Rome is rotten to the core, says Italian historian Luigi Firpo, who is not sure the Eternal City can or should be saved.

Firpo, a 73-year-old Republican member of parliament, set Roman tempers ablaze recently by suggesting the Italian capital is so incapable of tackling its biggest problem - traffic pollution - that the state should cut off funds to restore its monuments.He even recommended moving the capital elsewhere.

Firpo, who comes from the northern city of Turin, was a prime mover behind the defeat of a parliamentary motion in November to give Rome an extra $150 million in 1989 and 1990 for restoration work.

"Rome is rotten to the core. It is suffocating in car exhaust fumes. In a situation like this there is no point carrying out prestigious restoration projects," said Firpo.

His broadside was dismissed as totalitarian by Mayor Pietro Giubilo and with the literary equivalent of a shrug by the city's leading contemporary novelist, Alberto Moravia.

"Rome has always had the privilege of being a living ruin," Moravia said.

But the attack may well have struck a chord with restorers. They say they are fighting a losing battle to protect one of civilization's great open-air museums from some of the filthiest fumes and most chaotic traffic in Europe.

Experts are currently pleading with the city council not to put the gilded bronze equestrian statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius back in the open after eight years of analysis and restoration. They say the pollution would destroy it.

The 1,800-year-old monument, a symbol of Rome's pride and the only equestrian statue to survive intact from antiquity, had stood since 1538 in the Piazza Campidoglio, the square on the Capitol Hill and seat of city government.

"Either we have to learn to look after our environment or science has to come up with a coating that can protect the statue. Until then, it should be kept in a museum," said Alessandra Melucco Vaccaro, who directed restoration work.

She has suggested replacing the void in the square with a copy. Some city politicians are outraged.

"I challenge the affectations of a few cultural mandarins and their contempt for the people," said Gianfranco Redavid, the city councilman responsible for cultural affairs.

"The feelings of the Roman people have to be respected. They must also be considered history and civilization," he said. "Marcus Aurelius must go back to the Piazza."

Romans, it might be said, have not always shown the greatest respect for their surfeit of monuments.

The Colosseum became an enormous quarry in the 15th century, when huge blocks of its travertine stone were carted off to construct St. Peter's Basilica and other buildings.

Today it stands blackened by exhaust fumes on the edge of one of the city's busiest road junctions.

Other great monuments of Imperial Rome, including the Arch of Constantine and the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, have been restored after acid rain turned much of their marble to plaster.

They are back on display after years under protective green netting. And, around the column of Marcus Aurelius outside the prime minister's office, the cars are back parked at its base.

Adriano La Regina, chief curator of Rome's ancient monuments, has said that unless the environment is cleaned up, many of the marble treasures may have to be covered with see-through plastic.

"There would be no need for protection if acid rain was eliminated. It does not only damage the monuments. It also damages Romans' lungs," he said.