Rome struggles on after the trauma of lockdown and a lost spring
By Andy Devane
Lockdown in Rome was a dark time with little light. The eeriness of the situation was summed up perfectly in Quarantine Mood, a short film by Alessandro Marinelli who captured rooftop scenes of the Tor Pignattara suburb as it struggled to stay sane in the most trying of situations.
"Attention, do not leave your houses" blared the loudspeaker on the army van, ordering people to respect the rules and reminding them that "offenders will be reported." That was in mid-March, in the early days of Italy's covid-19 emergency. Marinelli's film shows a police helicopter flying overhead, keeping a look-out for people who should have been at home, while indoors children sang "Happy birthday dear Rosy."
March was followed by a seemingly never-ending April and then came the light. With the arrival of Phase Two on 4 May Romans ventured outside into a city they faintly recognised. Grass grew between the sampietrini in Piazza Navona and the Circus Maximus resembled a meadow. Plastic gloves fluttered in the breeze and motorino wheels were tangled in weeds.
Fast forward two weeks to 18 May and lockdown as we knew it was over. The euphoria was muted. Gone was the Orwellian requirement to carry papers stating the reason you left your house and where exactly you were going. We were also allowed, officially, to meet our friends who we now greet with our elbows. The nightly singalong to Grazie Roma from the balconies on Viale Aventino, so much a part of the daily routine in the area, came to an end after 10 weeks.
Despite being handed back the freedom of unrestricted travel anywhere in the Lazio region, Romans remained cautious, even when faced with the irrestible opportunity to wander through an empty Rome. AS Roma football legend and local hero Francesco Totti wasted little time in finally realising “his dream” of strolling to the Trevi Fountain without being recognised, thanks to his mask.
On 18 May bars, restaurants and hairdressers began to reopen, under strict rules. Supermarket queues became easier with the resumption of full-time opening hours, although entry is still controlled by “bouncers” and masks remain obligatory. Shopfronts are festooned with new guidelines, cashiers are protected by plexiglass and bars have stickers on the floor pointing to the Entrata and Uscita.
Churches across Italy have been allowed to resume public liturgies including Mass, weddings and baptisms, while several museums also reopened in the days after 18 May. As millions of people went back to work, traffic returned and with it the perennial difficulty of finding parking spaces. The background chatter and trill of birds has been replaced with the low growl of engines and exhaust.
Rome's public transport has always been problematic but now it faces unprecedented challenges, particularly on the metro and in the suburbs. The required thinning-out of crowds to accommodate social distancing means that in order to catch the first metro into town from Anagnina in the south-eastern periphery, commuters must arrive at the station hours in advance, waiting in line as early as 03.00.
One lady in her 60s, a cleaner, told local media: “It now takes me three hours to get into town to do three hours' work.” The city's mayor Virginia Raggi has promised additional night buses and pledged that the metro will bring forward its 05.30 start to meet demand.
Paolo Di Stefano is the owner of Da Bucatino, a bustling trattoria in the heart of the Testaccio district, which he has run since the 1990s. An intimate venue, Da Bucatino is best known for trussing up diners in outsized bibs for plates of its messy signature dish, bucatini all’amatriciana. It is all part of the fun, or at least it was. This level of intimacy has been wiped out by the coronavirus regulations which have also carried away half of the restaurant's tables and chairs. Gone too is the popular antipasti buffet.
"We're trying to get going again, all of us are working in masks" – Di Stefano told Wanted in Rome – "customers can take their masks off while seated but once they leave the table the mask must go back on." Families can sit close together, he says, but friends must maintain distance at the table.
“We've made disposable paper versions of the menu which is also available in digital format,” Di Stefano says, adding that other changes include disposable condiments, bread in sealed bags, and a major emphasis on hand sanitiser. The restaurant has also branched into home delivery, for the time being, to supplement its fall-off in trade.
The reduction in tables, with its obvious strain on restaurants' finances, is less of a problem for the larger premises. It does however represent a significant logistical and financial headache for Rome's smaller establishments, many of which have chosen not to reopen, citing the impossibility of making ends meet under the new rules and lack of custom. To this end, the city has granted the use of up to 35 per cent extra outdoor space outside businesses and has suspended the collection of local taxes for the use of public soil throughout 2020.
As Italy prepares for a tentative return to international tourism on 3 June, Rome's mayor has been busy plugging the capital as a tourist destination for Italians, describing it as a “safe city.” The Lazio region permitted the reopening of swimming pools from 25 May while this year's beach season begins officially on 29 May, all under the strict new rules of course. All non-hotel accommodation facilities in Lazio, including guest houses, holiday homes and hostels, have been allowed to reopen. Although Rome's hotels were never ordered to close during the lockdown, most of them remain shut due to a lack of guests.
A shortage of customers is not something that concerns those employed in the hair and beauty industry. After more than two months of hibernation there are endless locks to trim, roots to dye and dodgy home-haircuts to fix. Near the Pyramid of Cestius is a thriving barbershop built up over the last five years by a hard-working Calabrian called Pietro Clemensi. These days his clients line up outside as he and his assistant Cristiano shear the backlog of bushy-haired men in the S. Saba neighbourhood. Clemensi reopened on 18 May, a Monday of all days, after having his 36-sqm premises sanitised professionally.
"I've had to stock up on masks and disinfectant, a hand sanitiser dispenser at the door and disposable gowns for hair-cutting, constantly sterilising the tools of the trade," Clemensi told Wanted in Rome. Gone are the days when clients could just drop in casually: barbers, hairdressers and beauticians are now obliged to take appointments exclusively over the phone.
Customers and staff must wear masks, with Clemensi separating his clients by almost two metres while their hair is being cut. "For health reasons this barbershop is not currently offering beard services because I consider it risky right now" – said Clemensi – "The customer would have to remove his mask and even if the guidelines allow this, I think it's a mistake."
Masks and advance booking are also the order of the day at the handful of Rome museums now open again. Galleria Borghese, the Capitoline Museums and Palazzo Braschi have opened their doors in recent days, with the Vatican Museums and the Colosseum to follow suit on 1 June. The Raphael blockbuster at the Scuderie del Quirinale reopens on 2 June while the other “exhibition of the year” – The Torlonia Marbles at Palazzo Caffarelli has been postponed, possibly until September.
Italy's National Etruscan Museum at Villa Giulia is working towards a tentative reopening date of 9 June, with measures to include physical distancing, thermoscanners, reservations and staggered entries. "The museum does not present any particular accessibility problems and we trust that visits will be pleasant and, apart from the mask, not too different from before the coronavirus," Villa Giulia's director Valentino Nizzo told Wanted in Rome. Throughout the lockdown Villa Giulia maintained a highly visible presence on social media, steered by Nizzo, with the museum and its dynamic online activities picked up by the international press.
Inevitably the anti-contagion restrictions have dealt a hammer blow to the city's summer festivals, leading to the cancellation of Rock in Roma and Roma Summer Fest, both of which have moved their music programmes to 2021. Likewise the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma has abandoned its historic summer venue at the Baths of Caracalla which was described as “incompatible” with the new rules by opera house sovrintendente Carlo Fuortes. Fortunately all is not lost however as plans are at an advanced stage to host opera productions at Piazza di Siena in the central Villa Borghese park, whose ample space allows for social distancing.
One plucky Roman festival is bucking the trend and has vowed that the show must go on. Il Cinema in Piazza will "scrupulously respect all safety rules" says Valerio Carocci, the president of the Piccolo Cinema America association which organises the annual event at Trastevere's Piazza S. Cosimato and two other locations. Carocci says that this year's festival will move forward by a month, from July to August, in recognition that many Roman families are broke due to the crisis and will be unable to take Ferragosto holidays. “Rome in August will never have been so beautiful,” says Carocci.
Gino Bottigliero does not share this optimism. As the owner of Rome's oldest Irish pub, The Fiddler's Elbow, Bottigliero has seen generations of expats pass through his doors since 1976. His business has been devastated by the coronavirus. Following their complete closure for more than two months, Rome's newly-reopened pubs are left grappling with a paradox: although legally allowed to serve drinks, their customers are not permitted to “gather” inside or outside, with police patrolling the streets to break up crowds.
The capacity of the Fiddler's Elbow has been reduced to a third. It plans to gradually extend its current reduced opening hours – 16.00 until 21.00 – until midnight. All employees have been laid off temporarily, with the owners back working behind the bar. “We didn't receive any help from the state up to today” – Bottigliero told Wanted in Rome – “and neither did the staff.”
“Business is extremely slow” – he says – “only a few regulars are supporting us. People are still afraid to come out.” The handful of loyal customers sit on stools spaced far apart outside the door of the pub perched on a little hill near S. Maria Maggiore.
Asked about the future, Bottigliero is despondent, predicting it will be “pretty bad” but with hopes of a slow recovery, particularly when tourists return. “Restrictions will be there for a long time” – he says – “Maybe we'll have to take a second wave of the virus. Normality is very far away.”