Hundreds of Dutch soccer fans wreaked havoc on Rome over the past two days, damaging a 17th-century fountain designed by Pietro and Gian Lorenzo Bernini and leaving the city’s historic center strewn with beer bottles and trash.
The Dutch fans were in Rome for a Europa League match between the Rotterdam team of Feyenoord and AS Roma; about 6,000 of them were expected in total, according to La Repubblica. The drinking and damage began on the night of February 18 in Campo dei Fiori, a popular square filled with bars, restaurants, and tourists. The owner of a bakery there told the Italian newspaper that a thousand Feyenoord fans, who’d been drinking since 2pm, descended on the square, forcing him and other shop owners to close “for fear that [the shop] would be smashed.” (All translations from Italian are by the author.) Riot police were brought in to disperse the crowd, and 16 people were arrested, RomaToday reported.
Fans continued to drink and clash with police throughout the city, culminating in a violent standoff in front of the Spanish Steps on Thursday before the game. There, hundreds of Dutch fans threw bottles and smoke bombs at the police, who retaliated with tear gas and truncheons — although according to the Guardian, the police also confiscated truncheons during the course of their arrests. By that paper’s count, 23 Feyenoord fans were arrested in total, although Corriere dello Sport says 28, with 13 Italian police officers also wounded.
One of the central victims of the clash was the Berninis’ Fontana della Barcaccia, a fountain of a half-sunken ship that sits at the foot of the famous steps in piazza di Spagna. In addition to being left looking like it had a hangover, filled with beer bottles, balloons, and trash, at least 100 scratches were made to the travertine sculpture, damage that one Italian official called “permanent and irreparable,” ANSA reported. Ironically, a restoration of the fountain had just been completed late last year. Restorers were quickly brought in after the Feyenoord incident to work on the fountain once more, and it was reopened, its water flowing again, today. But there remains major work to be done, and the full extent of the damage is unknown.
“Yesterday we’d already verified the presence of some chipping, in particular a 10cm fragment of travertine,” the superintendent of Rome’s cultural heritage told La Repubblica. “This morning we did a patrol with the official technicians, and we can certify that in reality the impacts of these bottles caused much more damage than what’s visible to the naked eye. A dismay, an unjustifiable vandalism.”
“Whenever there are large mobs, particularly foreign ones coming in for sporting events, there is the risk of damage to Rome’s cultural heritage. A mixture of drunkenness, groupthink, and nationalism can sometimes turn otherwise reasonable visitors into vandals,” historian and author Anthony Majanlahti wrote to Hyperallergic over email. He continued:
The fountains in piazza Navona have often suffered: in September 2011 a man was caught on closed-circuit TV breaking off two marble dolphin heads from the Fontana del Moro at the south end of the piazza, while Bernini’s famous Fountain of the Four Rivers in the centre of the piazza has been subject to numerous indignities: foreign students climbed into it, and the tail of the sea monster whose mouth functions as a drain was broken off when some homeless people used it as a prop while taking a bath. Many visitors don’t see the harm in taking away small pieces of marble from the Forum or trying to chip stone from the Colosseum, and many more want to commemorate their visit with a piece of graffiti. An American broke the head off a relief on the base of the Column of the Immaculate Conception in piazza di Spagna about 10 years ago.
Oddly enough the actual historical Vandals weren’t particularly destructive. A northern Germanic tribe, they eventually were goaded into rebelling against the Romans who had initially admitted them within the border of the empire but then treated them very badly. They sacked Rome itself in 455 CE but apart from defacing a few statues they mostly just took the remaining removable valuables and went off. Only in the wake of the French Revolution did a bishop describe the destruction of religious buildings as “vandalism,” and so the legend began.
The question now seems to be who will fund the restoration of the Barcaccia. The Dutch government and mayor of Rotterdam have said they are not responsible but pledged to help Italy find the culprits and make them pay. “Many institutions, banks, companies have already called me because they want to help economically,” Marino said. “But I believe it matters, the saying, ‘If you break it, you buy it,’ and so the team and the Netherlands are responsible for what happened in this city.”