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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fit for the Signing of a Treaty or an Emperor

ROME -- When the Treaty of Rome was signed in March 1957, laying the groundwork for what is today the European Union, the heads of the six founding nations put their signatures to paper in the august main hall of a palazzo designed by Michelangelo.

When the leaders of NATO and Russia meet Tuesday to sign a treaty of cooperation at an air base just outside the Italian capital, they will do so in a setting that one Rome paper described today as a "Disneyland for the powerful."

From Michelangelo to Mickey?

In part, the idea to hold the event at the base, at Pratica di Mare, rather than downtown was due to security concerns. With the nations of the West on heightened antiterror alert, the protected military confines were considered more manageable.

As part of the security, the Italians will mobilize 15,000 people, including police officers, soldiers and other security forces. They have installed ground-to-air missiles nearby to protect the airspace, and have ordered ships of the Italian navy to clear a zone along the nearby Mediterranean coast. Commercial Italian airlines will suspend operations at nearby Fiumicino Airport during the meeting.

But the idea for the stage setting at Pratica, which will be disassembled as soon as the leaders depart, is attributed to the flamboyant prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi, who paid his way through college by crooning on cruise ships and now owns Italy's largest entertainment business, the Mediaset television empire, is no stranger to show business.

What he ordered up is a complex of structures. The main one, with arches vaguely reminiscent of the Colosseum, is where the government leaders will meet and sign the NATO-Russia treaty. Another setting, described as resembling an Aztec temple, will be used for news conferences for the 1,500 journalists accredited to cover the event. A third, resembling an airplane hangar but in faux Travertine marble, will offer work spaces for the journalists, including computers with Cyrillic letters for the Russians among them.

The structures are built of plywood and other light materials painted to look like stone, a sort of Cinecitta for world leaders. To add a touch of genuineness, Berlusconi ordered an archaeological museum in Naples to supply real ancient Roman statuary -- among them amazons, satyrs, muses and a shepherd with his sheep. But there will also be fake ancient Roman statuary -- fiberglass replicas of statues that will hold floral displays as a decorative backdrop to the gathering.

Berlusconi is no stranger to this sort of stage setting. Last July, when the leaders of the eight major industrial nations held their annual meeting in Genoa, he was mocked by that part of the Italian news media he does not own for hanging huge canvases, painted to look like classical facades, in front of rundown palazzos that could not be restored in time for the talks.

During that meeting, anti-globalization protesters staged sometimes violent demonstrations, in the course of which one protester was shot dead by the police. Berlusconi bore much of the blame for what was widely seen as poor security.

This time the prime minister, who recently referred to the new treaty with characteristic hyperbole as "a signing of planetary breadth -- the marriage of NATO and Russia," is taking no chances. Six thousand workers, toiling over the last 20 days, were mobilized to erect the structures at a cost of $11.5 million.

Berlusconi has also thought of the customary group photo. He will have his personal lighting engineer, and a lighting system has been installed so technicians can focus on each of the heads of state in the best possible aura, similar to the way contestants are highlighted on a quiz show.

Mario Catalano, the architect who designed the structures at Pratica, objects to comparisons with the Colosseum. "Don't call my project the Colosseum," he told the Rome daily Il Messaggero in an interview. "I was inspired by an ideal parliament, certainly not the Colosseum. And of all the proposals that were presented, Prime Minister Berlusconi chose just this one."