker.