ROME–Ah, the ancient Baths of Caracalla. The massive ruins of Rome’s most famous public baths are tucked away among towering umbrella pines. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the city’s most beloved tourist spots, just a few blocks from the Roman Colosseum and the Aurelian wall that once fortified Caput Mundi. The archaeological site, which dates to A.D. 216, covers about 65 acres and is now a popular outdoor venue for Rome’s summer opera season, and a destination where tourists can walk on ancient mosaics and touch centuries-old walls.
So when the local municipality approved the construction of a massive 8,600-square-foot supersized McDonald’s with a full drive-through and seating for 250 on the adjacent site where a garden center recently closed, it seemed curious indeed. One could envision the golden arches peeking out over the ancient ones, beckoning tourists away from quintessential Roman cuisine to munch on Big Macs and fries.
Plans materialized with snazzy drawings that included promises of 60 new jobs, a botanical garden and bounce castle for the kids. There would be a massive parking lot, too, and outdoor seating areas.
Then, as the building site started to buzz with activity a few weeks ago, Romans started to notice, holding vigils and protests to try to block the work. The local press had a veritable feast, with headlines shouting American imperialism in what is one of the most important cultural capitals of the world.
This week, Italy’s cultural minister took note and yanked the authorization. “I have already expressed my opposition to a fast food chain in the archaeological area of the Baths of Caracalla,” Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli posted on Facebook. “I inform you that the cultural ministry revoked authorization.”
An inquiry is also in place to find out just how someone signed off on such use for the area. Rome’s troubled mayor Virginia Raggi wrote that she only learned of the plans when she read about the protests on July 25. She tweeted support for the closure, but many wonder how such a questionable use of UNESCO heritage space could have possibly slipped past her.
Rome already has more than 40 McDonald’s restaurants. The first, which opened on the square near the Spanish Steps in 1986, faced similar protests. Then, as now, protesters were fed plates of steaming pasta by supporters to prove a point about the importance of real food. Even Valentino, which had its flagship store next door, filed a formal complaint because the smell of the grease was allegedly driving away customers. Now the place is packed seven days a week. And signs telling you just how far away a McDonald’s is, and in which direction, have decorated (or even obscured) the city’s beautiful streets for years.
Pulling the plug on the construction of the fast food joint near the Baths of Caracalla won’t necessarily make it go away. In 2016, McDonald’s was given initial permission to renovate an old palazzo near the Duomo in Florence. When the city council revoked the plans, McDonald’s launched a lawsuit for nearly $20 million, citing bias. That case has not made it all the way through the Italian court system.
That same year in Rome, cardinals petitioned the Pope to block the construction of a McDonald’s on the street-level floor of the Vatican-owned building where they lived, just a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Square. Not even divine intervention could prevent the restaurant from opening, although the complaint did result in a toned-down version of the famous golden arches on the facade and, some have suggested, the church men are now regular customers.