A city falls apart gradually, then suddenly. When a descending subway escalator in Rome accelerated last week, shoveling passengers into a writhing pile at the bottom, the lurch produced more than 20 literal injuries (a man lost his foot) and one glaring metaphor. Mayor Virginia Raggi rushed to the scene to provide some Trumpian misdirection. Citing unnamed witnesses, she claimed that Russian soccer fans had been jumping and dancing on the escalator, possibly causing it to collapse. Video of the accident showed no such thing.
Rome has been experiencing episodes of extravagant decay on Raggi’s watch. Potholes, some big enough to fish in, have grown so numerous that they have their own Facebook page. Neglected dumpsters overflow and garbage piles up into sidewalk sculptures. Once-verdant parks have reverted to dusty wilderness. Abundant refuse attracts wild boars, which gallop down major arteries, swarm streets, graze in garbage, even take group naps in parks. The transit agency ATAC has a record that almost makes the MTA look good. Two public buses burst into flames on the same day last May, bringing the count of spontaneously combusting buses to 10 so far this year. Just last Sunday, a hailstorm turned roads into frozen, oily swamps and subway escalators into cataracts. Rome is divided between the parts that are crumbling and the parts that crumbled a long time ago.
In the face of such epic neglect, a newly formed activist group called Roma Dice Basta (Rome Says Enough) released a video mashup of Roman squalor and held a mass protest on Saturday. Thousands jammed Piazza del Campidoglio, the site of municipal authority since the Middle Ages. It was a largely middle-aged crowd in shawls and over-the-shoulder sweaters that made the most mundane demands: Please pick up the trash. “I grumble!” proclaimed one sign. This is what a bourgeois revolution looks like.
The populist and right-wing politicians who govern Italy see it as a nation caught in a vise between immigrants storming in from Africa and meddling politicians reaching in from Brussels. But it’s really homegrown ineptitude that is trashing the fragile capital. Free from war, insurrection, disaster, or depression, Rome is being victimized by its own bureaucrats. Anyone who lives in a major city will recognize the syndrome.
It’s easy to dismiss the current problems as just more of the Eternal City’s eternal misery. It’s true that chronicling Rome’s degradation is an ancient pastime. The Scottish writer Tobias Smollett visited in 1765 and found that, despite all the aqueducts channeling water in from mountain springs, Romans tolerated distressing levels of dirt. “Their streets, and even their palaces, are disgraced with filth,” he wrote. Piazza Navona was as foul as a London cattle market. The interiors of magnificent palazzi “are depositories of nastiness, and indeed in summer smell as strong as spirit of hartshorn.” That’s ammonia, by which he means urine.
For generations of painters, poets, and philosopher-tourists, the contrast between Rome’s ancient magnificence and its contemporary putrefaction made the whole metropolis an urban-scale memento mori, a reminder that all glories pass. Percy Bysse Shelley remarked in 1818 that “Rome is a city, as it were, of the dead, or rather of those who cannot die.” Today, the Twitter feed Roma Fa Schifo (Rome Sucks) has taken over the job of documenting iniquities in a tone of constantly renewable outrage.
But Rome has not always been like this. Periodically the city has buffed its streets and tuned its machinery to a practically Nordic gleam. An admittedly rosy but not inaccurate promotional film for the 1960 Olympics shows a relaxed modern metropolis inserted into antique frame. In the ’70s, when ravishing public spaces had devolved into parking lots both literal and figurative, the municipality began clearing them out, returning Piazza Navona, Piazza del Popolo, and Piazza di Spagna to pedestrians. A couple of long-delayed subways finally opened in 1980. New streetcar lines materialized, and bus routes were remapped. Well-designed dumpsters encouraged recycling (and were regularly emptied, even). Hosting the 1990 World Cup precipitated one multiyear tuneup, and the millennium in 2000 prompted another. Cobblestones glistened. Baroque churches were scrubbed of their sooty patinas. A new constellation of concert halls designed by Renzo Piano opened in the former Olympic Village in 2002, and, eight years later, Zaha Hadid’s new museum of contemporary art, MAXXI went up a few blocks away.
By the time Raggi was elected in 2016, she inherited dysfunction of operatic proportions. Construction on a sports city designed by the architect Santiago Calatrava ground to a halt and the site was abandoned in 2011, leaving a new set of extravagant ruins rusting grandly in an open field. In a city beset by housing shortages, it turned out the municipal government “owned so many thousands of apartments and buildings that no one was quite certain how many there were, who lived in them or where they were,” the Times reported. ATAC, Raggi soon discovered, was on the verge of insolvency, carrying a crippling debt of nearly $1.5 billion. (In a referendum on November 11, Romans will vote whether to break the agency’s monopoly on public transit or let private companies compete for fares.)
The garbage situation was even worse. A major investigation turned up a black mold of corruption that newspapers dubbed Mafia Capitale. For years, criminal organizations had effectively been acting as government contractors, running immigrant services and collecting garbage. Once prosecutors removed the grifters, agencies that had functioned poorly stopped functioning at all. The scandal sank the administration of Mayor Ignazio Marino, a Bloombergian technocrat who had promised to put competence over politics and who was later cleared of all charges.
When Raggi took office as the city’s first woman mayor, and as the genial face of the populist Five-Star Movement, also known as M5S, many celebrated her as the fresh face of ordinary Romans. Others saw her as inexperienced, callow, and easily manipulated. (Unsurprisingly, she was subject to blistering sexist attacks.) M5S, started in 2009 by the demagogic comedian Beppe Grillo, rose to prominence with a mixture of right- and left-wing policies — hostility to immigrants, globalism; advocacy for the environment and a universal basic income. But it has always been more comfortable in the angry opposition than wielding actual power, and it’s never been clear how its radicalism would jibe with the nuts and bolts of managing a major metropolis. During her two years in office, Raggi has proven so hapless that entropy now appears to be running the city on its own.
Political opponents have been quick to use the mess to score political points. This week, Davide Bordoni, the lead city council member from Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, released a photo of one of the world’s great parks strewn with litter. “Villa Borghese, Rome’s green heart, a place adored by Romans and a destination for thousands of tourists, is now reduced to an open-air dustbin,” he said. At a time when the authorities can’t manage the basics, ambitious initiatives bring fresh waves of despair. Last June, carabinieri arrested nine people involved in the planning of a new stadium for Roma soccer team, which left the $900 million project still unbuilt and in limbo. With a little luck, Rome could wind up with two ghost stadiums.
The city’s rot is both extreme and normal. Like New York’s commuters, Romans complain loudly, and soon become accustomed to the sound of their own braying, which politicians ignore. Voters can keep hoping for sharper leaders, but in the meantime neglect is infectious, spreading from the subways to the streets, from the dumpster to construction sites. The lesson for other cities is never to take efficiency for granted. Chaos lurks beneath the next bursting manhole cover. Urban decay never goes away; it just waits for the right moment to emerge.