Rome's Trevi Fountain was restored thanks to a donation from Italian brand Fendi. Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters Picture

The city says it’s going to need private donors to step in, but its reputation for corruption and dysfunction may be a deterrent.

Rome is broke. Italy’s capital may be one of the world’s great storehouses for architecture and antiquities, but it is also up to its ears in a stiffening quicksand of debt. Altogether, the city is in arrears by as much as €14 billion ($15.6 billion), according to some estimates. The inevitable upshot of this situation is that there’s precious little cash available to preserve and maintain Rome’s world-famous monuments. And so it came to pass that the city announced this week that it is looking for €500 million ($557 million) from private investors for historic preservation efforts.

Of that figure, €178 million alone is needed just to keep Rome’s monuments in tolerable condition, with the remainder set aside for improvements. Rome’s current caretaker mayor, Francesco Paolo Tronca, has laid out a few more details: To restore and enhance the city’s 80 most beautiful fountains, it needs around €10.4 million. Should anyone want only to bankroll restoration of the aqueduct feeding the Trevi Fountain, that would cost €600,000. And there are plenty of smaller projects looking for funding, too. With €300, for example, you would apparently contribute enough to have the ground around Trajan’s Column weeded.

They’ve asked for help, but will anybody bite? Rome has certainly had some success in the past in getting businesses on board to patch up its beauty. Last year, the jeweler Bulgari paid out €1.5 million to restore the city’s Spanish Steps, shoe company Tod has contributed towards conservation at the Coliseum, and Fendi chipped in €2 million to help spruce up the Trevi Fountain. The city has ruled out offering direct sponsorships, but these earlier contributions were so widely reported that they must already have earned the money back in publicity.

For companies without such obvious, promotable roots in Italian culture, however, Rome’s appeal for funds may be a harder sell. One reason why the city is so hard-up (beyond the still-towering effects of the 2008 financial crisis) is that its administration is almost as dilapidated as the monuments of which it is custodian. Steered by a mix of sclerotic incompetence and outright corruption, the city’s mismanagement has long earned it the sobriquet “Mafia Capital.” More recently it received another nickname, Affitopolis or “Rentopolis,” after it emerged that numerous city properties were being rented out for mere pennies. This isn’t the best publicity campaign for a city seeking outside funding. Any potential donor might be tempted to wonder how much of their contribution would actually make it to its final source.

There were some attempts at improving this situation from previous mayor Ignazio Marino, who nonetheless presided over a period when Rome’s dysfunction only grew worse. Marino’s own profile as a clean pair of hands was rather spoiled when he himself had to step down following an expenses scandal last October. Now, there’s a new political force on the block vowing to change things. Italy’s populist, anti-corruption Five Star Movement looks on course to win municipal elections on June 5. If it does, it will also provide Rome with its first female mayor in the form of city councilor and comedian Virginia Raggi. It’s too early to predict if political change will be enough to kick Rome out of its torpor. In the short term, the city’s poor public image—coming at a time when much of Italy needs restoration funds—may well hinder its efforts to get corporations to dig deep.

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