When Bulgari announced to great fanfare in 2014 that it was donating €1.5m to restore the Spanish Steps, one of the Eternal City’s most precious landmarks, the luxury brand said its gift was a homage to its native Rome.
The company’s flagship store on Via Condotti has a clear view of the 18th-century stairs, which at that time were looking worn, uneven and marked with stains: a far cry from the steps down which Audrey Hepburn strode with a gelato in Roman Holiday.
“Rome has always been the number one source of inspiration for Bulgari so it is right to give back to Rome what Rome has given Bulgari,” the company’s chief executive, Jean-Christophe Babin, said at the time.
The now-gleaming white steps were meant to be re-opened to the public on Thursday. Instead, tourists milling about the Piazza di Spagna have been reduced to taking selfies in front of a plexiglass barrier.
The project had originally been intended to finish by the spring. Now local officials say the job is likely to be completed by the end of the month, though local press reports suggest it may drag on even longer and need until October to be finished.
The story behind the delay is hardly a new phenomenon: a combination of economic woes, strife between trade unionists and local authorities, and bureaucracy.
It is a noxious mix with which locals are wearily familiar. “We know it’s Rome,” shrugged a saleswoman named Claudia in a shoe shop just across from the steps. “There aren’t any people [in the piazza]. Usually they stay here and the groups would linger. Now they just move on and there’s no one,” she said, adding that the work had affected business.
The local culture authority, the Rome Superintendent of Cultural Heritage, said the work had been slowed down because the contractor that won the bid to perform the work faced liquidity problems and had stopped paying its employees. According to press reports, the workers handling the renovation were unpaid for months after the contractor went bust.
“As provided by the law, the workers were supposed to be paid by the restoration firm, not by Bulgari. The restoration firm has been entrusted directly by the city after a bid,” a Bulgari spokesperson said.
In May, the workers’ union threatened to strike if the city of Rome did not intervene, which it now has. But even in a country infamous for its bureaucracy, the closure of a site that lies at the centre of the most affluent part of the capital, at the height of tourist season, has struck a nerve.
“The work is slow, the site is a semi-desert … in short, in 26 years I have seen three renovations of the stairs and each took no more than six to eight months,” Marco Ciampini, manager of the Ciampini cafe terrace, told Il Messaggero, the Italian newspaper.
While the piazza is far from empty, the area lacks the heavy concentration of tourists that are present all day at another popular site, the Trevi Fountain, which was recently restored by Fendi.
Agnes, a tourist from South Korea, said she had fond memories of her last visit to the steps, and was disappointed to see them shut down. “I heard they had to restore them because too many people were spilling ice cream on them, trying to be like Audrey Hepburn,” she said.
Another tourist, Reinoud Noord, a Dutchman who said he had arrived in Rome with his family “10 minutes ago”, was disappointed but stoical, ready to pose for a family shot in front of the clear barrier protecting the work site.
“It can happen. We thought we would sit here and have a relaxing moment. We’ll find it elsewhere,” he said.
The superintendent’s office said it was picking up the tab to pay workers, for now. Bulgari said the municipality was using the same funds that had been donated by the company to pay for the workers, and that the city was not incurring extra costs.
The opening day, the officials said, would be decided by Bulgari in conjunction with the mayor’s office.
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