No sooner had workers hoisted a 72-foot tall Norway spruce in Rome’s central Piazza Venezia this month than the mocking began.
The tree was quickly nicknamed Spelacchio, or Mangy, because so many of its dead needles were dropping off, leaving the tree looking a bit bare. Chatter spread quickly on social media where Romans traded jokes about the spruce and criticized its sad appearance.
Insults quickly turned to intrigue as the Italian media plumbed the tree’s costs, questioned how it had been transported to the city and analyzed its state of health, according to 'The New York Times'.
A consumer rights group asked an administrative court, which has oversight over government spending, to investigate what it described as a “shameful spectacle for citizens and tourists” and demanded that the tree be removed immediately.
Some likened the scruffy tree to a toilet brush. Others unfavorably compared it to the tree donated by Poland to the Vatican that was nicknamed “Rigoglio.”
Gardeners, botanists and ecology professors were quizzed on whether the tree would make it to Christmas. The jury is still out.
And in newspaper commentaries, the tree became a symbol of the Italian capital’s decline, moving the controversy from local news to national front pages.
“Spelacchio mirrors the decadence of the city,” said Francesca Nava, a television journalist who has lived in Rome for the past 15 years. Intrigued by the intrigue, she had come to check out the tree not as part of her job but as a private citizen.
“Without meaning to, this poor tree has become a symbol of Rome today, it is paying the price of this decadent time,” she said.
A spokesman for Mayor Virginia Raggi of Rome said the city had begun an inquiry to determine whether anyone was at fault.
Ms. Raggi hasn’t had an easy time in office. On Tuesday, she told reporters that she would not be running for re-election. Her party, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, has a two-term limit for political office and she is in her second.
“Getting to the end of this mandate will be a great success,” she told reporters.
Italian media published before and after photos of the fir, demonstrating a drastic decline.
Citizens were also outraged over the cost of the tree operation — an estimated 48,000 euros, or $57,000, to cover the costs of transporting, raising and eventually removing the Christmas tree.
The tree itself was donated to the city by the Magnifica Comunità di Val di Fiemme, a collective that manages the forests and pastures of an alpine valley in the Trentino region.
Sniffing a scandal, newspapers had published a document showing that the collective would be paid €8,000, or $9,500, plus tax. Stefano Cattoi, the director of the collective’s sawmill, explained that the sum covered the costs of prepping the tree for transport.
“We chose a beautiful tree and we cut and prepared it with as much care as we possibly could,” he said in a telephone interview. But he said he was unaware of what happened to the spruce once it was out of his care.
“What happened during the trip, or what kinds of lights were used on it, I can’t say,” he said. “But we’ve sent many trees to Rome, and we’ve never had problems before.”
He said the community was still trying to understand what happened to the spruce and said they “did everything right” before it was sent.
On Wednesday, Mattia Feltri, a columnist with the Turin daily newspaper La Stampa, penned a front-page editorial written from Spelacchio’s point of view to his Roman detractors.
“You have a dark, chaotic city, you throw everything on the ground, nothing works and tourists are supposed to think it’s all my fault,” Mr. Feltri wrote. “Look, I am not a metaphor of Italy. It’s you.”
The New York Times