World News

Rome Gets a New Christmas Tree, Sponsored by Netflix. Will it Weather Social Media?

Posted December 7, 2018 1:37 p.m. EST

ROME — Rarely have expectations for a tree been so high.

For weeks now, Romans have been breathlessly awaiting the presentation of the Italian capital’s official Christmas tree, a year after the resounding social media debacle that felled last year’s fir.

That tree, a Norway spruce that immediately lost its needles, had been nicknamed Spelacchio, or Mangy, for its threadbare appearance, and had been mercilessly, and humorously, derided throughout the holiday season. Mayor Virginia Raggi, no stranger to controversy, had also been swept up in the scathing social media maelstrom.

So it’s no wonder that this year’s tree has been under especially close scrutiny. The official presentation is scheduled for Saturday, but its journey, to glory or infamy, has been tracked for weeks.

In late November, intrepid reporters from Rome trekked to the Lombardy town of Cittiglio, 416 miles north of the capital to a garden nursery whose identity had been kept secret for weeks.

There, they chronicled the tree’s axing and preparation for the trip to Rome, which involved detaching the larger branches of the 75-foot tree, to be re-affixed upon arrival in Rome.

The Rome daily newspaper Il Messaggero wrote in a front-page article that the tree had been “disassembled and reassembled like a piece of Ikea furniture,” leading some Romans to call the tree #Spezzacchio, a play on the Italian verb “to break.” Others unkindly compared the tree, whose trunk is striped with metal strips, to Frankenstein.

In comparison, the Vatican’s equally tall Christmas tree, which was officially illuminated on Friday afternoon, came to Rome from the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia in one piece.

It didn’t take long for the new tree to establish a presence on social media, though Italians can’t seem to agree on a hashtag. #Spezzacchio has some traction, as does #Speraggio, which plays on the verb “to hope” and was adopted by some who see the tree as a symbol of Raggi overcoming last year’s fiasco.

For many critics of Rome’s mayor, a member of the populist Five Star Movement, the mangy tree was a symbol of everything wrong with the capital, where garbage goes uncollected, potholes transform many streets into slalom courses and buses occasionally burst into flames.

Spelacchio’s official account — created last year — appears to have been co-opted by this year’s entry, and despite the polemics last year, the old name seems to have stuck.

Raggi proudly posted on Twitter recently that “@spelacchio is Back in @Roma,” using a tagline adopted by the tree’s sponsor, Netflix.

Netflix contributed more than 376,000 euros (nearly $430,000) as the tree’s sponsor, which includes trimming it with 60,000 lights and 500 silver and red spherical ornaments — some marked by the streaming service’s trademark N — and building a platform for selfies.

Netflix also launched an advertising campaign — “I’m back. Spelacchio” — poking fun at last year’s puny pine.

As befits a social media star, Speracchio/Spezzacchio/Speraggio has its own entourage, and on Friday, a publicist fielded questions from a makeshift camp at the base of the tree. Security guards kept interlopers at bay.

The new tree’s reviews on social media have been mostly positive.

And it certainly can’t be worse than Naples, where a Christmas tree in the city’s main gallery was stolen less than three days after it was mounted, leading to a new name, #Rubacchio, a reference to the Italian word for “theft.” (The tree was found a few hours later). On Friday, though lights were still being strung, Rome’s new tree was already getting ready for its close up. A group of Japanese tourists crowded on a sidewalk, smartphones snapping wildly, while a giggly group of Roman middle school students jostled for a good angle.

A stylishly dressed woman called Petronilla, who declined to give her last name, also photographed the tree, but not because she was particularly impressed.

“I like trees, so I photograph them, but this one is bruttissimo,” or very ugly, she declared. She was from the northern Italian region of Trentino Alto Adige, where pine trees thrive. “Now those are trees,” she said.

Writing an editorial in the broadsheet Il Foglio, Nicola Imberti said the tree’s secret was that unlike last year, when the Christmas tree was an in-house operation, which cost less than 50,000 euros, City Hall had called for outside help. A private company like Netflix, he wrote, understood “the propaganda value that can come from such an investment.”

His suggestion, given Rome’s sorry state: “Why not give the government of the city over to Netflix.”