No visit to the Eternal City is complete without an evening stroll along a softly lit cobbled lane or through a piazza bathed in the golden light of traditional lanterns mounted on the facades of centuries-old palazzi.
But the romance of Rome is being drastically eroded, campaigners say, by a plan to replace the city’s yellow sodium lamps with cheaper LED lights which give off a harsh, white glare.
Rome city council says the new lighting will save millions of pounds in energy bills, but locals and heritage groups are mounting spirited resistance to the scheme, saying it diminishes the ambience of the winding streets and cobbled squares of the historic centre.
Rome’s historic centre now resembles a morgue
“It’s a big mistake,” said Salvatore Nicastro, a waiter at a café in Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, an area of winding alleyways, restaurants and medieval churches on the banks of the Tiber.
“The old lights are characteristic of the historic centre. They create a romantic ambience, a memory of the era of La Dolce Vita of 50 years ago,” he said. “If the council really wants to save money they’d do better to stamp out the corruption that we all know goes on.”
Across the piazza, Fabrizio Rellecati, who owns a pharmacy, is similarly unimpressed with the new lighting. “LED lights for a historic piazza like this are just not right aesthetically. The light they give off is too white, too harsh.”
A local residents’ group, Vivere Trastevere or Living in Trastevere, is urging inhabitants of the area to place a candle in their windows as a silent protest against the new lighting system.
“Rome’s historic centre now resembles a morgue,” said Nathalie Naim, a local politician who is leading opposition to the new lights. “They have stripped away the welcoming atmosphere of Rome’s most historic areas.”
The lights are being installed not only in Trastevere but also in other historic neighbourhoods, from the old Jewish Ghetto, also on the banks of the Tiber, to Monti, a district of medieval streets near the Colosseum, and the Esquiline Hill, one of Rome’s fabled seven hills.
Eventually around 185,000 lamps and street lights will be replaced with LED fixtures, with the work costing €48 million (£40 million).
“My neighbourhood is up in arms over the terrible LED street lighting that suddenly replaced the warm, yellow lamps that make Rome so romantic,” Monica Larner, an expatriate living in the capital, wrote on Facebook. “I wish there was reason to hope that this lighting mistake could be reversed or rectified.”
If you are having trouble understanding the difference that has resulted, I can only compare it to a candle-lit dinner versus the frozen food aisle of your local grocery store
Elizabeth Minchilli, a well-known tour guide and food writer, described the new lights as “horrendous.”
“They are dismantling the old light fixtures, taking away the frosted glass, and leaving the metal structure glass-less and damaged.
“If you are having trouble understanding the difference that has resulted, I can only compare it to a candle-lit dinner versus the frozen food aisle of your local grocery store. I would have hoped that more thought would have gone into the aesthetics of the final outcome.”
Heritage groups have appealed to Virginia Raggi, the mayor of Rome, and Dario Franceschini, Italy’s culture minister, to stop the installation of the new lights.
Since being elected last summer, Ms Raggi, from the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, has struggled to bring order to Rome’s myriad problems, from public buses that spontaneously burst into flames as a result of bad maintenance, to corruption in the council and the chaotic collection of rubbish.
The new illumination system was approved in 2015 by a predecessor of Ms Raggi, but activists say it is now up to her to reverse the decision.
“At risk is the beauty of Rome, the charm of its old quarters, and respect for the city and its history,” said Valentina Grilli, from the Fondo Ambiente Italiano or Italian Environmental Fund, a campaign group. “It’s crazy that the unique character of old neighbourhoods in a Unesco-listed city has not been taken into consideration.”
She suggested that either the installation of the new lights was scrapped completely, or they were substituted by less powerful LEDs, which would cast a less harsh glare. “That would reduce the dazzle and create a warmer effect,” Ms Grilli said.
For now, at least, the city council seems in no mood to budge. Officials say the new, energy-efficient lighting system will save Rome €23 million a year. But campaigners are not giving up.
“We’re calling on the council to install less powerful LED lights, which would give off a softer glow,” said Ms Naim, the councilor. “The battle is not yet lost. We’ll keep protesting. There is still hope.”