Rome is known as the Eternal City. Over many centuries, it has been sacked by marauders and repeatedly resurrected from decline. But this summer, Roman residents are being tested by a massive trash crisis that has prompted doctors to warn of the possible spread of diseases as birds, vermin and wild animals scavenge amid the rotting refuse.
Already, flocks of cawing seagulls have replaced traffic roar as the soundtrack of Roman life.
No need for them to dive for fish in the sea 15 miles away, when they can feast on garbage strewn across the city. Some neighborhoods have reported boars and foxes picking through trash.
The artwork and monumental sites of ancient and Baroque Rome have long overwhelmed — metaphorically — visitors' senses. Today, with the miasma of tons of putrescent trash emanating during the summer's scorching hot spells, the risk is literal.
The problem is putting increasing pressure on Rome's City Hall, as its leaders with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement are criticized for how they manage the Italian capital.
"Trash all over"
One of tourists' first destinations in the city is the Trevi Fountain.
On a July afternoon, despite the 95-degree temperature, the square was packed with people tossing coins in the marble fountain.
"A lot of the garbage cans nearly overflowing or full. It's disgusting," says Callum Leeks, from Virginia. Pointing to the fountain, he says, "I would like to come here to see beautiful things like that. The garbage on the ground and spilling out, just kind of ruins the effect."
Zoe Houseman, visiting from North Carolina, also found Rome much dirtier than she expected.
"We came from Germany and [it] was a lot more orderly and clean and well-kept. The streets [here] are hot and messy and chaotic. There is uncollected trash all over the ground, cigarette butts."
Around the corner is Vincenzo Caiazzo's restaurant, Panetteria. With trash collection nearly halted over the last several months, he says, he and other business owners joined forces to clean their streets.
"When we arrive at 6:30 a.m. we find seagulls and rats picking through overflowing bins. It's disgusting. The Trevi Fountain is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it must be safeguarded!"
But, says Caiazzo, no one at City Hall tells them where they should dispose the trash once they have collected it.
Rome produces on average 2,100 tons of waste every week, according to local media reports. City Hall officials blame the collection hiatus on the closure of two big waste collection plants for maintenance. No information has been provided on when trash collection will return to normal. City Hall did not respond to NPR's calls for comment.
The situation is no better in the residential Monteverde neighborhood.
At the Sashamia Caffè and tobacco shop, owner Marco Rinaldi is furious. The stench from garbage bags piling up around the corner keeps customers away from his outdoor tables.
"I pay the city 350 euros [$392] every two months for trash collection. I've decided to stop paying until they clean up this mess," Rinaldi says.
He blames the mess on Mayor Virginia Raggi, widely criticized for incompetence.
Raggi has engaged in a war of words with Nicola Zingaretti, governor of the surrounding Lazio region — and a member of the rival, center-left Democratic Party. Raggi accused Zingaretti of failing to provide sufficient collection sites in the region for Rome's waste. Zingaretti shot back saying, "instead of thanking and apologizing to the mayors and residents of many Lazio towns for helping dispose Rome's trash, Raggi throws accusations around," according to La Repubblica newspaper. The governor said he wonders if the mayor "doesn't feel a bit ashamed for her arrogance," adding, "she has reduced the most beautiful city in the world into a disaster zone."
After meeting with the two earlier this month, Italy's Environment Minister Sergio Costa suggested that "while we wait for new collection sites to be opened," a temporary solution would be to "negotiate with other EU countries for disposal" of Rome's excess waste.
Meanwhile, Rome's doctors' association warned of potential health hazards because, in hot weather, rotting garbage attracts flies and cockroaches that can spread diseases. There are no known reports yet of new sickness from the problem.
Rome has a long history of trash issues. In the past, prosecutors found close links between waste management companies and organized crime.
And six years ago, Malagrotta, the main collection site, was shut down after the European Union ruled it didn't meet minimum standards.
"Nobody knows how to deal and how to do the job actually," says Bianca Bisarra, a born and bred Roman. After living and working for a few years in Shanghai, her home town saddens her. "The mood of people, they're suffering. I would love to come back but after staying abroad, Rome is very hard to reconnect with."
Even Pope Francis recently complained of Rome's "decay and neglect" in a homily delivered in the working-class neighborhood Casal Bertone.
He has reason to scold today's Romans: For centuries, city upkeep was the job of his many predecessors — when Rome was under papal rule.
By the late 1600s, stern warnings against illegal trash disposal were inscribed in marble on city walls not far from the Vatican.
On Via dei Cappellari, there is one inscription from 1733 that says: "Dumping trash here is explicitly forbidden under penalty of 25 scudi. The whistleblower, who will remain secret, receives one-third of the fine. The father will be held responsible for his culprit sons, the master for his guilty servants. Further penalties include corporal punishment."
Not only are today's penalties far more lenient, the trash crisis is so vast, they are incredibly difficult to enforce.
Bisarra, the woman saddened by her home town, acknowledges that cleaning up the city is a huge task. But part of the solution, she suggests, would be if her fellow Romans show their civic pride and take time off to clean the streets themselves in order to restore Rome to — at least a little bit — of its former glory.
You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.