A strange scene unfolded on Tuesday at the base of Rome’s Spanish Steps—they were nearly empty. Police officers in yellow vests patrolled the monument, blowing whistles and chasing away anyone who tried to sit. At the base of the steps, crowds of tourists gathered to take photos and pose—standing—in front of the famous steps while officers in white caps stood around a police car filling out reports.
A new regulation put in place earlier this summer bans people from eating, lying down, or even sitting on Rome’s monuments. This week, however, seems to be the first instance of police enforcing the ban at the Spanish Steps by patrolling the area and asking people to stand up or face fines. According to Italian newspaper La Repubblica, the fines vary from €160 to €400 (US$180 to $450).
Completed in 1726 by the architect Francesco De Sanctis, the Spanish Steps are one of the most famous monuments that form Rome’s UNESCO-protected historic center. The 135 steps, which connect the Church of the Trinità dei Monti and the Pincio Hill to the Piazza di Spagna below, are a symbol of the city itself. At their base sits the Barcaccia fountain created by Pietro Bernini with help from his son Gian Lorenzo, who later designed the Piazza di San Pietro, the Fountain of the Four Rivers at Piazza Navona, and countless other baroque masterpieces.
The steps have been a source of inspiration for artists and writers like the English Romantic poet John Keats, whose house at 26 Piazza di Spagna is now a museum, and have appeared in films such as Roman Holiday and The Talented Mr. Ripley. People come from all over the world to admire—and sit on—the marble steps.
Jackie, a tourist from London who was visiting Rome for the first time who chose not to share her last name, expressed disappointment that the police weren’t allowing anyone to sit. “They’re quite militant about it,” she said. She and her traveling companions were staying far from the city center and trekked in specifically to see the Spanish Steps before heading home.
But it’s not just tourists who are disappointed by the new rules. “Taking away the right to sit on the Spanish Steps is like pulling the table out from under me when I’m eating at a restaurant,” said Fulvio De Bonis, founder of Imago Artis, a luxury tour company based in Rome. “Since I was young, I went there to flirt with American girls, perhaps having a gelato, a drink, or simply chatting and smoking a cigarette. They took away my past, my youth. We didn’t go to school; we went to the Spanish Steps.”
Whether the police will continue to enforce the ban remains to be seen. One officer confirmed the new rule but declined to comment any further. However, a few blocks away at the corner of Via del Corso and Via dei Condotti, a group of police officers could be heard talking about how absurd the new rule is. This new regulation is the latest episode in a more overarching crackdown on bad behavior in Rome and other Italian destinations plagued by overtourism. In Venice, a pair of backpackers from Berlin were fined over $1,000 and kicked out of the city for brewing coffee on a portable stove on the Rialto Bridge in July. The island of Capri recently banned single-use plastics, with fines of up to €500 (US$561) for anyone who violates the new rule. The Cinque Terre began levying fines this spring for people who attempt to hike the trails connecting the five towns in flip-flops or other inappropriate footwear.
In 2016, the Italian luxury brand Bulgari completed a yearlong, $1.7 million renovation of the Spanish Steps. At that point, the brand’s chairman proposed that the steps be closed off by a gate at night. Although that isn’t likely to happen, this week’s crackdown shows that Rome is entering a new phase of stricter rules and regulations as it tries to cope with overtourism.
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