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View from Rome

After two and a half decades of inertia, the city of Rome is now trying to put its house in order, says Adam Nathaniel Furman

As everyone seems to say, not least the city’s famously blunt residents, things take an eternity in contemporary, almost-bankrupt Rome − and in the end they often don’t work. The new and much-needed Linea C metro line is already three years late, with a station having been cancelled, another moved, and others modified because of the incredible quantity of archaeological finds the contractors keep digging into. A useless, disconnected section of the line out in the suburbs is due to open soon, with no firm dates for when it will reach the centre and actually get people somewhere. The Zaha Hadid-designed MAXXI museum of 21st-century art took over 10 years in construction and is now struggling to survive. Santiago Calatrava’s gigantic unfinished ruin of a pool complex for the unhappy 2009 world swimming championships looms over the eastern suburbs. The city’s Massimiliano Fuksas-designed congress centre commissioned in 2000 is still nowhere near finished, despite an emergency loan of €100 million.

There has recently been precious little urban-scale construction of note, with the high-density business and leisure parks of Europarco and Parco Leonardo, impressive in the sheer scale of their mediocrity, being the only major realised projects. And then there is the general malaise, with Italy in an omni-crisis which meant that even in the pre-credit-crunch boom years only Zimbabwe and Haiti had lower GDP growth than Italy in the decade to 2010.

It is easy to paint a picture of Rome as the sclerotic heart of a dying country. But it would be an almost entirely disingenuous image, one based on a picking of only the bad apples. Italy is still Europe’s second biggest manufacturer. Metropolitan Rome’s population grew a whopping seven per cent in 2002-7. Big projects, however badly managed, are continuously initiated due to demand. Just as in the past, the city’s immense weight of history has often forced residents to be ultra-radical in their modernity, the burden of the past 25 years of inertia has created a febrile sense of urgency among the population and its leaders, a bubbling pressure for some movement, for momentum.

Change is in the air. The new Pope is cleaning out the Vatican Bank, overhauling the papacy’s image, reforming the church’s attitude. Berlusconi, presider over the great stagnation, has been defrocked. The youthful Matteo Renzi has swept into Montecittorio promising to overhaul the constitution, to deliver one reform a month, and he is making headway, ruffling feathers in Brussels, tweeting pictures of the papers cluttering his desk to show what crap he has to cut through daily. Marino, the new mayor, got Rome a bailout, saved the city finances, and is busy using the sense of emergency to start cutting out the dead tissue, to clear and defibrillate the town hall and its clogged arteries.

The ambitious recent city masterplan has designated 18 new peripheral centres around which high-density growth is being encouraged to relieve the historic core. There is a statutory maximum amount of residential so that services, commerce and jobs get spread around the metropolitan region. The city is once again expecting big things. Two decades of defeatism has been more than enough. It has gone through a period of stasis in which its energies have been building, its internal forces have been gathering to a point in which a seismic event is overdue, in which, like the boom after it was made capital, the boom under fascism, the post-war boom and the boom of Il Sorpasso, I wager Rome will confound its naysayers, brashly contradict the defeatists, and become as much a singularly exemplary 21st-century city as it was in the 20th, 19th, 17th, 16th …

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