Politics

Less Mange, More Frills: Rome’s New Mayor Bets on His Christmas Tree


ROME — Romans have never held back when it comes to blaming their mayors for the city’s multiple shortcomings: tire-swallowing potholes, open-air neighborhood garbage dumps, marauding wildlife.

But in recent years, city leaders have also had to contend with their constituents’ jitters ahead of the annual Dec. 8 Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the central Piazza Venezia.

At least they have since 2017, when Mayor Virginia Raggi set off a social media maelstrom after she installed a tree so pitiful that it was nicknamed Spelacchio, or Mangy.

On Wednesday, it was her successor’s turn: At a news conference that evening, Mayor Roberto Gualtieri, who was elected in October, presented his “bellissimo Christmas tree.”

The tree ticked all of the right boxes: big, bright, bushy and, at least at first, a crowd pleaser.

“It gives a great sense of joy; it reminds me of when I was a child,” said Assunta Barbano, who attended the lighting ceremony to cheer herself up, adding, “It hasn’t been the best of times.”

But Mr. Gualtieri was less worried about the reactions from those at the ceremony.

Online, the grumbling has begun, with many social media users appalled by the price tag: 169,000 euros, or about $191,000, which includes the transportation, installation and removal of the tree, more or less in line with the cost of the one put up last year.

Some supporters of Ms. Raggi, who is now part of the opposition on the City Council, began to denounce the new tree even before the ceremony — it is an overly lit “kick in the stomach,” one wrote — but after the Spelacchio debacle, Ms. Raggi also sought to dazzle Romans. She hoisted up bigger and brighter Christmas trees, one year even partnering with Netflix as a sponsor.

Mr. Gualtieri has spent his first weeks in office trying to distinguish himself from Ms. Raggi, who was, rightly or wrongly, blamed for a host of the city’s ills. He has shown a can-do spirit in a city known as being eternal, a reference — some snidely suggest — to the amount of time it takes to do anything here.

He promised that, by Christmas, he would clean up the city’s streets and remove the mounds of garbage that periodically smother Roman trash bins. (Empirical evidence suggests that he has so far missed this mark.)

And last week, he announced that a landmark bridge that had burned down shortly before the elections on Oct. 4 — a metaphor of Rome burning that was not lost on Ms. Raggi’s critics — would reopen on Sunday.

But the city has gone to town on the tree.

Compared with Spelacchio, the 2021 tree is taller — 75 feet to Mangy’s 72 — and it is considerably fuller and much brighter. “It’s very luminous,” said Francesco Bernardi, who is training to be a lawyer in Rome. He gave the tree a thumbs up, but questioned the city’s decision to “use so much energy to light” it, given the global concern with “going green.”

He need not have worried: All of the bulbs on the tree are energy-efficient LEDs, a spokesman for the energy utility Acea said.

Apart from the glittering lights — and there are plenty of those — for his first tree, Mr. Gualtieri has joined with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, which is based in Rome, to reflect a different Christmas spirit.

The tree, the mayor said, is “part of an awareness-raising campaign about the United Nations’ sustainable development goals,” ambitious targets aimed at improving lives and covering areas like world hunger, climate change, the environment, education and justice.

“There is no better moment or place than the Christmas tree to present these extraordinary objectives and enrich the message of Christmas,” Mr. Gualtieri said.

Seventeen festively wrapped boxes, each representing a goal, are arranged around the tree. And each one is marked with a QR code that people can scan to read about how to make Rome more sustainable. (Advice to fulfill Goal No. 12: “Support brands that are socially responsible and ethical, donate old clothes to charity and buy secondhand.”)

To illustrate the sustainable development goals around Rome, Acea installed light-covered wire Christmas trees atop colorful stands in 14 neighborhoods.

These are “a road map for how each of us can take simple actions to be part of the change,” Qu Dongyu, the director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, said in a statement. He invited everyone to “learn more about the sustainable actions that each of us can do in our daily life.”

Enrico Giovannini, Italy’s minister of sustainable infrastructure and mobility, who was also at the tree lighting ceremony news conference on Wednesday, said the European Union and Italy had put the goals “at the center” of the continent’s economic recovery amid the coronavirus pandemic. “The goals have come down to policies,” he said.

“It’s a great initiative,” said Simona Marcolli, who had come to see the tree with her preteen daughter, adding: “We already speak of these issues at home. It’s important.”

And the tree? “It’s great,” she said.

Romans have also been keeping an eye this year on a crosstown rival — the Vatican — after a Nativity scene last year that they excoriated as being too untraditional.

This year, the Nativity scene was a gift from the Chopcca Nation, in Peru. It displays 35 life-size figurines dressed in typical Andean costumes. “It’s more classic, more traditional,” said Angela Schinnea, a tour guide in Rome.

Her friend Marisa Maiorana, who works for an import-export company, said she liked the Vatican Christmas tree — a 92-foot, eight-ton red fir from northern Italy. But she said she appreciated the Piazza Venezia tree as well, though she noted that Romans had begun to call it “bottiglione” because they joked that it resembled an oversize bottle.

“It’s true” that Romans complain about everything, said Simone Livulpi, who just graduated from college with a communications degree.

“It’s a way of being,” he said. “We tend to be whiny about everything. Even if there’s no reason to.”





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