Political turmoil is part and parcel of Roman life as recent events have amply demonstrated. On the surface the news has been good – EU leaders met in town to mark 60 years of European unity; millions of pilgrims poured into St Peter’s for Pope Francis’ Holy Year; the Colosseum was unveiled after a lengthy restoration. But behind the scenes, the story has been one of controversy and crisis in City Hall and ferocious in-fighting at the Vatican.
Chaos in City Hall
In summer 2016 Rome elected its first ever woman mayor. Virginia Raggi, a 37-year old city councillor swept to victory in the June elections, taking 67% of the vote as candidate for the populist Movimento 5 Stelle (5 Star Movement). Promising to take on corruption and improve the city’s dire public services, her message struck a chord with a Roman public weary of cutbacks and political scandal. Her honeymoon period didn’t last long, though, and within months her administration was mired in controversy.
By Christmas, she’d had to deal with the resignation of several key appointees, including the manager she’d tasked with cleaning up the city. Then, in early 2017, she was placed under investigation for abuse of office following the appointment of a city tourism official.
In the midst of all this, she did, however, make some big decisions. She scotched Rome’s bid for the 2024 Olympic Games and gave the go-ahead for a new football stadium in the city’s southern reaches. She also pushed through a €5.3 billion budget, earmarking €430 million for upgrading the city’s public transport network, including buying new buses and funding construction on the city's third metro line.
Jubilee & Vatican Intrigue
Over on the west bank of the Tiber, the Vatican has been busy. Pope Francis declared 2016 a Jubilee, or Holy Year, and millions made the pilgrimage to Rome – according to Vatican estimates, 21 million people passed through the Holy Door at St Peter’s Basilica over the course of the year.
A highlight event was the canonisation of Mother Teresa in September 2016, which drew crowds of up to 120,000 to St Peter’s Square and featured a special pizza lunch for 1500 homeless people.
Behind the scenes, however, the atmosphere in the Vatican has become increasingly toxic as internal opposition has grown to Pope Francis’ progressive politics. With his easy-going manner and popular charm, the Argentinian pontiff has won worldwide acclaim for giving the Church a friendlier face, but his liberal line has enraged powerful conservatives. Central to the dispute, which some commentators have likened to a civil war, is the pope’s line on social issues such as the family, marriage and divorce.
For several years now, Rome’s cultural administrators have been courting private money to shore up municipal budgets and help cover the cost of maintaining the city’s historic sites and monuments. This policy has sparked heated debate but it is now showing signs of fruition. Most notably, the Colosseum is looking better than it has in centuries after the recent completion of a three-year clean-up. The work came as the first part of a comprehensive €25 million restoration project being sponsored by the designer shoemakers Tod’s. Similarly, the Spanish Steps, which were reopened to the public in September 2016, are gleaming after a €1.5 million makeover financed by luxury jewellers Bulgari. Foreign organisations are also getting in on the act and, in March 2017, it was announced that the Danish Academy would be donating €1.5 million towards work on the Foro di Cesare.
As well as these high-profile projects, the city has also managed some quieter successes. At the Roman Forum, the Chiesa di Santa Maria Antiqua was re-opened after a lengthy restoration, while at the Circo Massimo a renovated section of the original stadium was recently opened to guided tours.
Art on the Streets
While donations pour in for Rome’s ancient sites and historic monuments, the state of the city’s streets and parks remains a source of anger to many Romans. Litter in overgrown parks, roads full of potholes, pavements blocked by illegally parked cars – these are complaints you’ll hear in bar conversations across the city.
The situation has sparked community action, which has often taken the form of street art. Giant murals have gone up on walls all over town, adding colour to abandoned buildings, disused factories and housing blocks. A more recent phenomenon has even seen immigrants taking to cleaning pavements and roadsides on their own initiative.