TRAVEL & LIFESTYLE: In Rome, It’s Luxury vs. Squalor
On a recent June evening, guests in the magnificent dining room of the Palazzo Vilòn feasted on a Baroque-themed dinner amid centuries-old mirrors painted with cherubs, inlaid marble floors and a ceiling so lavish, the table’s surfaces were mirrored to savor the frescoes. The interior designer toasted the new hotel, calling it a temple to “privacy and experience,” which, given all the operatic singing and Aqua Mirabilis-spiced wine, imbued the event with an eerie Fidelio-is-the-password vibe.
Essentially a super-deluxe annex to the already super-deluxe Hotel Vilòn across a private garden, the Palazzo Vilòn sits at the tip of the long harpsichord-shaped Palazzo Borghese that curves between the Tiber River and the Via del Corso. It has a swimming pool, private disco club and sumptuous living rooms named after Roman gods. Its three spectacular bedrooms, one in a former chapel under a cupola, is imagined, the hotel managers say, as a Roman refuge for Arab sheikhs, Harry and Meghan, and Hollywood royalty.
But when the actors Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz tried to stay here for a recent extended visit, Claudio Ceccherelli, the chief executive of the Shedir Collection, which runs the Palazzo Vilòn, said, the asking price had too many zeros for 007.
“Didn’t offer enough money,” he said.
The whole place cost an average of 25,000 euros — nearly $27,000 — a night. (Laura Symons, a publicist for Mr. Craig, declined to comment.)
It’s not even the highest rate on the block. Just down the Via di Ripetta, in the heart of Rome, the freshly unveiled Bulgari Hotel Roma, with hallways showcasing jewels, has a premier one-bedroom suite overlooking the Mausoleum of Augustus. It costs 38,000 euros, or about $41,000, a night.
Rome, a city striated with epochs and contradictions, has always been a mix of the highest and the lowest, emperors and slaves, nobles and knife-wielding thieves, decadent do-nothings and hard-working stiffs. Even so, there is something particularly surreal about the current moment, when the city is becoming increasingly awash in exorbitant hotel options even as it feels the grip of what Romans call the degrado, or degradation, a more than 15-year slide into an often anarchic and acrid state of abandon.
In the spring, riotous vegetation bordering the sidewalks can reach Jurassic proportions. In the summer, garbage bakes in overflowing dumpsters. Throughout the year, fluorescent orange construction fencing is wrapped around seemingly everything. In the June days that marked the opening of the grand hotels, an illegally dumped and busted industrial refrigerator just down the street from the hotels sparkled in the broad daylight. The latest addition to the Roman purgatory is stalled traffic caused by the extension of a subway line that many Romans doubt will ever function, and is more of a profound joke than an underground public service.
A city that’s ‘a bit abandoned’
Amid all the headaches, the heady talk of a luxury revolution is running up against that entrenched Roman skepticism, engineered over the centuries to avoid getting worked up about promised transformations and to soften the inevitable let down.
Rome’s mayor, Roberto Gualtieri, says the hoteliers are perfectly sane, and know a future good thing when they see it. He points to better restaurants, restored museums, new ones in the works. Post-pandemic tourists have made Rome a prime destination, though he allows that the spritz-thirsty hordes settling in Airbnbs are a threat to the city’s soul.
Further ahead, Mr. Gualtieri envisions a clean, modern, functioning city, helped along by billions in European Union recovery funds, hundreds of millions more for the church’s upcoming Jubilee in 2025 and his own urban renewal policies, including building a garbage incinerator, repairing Rome’s roads, reworking contracts to actually cut the city’s grass, and yes, extending a subway line. The luxury hotels, he suggested, can see around the decrepit corner to a new Roman renaissance.
“Rome was dramatically missing the same hospitality level of a city like Paris,” Jean-Christophe Babin, the chief executive of Bulgari, said at the sumptuous Bulgari bar, upstairs from an entrance adorned with an actual ancient statue of Augustus. The influx of luxury would help “reposition the city, not only as an open-air museum of the past, but as a city of the future,” Mr. Babin said.
The luxury stampede suggests the hoteliers see Rome as a city where money can be made, and where the conditions, if not the garbage and traffic and often world-weary attitude, are suddenly in their favor.
Mr. Ceccherelli, of the Shedir Collection, said top hotels had been eager to come here for ages, but that local interests had helped block new hotels with more than 30 rooms, keeping the big luxury chains out. The mayor’s office said that a 2008 rule prevented the conversion of medieval or Renaissance palaces into hotels hosting more than 60 people (which usually turns out to be about 30 rooms), but that the city had granted concessions to attract higher quality hotels where richer people can spend more money.
And several of the new hotels have set up shop near the Via Veneto in younger buildings that aren’t subject to the rule’s restrictions. Bulgari, despite being in the old center, inhabits a converted Fascist-era government building.
Mr. Babin, who noted that Rome’s tight real estate market was finally loosening up, said that “rich, aristocratic Roman families own most of the city.” Extremely low property taxes, reflecting land registry values, which are a fraction of market values, lead to “a lot of palaces, even if they’re empty, that people will never relinquish.”
But tough times for the noble landlord set had helped pry some of those properties loose. And Rome being “a bit abandoned” meant “assets were depreciated,” Mayor Gualtieri said, attracting investors who swooped in, because, compared to other European cultural meccas, Rome is pretty cheap.
But even some of the luxury designers doubt the new hotels will transform an ancient city where the residents often talk of change as if it were a sucker’s pipe dream, and treat new fads and trends as invading armies to wait out.
“The problem,” said Giampiero Panepinto, the Milan-based architect who had toasted Palazzo Vilòn, “is the Romans.”
But former mayors say change can happen, and that Romans just needed to see proof to get behind it.
Walter Veltroni, who was mayor during an upswing in the early 2000s, recalled how Romans embraced the ambitious vision that he and his predecessor, Francesco Rutelli, had laid out for the city, with new infrastructure and museums that showed “beauty didn’t end with the Renaissance.”
The current mayor, Mr. Gualtieri, said it was now up to him to imbue the city with that confidence.
“The last thing you have to do is to blame your citizens,” he said. But he acknowledged that Romans “feel justified” in behaving in a way that made the city even harder to live in because they are surrounded by inefficiency and lack of public services. He said he needed to break what he called “a vicious circle” and show concrete improvements.
Five-star luxury hotels that most Romans will never set foot in is an unexpected place to look. But optimists say it could be the indicator they are waiting for.
‘An emperor for a night’
In June, a few days after the Palazzo Vilón showed off its treasures, Bulgari, the Roman jeweler to the stars and hotelier to the super rich, opened its new hotel. It has terrazzo floors and mosaic bathroom walls, both hand-cut and hand-glued. Its assortment of colored marbles evokes Bulgari jewels and the long, sticky reach of the Roman Empire. Over-the-top necklaces once worn by the Astors and Elizabeth Taylor decorate the hallways. By the pool, a statue in a shimmering alcove hushes noisy bathers with an index finger.
“I really hope that this place will become for the next centuries a place loved by the Romans,” said Roberto Mariani, the Bulgari hotel’s project manager and designer, as he showed me around. He added that it was designed as a destination for locals, like himself, and not as a “ghetto for the rich.”
Its opening party was the hottest ticket in town. Hollywood and Italian celebrities, brand ambassadors, politicians and influencers sipped from rivers of Champagne on the rooftop. They enjoyed a light show in which drones spelled out “Roma,” and formed items like a blingy ring that looked not unlike a floating diaper.
Mr. Rutelli, the former mayor during the golden age, was there and pointed out the major projects he initiated, including the adjacent Ara Pacis, an Augustinian shrine to the Pax Romana, in a modern museum building designed by the American architect Richard Meier that he pushed to be built against enormous opposition.
“When I became the mayor, the city was, they said, in decline,” said Mr. Rutelli, who served from 1993 to 2001. Around him, decked-out revelers spoke about the dawn of a new Dolce Vita era in Rome, prompting some Romans to suggest the bubbly had gone to their heads.
But Mr. Rutelli insisted that Romans weren’t constitutionally opposed to change and progress. It just required work.
On the eve of the hotel’s official opening, Mr. Mariani showed off the over-the-top touches in the 38,000-euro suite, which he said was “conceived to give the guest the feeling of being an emperor for a night.” The room’s 10 windows looked down on the real emperor’s mausoleum. But that landmark was surrounded by a deep ditch filled with orange fencing and languishing construction workers in the future — perhaps distant future — site of a modern promenade.
The project, Mr. Mariani said, “dates back to 2006.” Asked when he expected the work to be completed, his Roman character emerged.