ROME (AP) _ A thought might occur to a stroller in Rome's ancient center: Who is Cud?

Or Zero Man? Or the Lizard? Or any of the other names, slogans and symbols covering walls and - sometimes historic relics - in the heart of the city.

Graffiti is as much a part of the landscape in central Rome as old marble and stray cats. And so are crews scrubbing walls and splashing whitewash over the messages.

Laws have done little to curb the graffiti fervor. So the government is trying a new approach by battling the problem at the source: the spray paint itself.

A proposal approved by the Cabinet last month would require manufacturers to remove any caustic compounds from the paint, and spell out the paint's exact composition and what solvents best remove it.

The proposal, which could become law within weeks, also outlaws use of any cleaning solutions that can damage the ancient facades.

''We cannot think of saving the open-air museums of historic centers as places of art if they are desecrated in this manner,'' said Culture Minister Alberto Ronchey after the proposal was passed Sept. 30.

The proposed statute is a round-about attack on graffiti.

But it does show the level of frustration by officials as polluted air, traffic rumblings and vandals take a toll on Italy's buildings and monuments.

''Disgusting,'' said deliveryman Carlo Perla, who has been driving Rome streets for 12 years. ''Like everything, the graffiti is getting worse.''

Rome is certainly not the only place in Italy with rampant graffiti, but its vast historic center and position as the nation's capital emphasize its problems.

Even the side of the Culture Ministry is not spared. Someone painted - in red - a protest against ''political persecution'' in Portugal.

On the side of the 15th-century Venezia Palace some of the more offensive messages have been painted over. The moniker of ''Avro D'' remains.

Political slogans dominate Rome's graffiti world. ''Death to Fascists'' was sprayed in black near the base of the Spanish Steps. ''The country of the kickback,'' said another, referring to Italy's continuing corruption scandals.

Love affairs blossom and die on the walls. The passions that drove someone to scrawl ''Laura and Paolo Forever'' may have led that someone to come back later and slap an X through the center.

And there are the mysterious inscriptions. ''Surf Green Flowers,'' reads one message near the Tiber River.

Above the city in the Villa Borghese park, a row of marble busts of Italian heroes and statesmen was not spared. One face is painted black. A second has a Hitler-type moustache and purple eyes.

''The situation in Rome is terrible,'' said Mirella Belvisi, a spokeswoman for the environmental group Italia Nostra. ''Nothing is being done.''

The organization, which has principally fought to curb air pollution, has stepped up its anti-grafitti campaigns and monitors the damage done by markers and spray cans.