On a rainy Sunday morning, Cristiano Davoli stopped traffic and rushed into the middle of the street to save the day.
The 45-year-old comic book salesman, wearing a Patch Me logo across his chest, emptied a bag of asphalt into a deep and perilous pothole. He beat the pitch down with the back of a shovel. He pounded it with his boots.
“That’s called an emergency intervention,” said Davoli, a vigilante hero in the battle against the voracious potholes that have opened across the city.
All roads may lead to Rome, but when you get here the mean streets and wrecked pavements will puncture your tires, break your axles, herniate your discs, and in one recent case, swallow your SUV whole.
A poisonous Roman cocktail of chronic mismanagement, corruption, bureaucracy, neglect, heavy traffic, rare snow and constant rain has turned Rome’s roads into a modern ruin that has surpassed overflowing garbage, busted water pipes and striking bus drivers as the emblem of a degraded city in another decline.
First come the cracks, resembling spider webs. They give way to the grooved pattern of a dry desert floor. Ultimately gaping potholes open up. Camouflaged in a rainy March under cappuccino-colored puddles, they twist ankles, topple zigzagging scooters and turn car rides into brain-rattling off-road excursions.
“It’s a disaster,” said Davoli, who has made filling potholes his personal mission, risking fines for filling them in unauthorized areas. His appeals to volunteer citywide have been ignored by the mayor.
The city has closed streets and reduced the speed limit in many places to an ancient Roman crawl. The potholes have caused untold accidents, hours of traffic and windfalls for tire dealers. One pothole was credited with shredding the tires of 15 cars in under an hour.
The perpetually embattled mayor, Virginia Raggi, last month inaugurated a 17 million euro “Marshall Plan” (not to be confused with February’s 90 million euro “Pothole Plan”) to patch up 50,000 potholes a month. The city has unveiled its “Pothole Patching Machine,” which it claims can fill 150 potholes a day. And prosecutors have opened a broad investigation to get to the bottom of the crackup.
Romans say the problem has never been this bad, but the Raggi administration, which has been in power for nearly two years, blames its predecessors. Margherita Gatta, the city’s chief infrastructure official, said that the world’s other cities had lots of potholes too, but that it was “normal that the capital makes news.”