WHEN Sylvester Stallone, alias Rambo, came to Rome last week to launch Italy's first ''Planet Hollywood'', due to open in a few months in the Via Sistina, near the Spanish Steps, he did not receive the reception he expected. Solidly wedged in front of the rows of cheering fans were dozens of photographers and cameramen bearing placards with the messages: ''Don't tar us all with the same brush'' and ''We're professionals. Not jackals.''

The Rome paparazzi were out in force to protest against the virulent remarks condemning the entire category of roving photographers, expressed by the actor in a recent, widely reported interview. They feel that they are being unfairly slugged because of the irresponsibility of a small minority of their members. They wanted to get the message across that only a few of them work as scandalmongers for the gutter press.

The term ''paparazzo'' comes from Fellini's famous film La Dolce Vita. This is the surname the Maestro gave to one of his characters - a roving news shark, modelled on a a real Roman freelance photographer called Tazio Secchiaroli, and he little dreamt that the name would become a household word. Tazio himself was the prototype of the brash snooper behind the Leica lens, prepared to resort to any kind of subterfuge to expose the guilty secrets of the stars.

Tazio Secchiaroli is now 72 and has long retired from the business of harassing the rich and famous in the Eternal City. His heyday was back at the beginning of the 60s, when Hollywood came to the banks of the Tiber and Cinecitta was in full bloom, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor having a smouldering love affair both on and off the set of Antony and Cleopatra and Ava Gardner stealing furtive encounters with Italian actor Walter Chiari in the glittering nightspots along the Via Veneto.

The photographers of the Sweet Life epoch often worked in pairs - so that one could escape with the film whilst the other was having his face punched in and his camera smashed by some irate actor.

As Tazio recalls it, it was all a kind of game - as well as a way of getting even with the society of the period, which he viewed as fundamentally unjust.

''We photographers were all poor starving devils and they had it all - money, fame, posh hotels,'' is his comment. ''The doormen and porters in the grand hotels gave us information tips - you could call it the fellowship of the proletariat.''

The days are long over when the lean and hungry freelance photographer stalked the fashionable streets, with his Leica concealed under his jacket, hoping for the lucky shot which would pay for the next meal.

Later the problem developed into a serious intrusion of privacy with the advent of the infra-red equipment and super powerful telescopic lenses.

Thanks to these, Jacqueline Onassis was snapped sunbathing nude on Skorpios, her husband's island stronghold, shots of the Fiat king, Gianni Agnelli - also nude - appeared on the front page of a popular Italian magazine, and an embarrassed Vatican allegedly paid an exorbitant price to remove from the market-place photos of Pope John Paul II diving into the pool in the gardens of his summer residence.

By then, candid camera shots had become big business and tabloid editors have since continued to pay out bigger and bigger sums for peeping tom glimpses of unaware celebrities. In 1991, Florentine paparazzo Massimo Sestini was alleged paid close on #300,000 for his snaps of Princess Diana in a bikini and Mario Brenna received an unprecedented sum for his shots of Diana and Dodi Fayed on the family yacht, not long before the tragic accident in Paris.

In Italy, as in Britain, it is now agreed that the time has come to call a halt. The Italian watchdog commission charged with safeguarding citizens' rights to privacy is studying how to limit the paparazzi's activities. In conformity with the terms of the Italian Privacy Protection Act - introduced in 1996 after a Rome cafe frequented by judges and magistrates suspected of corruption was found to have been bugged - the Italian Journalist and Reporters' Corporation is pledged to set itself a new code of ethics, which will include seeking a solution to this problem.

It remains to be seen, however, if the paparazzi - and the editors - will conform.