Snow covers St. Peter's square at the Vatican as snowflakes fell in downtown Rome on Friday, Feb. 3, 2012. Snowfalls are a rare occurrence for a capital usually blessed by a temperate climate, and other parts of the country experienced frigid temperatures unseen in years. The snowfall prompted authorities to stop visitors from entering the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill, the former home of Rome's ancient emperors. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)
By FRANCES D'EMILIO
ROME (AP) -- A rare snowfall blanketed Rome on Friday, forcing the closure of the Colosseum over fears tourists would slip on the icy ruins, and leaving buses struggling to climb the city's slushy hills. Other parts of the country experienced frigid temperatures unseen in years.
Authorities stopped visitors from entering the Colosseum, the adjacent Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill, the former home of Rome's ancient emperors, although those already inside the ruins before thick flakes began coming down in late morning were allowed to finish their visits. The director of the ancient arena, Rossella Rea, said there was concern visitors could fall on ice.
The last substantial snowfall in Rome occurred in 1986, though lighter snowfalls have occasionally and briefly blanketed the city since, including in 2010.
Since the capital infrequently sees freezing temperatures, heating in homes is only allowed by law for about 10 hours a day, to cut down on pollution. The cold snap, with temperatures hovering at or just below the freezing point, meant Romans shivered in their homes, many with tile and marble floors.
Snow dusted pine and palm trees and changed into slush on the cobblestone streets in the center. In many neighborhoods, snowfall accumulated to about 4 centimeters (1.5 inches).
After hearing the forecasts on Thursday night, Mayor Gianni Alemanno ordered classroom instruction canceled on Friday and Saturday, but said school buildings would stay open so working parents could drop off their children if they had no other place to leave them.
On the steep streets in the Monteverde neighborhood near the ancient Janiculum Hill, many buses couldn't make it up, and commuters and residents gingerly navigated the hill by foot. Balconies resembled skating rinks as puddles from overnight rain froze over. Layers of snow covered the ripe fruit on orange trees on Roman terraces.
Authorities appealed to Italians to stay off highways, as the cold snap was predicted to continue well into the next week.
Air travelers faced tough going Saturday, when snow was forecast to continue falling across much of Italy. Alitalia said 99 percent of its flights operated Friday, but that on Saturday morning it would cancel about 40 departures and landings, as a precaution.
In the northern Italian town of Maranello, Ferrari unveiled its completely overhauled Formula One car in a low-key Internet presentation. The full launch was canceled because of the snowstorm.
The storm dumped 40 or more centimeters (more than 3 feet) of snow, with even higher drifts, across a swath of the central-north, which was hit far harder that Rome in south-central Italy.
Temperatures plunged as low as minus 22 C (minus 7 F), in Trepalle, a village in the Italian Alps.
In the northern financial capital of Milan, a homeless man who had covered himself with a blanket and taken shelter under a bush, was found dead of exposure to the cold on Thursday, officials said.
Vanessa Gera contributed to this report.