If the paragon of all Christmas trees is the one in front of the Rockefeller Center in New York — first erected, mind you, by an Italian in 1931 — the prize for most pitiful must go to the one that stands in Rome’s Piazza Venezia this year. Just days after it was put up, it began to gray and shed its needles, and soon it had become nearly see-through. The tree cuts so sad and forlorn a figure that it has been nicknamed Spelacchio, or Mangy.
Spelacchio arrived in Rome early this month from the Trentino region, near Italy’s border with Austria, and what with transport expenses and decorations, the 70-foot fir is estimated to have cost Italian taxpayers 48,000 euros, or $57,000. It’s not clear what has ailed it. Maybe Spelacchio was unsettled by the trip; perhaps it was ill on departure. By way of explanation, Antimo Palumbo, a tree historian who was standing by Spelacchio’s side on Friday morning, pointed at the concrete all over its roots. “You see that?” he told me. “They decided to pour the concrete to keep it steady, but that killed it instead.”
There isn’t enough time, money or political will to replace the tree, and so Spelacchio the Mangy will stay in Piazza Venezia through the holidays, and for many locals it has already become a metaphor for what’s wrong with the city, and the country.
Traffic in Rome is chronically congested, public transport is inefficient, trash collection is slow and sporadic. Early hopes about Virginia Raggi, who was elected mayor last year on an anti-establishment agenda, promptly faded amid familiar allegations of corruption and nepotism.
The idea that Spelacchio represents the Italian condition already has stronger roots than the tree itself. After another year characterized by an anemic economy, high unemployment and steady discontent with the political class, Romans quickly took a bittersweet laugh at the gangly thing and its attempt to look dignified, holding up its star-shaped finial. Spelacchio is Italy’s end-of-year antihero.
I may sound like I’m humanizing Spelacchio too much, but I’m just following the general reaction here. The celebrity tree has its own Twitter handle, @Spelacchio, and at least three Facebook accounts, and he uses all these personas to laugh at his sorry state. In one tweet he proclaimed: “Sadness be with you all.” In another, “I have more followers than branches.”
And yet Spelacchio isn’t just like so many of Rome’s potholes, and simply more proof of the municipality’s mismanagement. As pure decoration that isn’t even decorative, he is a blow to Italy’s sense of its aesthetic self, of the nation’s purported eye for beauty and good taste.
Fare bella figura, or to make an impression, is a unique Italian expression that describes the less unique desire to look good, and effortlessly so. Many Italians continue to identify with classic movies from the 1950s and ’60s, like Dino Risi’s romantic comedy “Poor But Beautiful,” and with the notion that you can still look dashing despite the holes in your underwear.
Spelacchio cannot even save appearances. With its falling needles, its poverty is on full display. On Friday, a group of teenagers walked past it and two of the girls yelled, while the others laughed: “You’re obscene! What a figuraccia!” — the worst kind of figura one can possibly cut.
Yet Roberta, a middle-age office employee who wouldn’t give me her last name, stopped by the tree for a selfie. “Poor Spelacchio,” she said. “I think most people feel great affection for him and how ridiculous he looks.”
In an interview published in a local paper on Thursday, Pinuccia Montanari, the city’s secretary for environmental issues, said she suspected a conspiracy against the tree. Then the journalist asked, “But do you like Spelacchio?” Ms. Montanari: “It’s like a Picasso: It needs to be understood. It’s stylized: At night, it makes an impression.” A few days earlier, Ms. Montanari’s own department had pronounced Spelacchio dead.
Responding to the announcement of his own demise, Spelacchio broke into Latin on Twitter: “Ave Virginia, morituro te salutat.” It was a sketchy paraphrase of a quote from Suetonius’s “The Life of the Caesars” — “Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant” — in which slaves fated to perish in combat purportedly said, “Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you.” Some Twitter users were prompt to point out Spelacchio’s faulty grammar. But in this, too, he was an apt representative for Romans, who often break into dubious Latin, grandiosely.
Romans also are a forgiving bunch. Spelacchio has apologized for mangling his Latin genders and declensions; high school was a long time ago, he said. Meanwhile many well-wishers have left small notes at his dead roots, encouraging him to “resist” or reassuring him that, however ugly and bare he may be, he is loved — much like this city itself, potholes and all.
Ilaria Maria Sala is an Italian journalist based in Hong Kong.