Advertising firms are taking over the visual landscape of the ancient city and compromising its visual beauty and the safety of its inhabitants.
For centuries Rome has been treasured as one of the world’s most beautiful cities, a place of spectacular ruins, soaring baroque churches and cobbled piazzas shaded by century-old palms, plane trees and Mediterranean pines.
But now Romans are rising up in revolt as advertising firms plant thousands of billboards across the city, just as chainsaws are wielded to fell some of the city’s most majestic trees.
“City hall has stood by and watched as Rome is destroyed,” said Athos De Luca, an opposition council member.
The billboards are often erected along kerbs, towering over head height and obscuring bus stops and street signs. Recently a hoarding was put up so close to passing traffic on Via Tuscolana that a moped driver and his passenger were killed when they collided with it.
There has been a proliferation of protest websites and a demonstration outside Rome’s town hall, and more than 10,000 Romans have backed a new law to limit the number of billboards.
Rome’s mayor, Gianni Alemanno, a former neo-fascist elected on Silvio Berlusconi’s ticket in 2008, was forced to take notice when the head of Telecom Italia, one of Italy’s biggest advertisers, said he was so disgusted by the “jungle” of billboards that he was pulling all his street ads from the city.
Opponents said the problems started in 2009 when Alemanno announced a temporary amnesty for 32,000 billboards in the city – a mix of legal and illegal ads – and ordered all ad firms to pay rent on them while he drew up a clearer set of rules. Almost three years later those rules are still in the works, while the city has raked in about €8m (£6.9m) in rents a year.
De Luca said some of the hundreds of firms who put their adverts on the mayor’s list had cheated. “Companies listed ads they hadn’t yet erected, or put up five ads where only one was listed, turning a legal grey area into a free for all. Now they are putting up ads anywhere they please and we have up to 60,000 ads in town.”
A city hall spokeswoman said there were only 4,000 more ads erected now than listed under the amnesty, and said 3,700 illegal billboards had been removed this year.
But one activist disputed that claim, and said residents had taken to mounting night patrols, filling holes dug ready for illegal billboard poles with cement. “It’s madness out there,” said the activist, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals.
Meanwhile, Romans are keeping an eye on Alemanno’s plans to uproot lines of 100-year-old plane trees that grace the city’s wide avenues, to make way for underground car parks.
The mayor backed down over proposals for the Flaminio district after locals climbed the trees to stage protests, but activists say a scheme he has hatched next to the first-century BC Ara Pacis altar on the banks of the Tiber – this time for an underpass – could kill off up to 100 planes, which stand up to 20 metres high.
Vanna Manucci, of the heritage group Italia Nostra, said: “The planners of this mad tunnel say they can dug within 2.5 metres of the trees without killing them, blatantly ignoring the city’s own gardeners who say the safe distance is double that.”
Separately, city authorities have stepped up a cull of the planes because of damage and disease, felling 200 each year and leaving hundreds of metre-high stumps that make Roman streets resemble mouths full of broken teeth.
Augusto Burini, the city of Rome’s tree expert, said years of careless asphalting and laying fibre optic cables had damaged roots, leaving trees unstable, but disease was the main culprit.
The worst-hit trees are Rome’s palms, planted outside some of the city’s most beautiful Liberty-style villas, which have fallen prey to the red palm weevil, an insect that digs into the trunk with deadly results. Shorn of their fronds, more than 1,000 dead palms now await felling around the city.
“Chemical treatments can be tried but I fear it could a useless battle to save this city’s palms,” said Burini.