Sophisticated new systems have been inaugurated in recent months for lighting some of Rome's best-known monuments, but an unusual project attracting attention in the Eternal City doesn't involve computers, high-pressure sodium and metal-halide lamps, or even CRI. California artist Peter Erskine's contemporary art installations, promoted by Rome's Cultural Policy Council, the Monuments and Fine Arts Service, and ISES, are illuminating some of the city's monuments with grass roots lighting par excellence - sunlight.

Erskine's A New Light on Rome is in fact one of the latest projects using his proprietary high-tech flat prisms to split sunlight into the colors of the spectrum and create stunning, constantly changing effects. Locations involved in Erskine's installations are the Museo delle Mura at St. Sebastian's Gate, Nero's cryptoporticus in the Roman Forum, the Palatine Chapel in the House of the Knights of Malta, and Trajan's Market (below). From a historical point of view, Erskine underlines the uses made of sunlight for illumination, timekeeping, and heating by ancient Romans, such as those who lived in some of the buildings involved in his "rainbow art" installations.

Currently working on a spectrum sundial calendar for a millennium project in Ballymena, Ireland, Erskine explains the story behind the Rome installations, which will run through January 1, 2001. "I was in Rome in 1992 doing a project called Secrets of the Sun: Millennium Meditations. I heard that the mayor of Rome was in the Green Party, and though I'm an environmental artist and people knew who I was, the difficult part for the current event was getting archaeological permission.

"The authorities set several conditions. First, they have to feel it's useful for promoting the monuments. This fit in, because they're aware of the damage caused by fossil fuel pollution and sulphur dioxide, which is eating away the marble day by day; the idea of alternative energy could make a huge difference in the preservation. Two other criteria regarded impact, aesthetic and physical. I don't use solid triangular-shaped glass prisms, but flat prisms that are optically more efficient and very lightweight. I also installed them using compression spring-loaded tubing fittings, and from a visual point of view they're pretty ephemeral, not very intrusive." His collaborators on New Light include architect John Mitchell and, on-site in Italy, Andreas Kassab.

Prisms installed vary from four at the Knights of Malta Chapel to 10 at the cryptoporticus. "It has 14 skylights, but I only use 10 prisms because I decided to leave some of them with white light. There's a very dappled light, as there are trees shading all the skylights, designed as part of the project by Nero's architects." If you're in Rome over the next few months, take note of the installation's hours, set by Mother Nature: "I'm using very subdued natural lighting and the piece works from about 9am, when they open, to about 1pm, when the sun passes over."