Rome Travel Guide

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Saving Rome's Buildings, with Capitalism

Rome is being repaired--building by building, monument by monument. Signs of this effort are ubiquitous: one structure after another covered in canvas, and behind it, scaffolding.  The Trevi fountain, emptied of its water for months while reconstruction crews do their thing.  Restoration work on both of Rome's coliseums: the ancient, famous one in the city center, and the Colosseo Quadrato (square coliseum), an elegant Fascist-era building in EUR. 

This is mostly good news; at least some of Rome's historic structures are finally getting the care they need.  The bad news is that these reconstruction efforts come with strings attached.  The core of the problem is that much of the restoration work--just how much cannot be gleaned from newspaper reports--is funded by corporations.  The corporations want something for their money, hence the strings.  One string (a minor one, to be sure) is that whatever company is funding the project gets to put its name, or its product, or both on the cloth that shrouds the buildings and the scaffolding.  While undergoing repairs, the building becomes an advertisement, a billboard.  Americans are used to billboards and other very large advertisements, and may even regard them as essential to a vibrant urban scene.  This is surely true in Los Angeles, where notice of the latest blockbuster film may occupy the entire side of a very tall building.  Romans, however, have no billboard history that I know of, no experience until recently, as wall art has achieved a certain popularity, with visual clutter akin to advertising gigantism.

Yet there it is.  An ad for Jaguar looming over Largo di Santa Susanna.  More than one pitch for a company known as Mediolanum, which apparently has something to do with banking.

A huge picture of the latest Samsung Galaxy phone (probably the one that catches fire and is no longer being produced), positioned between Piazza Venezia and Hadrian's column. 

Ads for the New Tiguan--that's an automobile--dominating the Tiber end of via della Conciliazione.

An enormous ad for the second season of the TV series "Gomorra" on the historic Palazzo della Cancelleria (see the top of this post).  So that's one "string" attached: visual pollution.  It's advertising, not art.

The other string is more interesting, and arguably more disturbing.  The corporations that do this work not only want to advertise while they're doing it.  They also want--and get--a degree of control over the property whose restoration they're funding.  That brings us to Fendi, a company with Roman roots, and one known for many years for its fashionable furs.  Beginning a few years ago, the company embarked on a plan to restore several of the city's best-known fountains, beginning with the Trevi, where the company invested about $2.9 million.  The restoration was completed in the fall of 2015, just in time, as it happens, for Fendi's 90th anniversary.  To mark that occasion, in July 2016 the company drained the fountain, installed a 66-yard-long glass catwalk, filled the Trevi again--and, in a sunset display of haute couture, brought out 37 models, who seemed to walk on water.

That spectacle, which allowed the company to identify its brand with one of the world's great attractions, continues to benefit Fendi.  On the following November 15, the company featured the July event in a two-page spread in the New York Times

One could reasonably argue that's a good deal for Rome, Romans, and tourists: a landmark spruced up, used for an evening by its benefactor, powerful images of the Trevi circulating in the media. 

More problematic is what's happened recently in EUR, where Fendi is also involved, this time with the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana--the iconic "square coliseum."  Apparently as a reward for financial assistance with repairs to the building (we're assuming that), Fendi was able to rent the building for 15 years for 240,000 Euro per month.  Under the agreement with EUR Spa, a public entity, Fendi also became the exclusive licensee of commercial images of the square coliseum for that same 15-year period. 

All this came to light, at least for us, when a gay pride organization, Roma Pride, used the building  as a backdrop for its publicity--3 guys in bikinis on the stairs, framed by the building's many arches. Fendi didn't like it. The cultural minister sided with Fendi: it was OK to sell the rights to commercial images, and not OK for Roma Pride to use the image of the Square Coliseum for commercial purposes.  And there the issue stands: symbolic, if nothing else, of corporate encroachment on Rome's historical heritage, for better or for worse, or both.


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