Rome is chaotic and not really efficient, but is still one of the most beautiful, visually stunning cities in the world. An act of Internet censorship just happened that may keep it ugly. Here’s what happened, and how you can help.

Rome would be visually stunning if it were not plagued by advertising posters, attached everywhere on huge billboards or, very simply and cheaply, on just every surface that is visible, flat and vertical enough to serve as advertising space, in every corner of the city. Very, very often, the posters are attached without the required authorization. Even some big billboards are unhauthorized. To have an idea of how bad this is, you can look at this picture of Trashtevere (a joke on “Trastevere”, one of the most beautiful parts of Rome. But too much of Rome is in the same situation) or just search on Flickr for “affissioni abusive” (unhauthorized posters) or “cartellopoli” (see below).

This very bad habit becomes much worst in election time. Many Italians (on all political sides!) still decide how to caste their vote only according to what they see on TV or in the street. Consequently, in addition to the normal mess, we also get thousands of extra square meters of temporary billboards, literally planted in the middle of our streets and public parks. Billposters of all parties almost line up in front of every billboard at night: once one is finished, the next one comes and just glues the posters of another party over the still fresh ones of the first billposter.

This happens so many times that, eventually, a 5 cm thick layer of posters collapses by its own weight on the street, where the rain and other crews of billposters walking by transform everything in a disgusting blob. I’m insisting on political posters because very likely we’ll have elections again in Italy in 2011, and I can’t help asking myself if there’s a relationship with what I’m going to tell you.

Shut down that anti-billboards blog. Now!

It is trivial to realize that all this business moves lots of money and is also a source of jobs. Still, it’s ugly and often against the law. A while ago, some Roman citizens decided to act in a very civil way. They set up a blog called Cartellopoli (the most exact translation I can provide is “billboard scandal”) to fight this degradation of Rome. The blog simply suggested all visitors to:

  • take a picture of the posters attached without authorization and/or creating visual pollution
  • find the same point of Rome in Google Street View and compare the “before and after the posters” pictures

Even if you can’t read Italian, you can get a glimpse of the results in this before and after gallery. Apparently, the term “cartellopoli” is also popular enough on Flickr to have its own cartellopoli tag.

Today I just read on local magazine Roma Today that Cartellopoli has been taken offline by Google, to comply with an order issued by an Italian judge.

According to that Roma Today page a billboard company had some billboards damaged; felt that the authors of the damage had been somehow inspired by the “before and after” pictures seen on Cartellopoli.com; and asked a judge to shut down the site because it instigated illegal acts. At that point, according to Roma Today, the judge just decided to take the whole blog offline until he or she has finished to examine the whole matter.

I am not a lawyer. I am not angry with the judge or with Google: it looks like they are only applying current laws and it would be naive to demand otherwise from them. I am not even angry with billboard companies. I do know that there are a lot of honest people who make a living in Rome attaching posters respecting the rules. All I know of this Cartellopoli story is what I read on that Roma Today page and summed up in the previous paragraph.

I just know for a fact two things. First, while I write Cartellopoli.com is indeed offline. Why? Second, Rome is indeed full of too many unhautorized posters that make it really ugly and dirty.

The first fact, if things really stand as Roma Today reports, is disturbing regardless of who’s wrong or right in this particular case. I mean, imagine (just as a mental exercise, of course :-) ) if, sometime in the far future, it became easy to denounce abuses on some hypothetical website. Wouldn’t it be bad if the authors of such abuses could easily shut down that website with a court order before a real sentence?

How can I help?

Here is what you can do to help fight all these damages of abusive advertising in Rome (especially if you are planning a holiday in Rome and don’t want to spend a week in photoshopping paper pulp out of your pictures afterwards!). Please write to the Major of Rome, Gianni Alemanno (here is his contact form), to Dottor Mauro Cutrufo, Rome Vice-Mayor with responsibility for Tourism and to the Rome Tourism office and ask them (1) to:

  • officially promote and support citizens usage of the Internet to monitor this or any other kind of illegal activity in Rome
  • keep illegal billboards and posters out of the streets, because walking among walls of paper isn’t exactly your idea of your next Roman Holiday

Of course, you can also add “if you want my money, please confirm that I won’t I just see ugly paper out of my window?” to the list of questions to ask when booking your next hotel in Rome!

(note: I do live in Rome, but have no relationship with the staff of Cartellopoli.com. I don’t even know who they are! I wrote this post only because I find dangerous what I just read about their blog, but above all because, regardless of it, I and am disgusted by unhauthorized advertising anyway!)

(1) please use your own words because thousands of identical emails are just counterproductive!