ROME–The lush textured walls of the Antico Caffe Greco at the foot of the Spanish Steps in central Rome have been a backdrop to history for centuries. The cafe, which opened its gilded doors on the posh Via Condotti in 1760, has been painted and primped over the years, but it's spirit has largely remained the same. For centuries, the long narrow mirrored hall leading to smaller enclaves was the place in Rome for great minds to meet over coffee and spirits.
Much of its glory is memorialized in the 300 paintings and vintage photographs on the walls. And the list of past patrons sounds more like an all-time best seller listing, including Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Lord Byron, Henry James, Percy Shelley, and John Keats, who lived and eventually died around the corner from here. Hans Christian Andersen lived in a room upstairs and, when he moved out, he left his velvet sofa which is still in use today. Casanova played court here, as did stars from Elizabeth Taylor to Audrey Hepburn. Buffalo Bill even showed up in 1890 with a group of cowboys for caffè Americano, and Orson Welles had his own corner table. Legend has it there was even a time when any cardinal who sat at a certain table would eventually become pope, which prompted long waiting lists for those with such aspirations.
Today, walking into the cafe from the posh designer lined street is like stepping back in time. Artists and academics have long since stopped coming here, but that doesn’t stop locals who live in this part of Rome from standing at the bar for their affordable espresso and cappuccino and reminiscing about how great things used to be. The tourists and glitterati who want to experience a slice of the history head down the narrow hallway that gives way to a salotto that could be a movie set. They settle into the worn velvet sofas and chairs while tuxedoed waiters glide around the room. Table service is five times more than what the locals pay, but to have a such an elegant waiter bring freshly squeezed orange juice or handcrafted cappuccino is somehow worth it. Most weekday late mornings, Stellario Baccellieri, the artist in situ, is perched on his bench seat sketching or painting patrons or random depictions of Rome’s most important tourist sites. There has always been a local artist at the cafe and Baccellieri recently told the Guardian that he’s seen “everything and everyone.” He is as much a fixture as the opulent chandeliers and hand maids who hand out towels in the restroom. “ The most important people have been here,” he said. “This place is not only a [cafe], it’s a museum.”
But this glorious icon–which is a World Heritage Site—is in danger of closing after the Israelite Hospital of Rome, which owns the palazzo the cafe is housed in, raised ites rent from $19,400 a month to $132,000 a month when its ancient lease expired in September. The Israel-owned hospital says the price is in line with the cafe’s neighbors, which include the likes of Gucci, Louis Viutton, and Prada. But the current cafe owner say that despite charging around $14 for a cappuccino with table service, there is no way they can pay that price–nor should they. The cafe was granted a stay from its original October eviction notice until January 8, 2020, by which time the managers must either put up or pack up. The current management took the Israelite Hospital to court over the rent hike, but lost.
“The sentence is incomprehensible and the rent hike extortionate,” Carlo Pellegrini, the cafe manager said when the court ruled the price hike was fair. “We would be ready to pay more rent to keep the cafe open but not six times the amount we’re paying now. I feel very angry, but we will fight this.”
Under pressure from a number of cultural institutions in Rome, lawyers for the Israelite Hospital say that they will likely find a new management group and revamp the old cafe “bringing it up to the modern era.” But the move has prompted a slurry of Anti-Semitic abuse on the cafe’s Facebook page, of which about the only thing we can print is reference to a long barrage of complaints that such a Roman establishment must never be Jewish-owned. “If the management of the Antico Caffe Greco were to pass to the zionists, then this place must also be included in the boycott against Israel,” one post says.
Antisemitic graffiti can now be found on the sidewalks and nearby buildings. For more than a week, a corner table at the cafe was inhabited by Anti-Semite types ranging from skinheads to members of Italy’s far right Brothers of Italy party, whose message is hardly subtle.
“We are here to make a stand,” one of the men from Brothers of Italy told The Daily Beast. “We cannot possibly allow a place like this to be run by Jews. We will not allow that to happen.”
The spike in hate comes at a particularly delicate time in Italy. This week, Liliana Segre, an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor who was sent to Auschwitz when she was 13, was assigned police protection after receiving death threats from some of the same groups now trying to save the Antico Caffe Greco. She has been honored as a “senator for life” in parliament, despite a number of right wing groups, including the Brothers of Italy, opposing her. These groups also abstained from a vote to establish a hate commission she penned, though it passed by a narrow margin without them.
The Israelite Hospital owners have also taken notice of the abuse. Bruno Sed, president of the hospital, filed a defamation suit against the right-wing supporters of the cafe. "We are collecting the contents of some posts, which will be the object of complaint for instigating racial hatred,” Sed said in a statement this week. He says he will file the complaint in criminal court on Monday.
The cafe’s manager Pelligrini, who had originally replied to the zionist remark by assuring the person who wrote: “that will never happen” distanced himself from the hateful comments, and says he will file his own defamation suit against those who are using the rent hike as an excuse to spew hate. “Throwing up painful and sad questions about an abominable story that has involved the history of Europe on a battle of civilization over high rent price is demented and in bad taste.”
In many ways, the survival of this cafe–the oldest in Rome—through some of this country’s darkest hours is a true testament to the endurance Rome itself. And whatever eventually happens to this grand old place–whether it somehow stays just as it is through a last minute agreement in the rental dispute or if it is reinvented under new management–it seems impossible to ignore its historical significance over so many decades, or to silence the voices of the many ghosts who have passed through its doors.