Italy Bans McDonald’s Drive-Through at Ancient Roman Baths Site

Upholding an earlier decision, the high court halts construction of a new restaurant, resolving a years-long dispute in favor of cultural preservation

Stone ruins of the Baths of Caracalla
Built in the third-century, the large Roman baths complex also featured open-air swimming pools, as well as a temple, garden and library. Bruce Ingwall via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

After several years of disputes, Italy’s highest administrative court has ruled that McDonald’s may not build a drive-through restaurant beside the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla. The ruling, which cited the “importance of protecting cultural heritage,” upheld a lower court’s ban on the construction and also promised government authorities the right to stop future development projects around other heritage sites, report James Imam and Christina Ruiz for the Art Newspaper.

Completed in 216 C.E., the ancient baths are heated by underground wood-fired ovens and also include a garden, library, temple and outdoor exercise spaces. The area—located near the Caffarella Park, Appian Way and the Roman aqueducts—is protected under several cultural preservation schemes, including the Historic Center of Rome, a Unesco World Heritage site.

McDonald’s had planned the 250-seat restaurant and parking lot for an 8,600-square-foot site previously occupied by a garden center, reported Barbie Latza Nadeau for the Daily Beast in 2019. Rome’s city council initially granted permission for the project in early 2019 but subsequently revoked it a few months later after a public outcry. At that point, construction had already begun, and the U.S.-based fast-food chain appealed the decision. In June of 2020, the Lazio Regional Administrative Court rejected the company’s appeal, as reported by Wanted in Rome at the time. 

According to the Art Newspaper, McDonald’s said in a statement that it has a “positive relationship” with the city of Rome, as shown by its 54 existing restaurants in the city, and that it “as always, and in this case, met all national, regional and local laws and regulations.”

McDonald's sign under Piazza di Spagna sign
McDonald's currently has 54 restaurants in Rome, like this one at the Piazza di Spagna. Matt and Cyndi Maxson via Flickr under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Per Encyclopedia Britannica, construction of the baths began under the rule of Emperor Septimius Severus in 206 C.E. and was completed a decade later by his son, Emperor Caracalla. During peak times, as many as 1,600 bathers used Caracalla’s cold and hot baths, as well as open-air swimming pools. The use of marble, sculptures, mosaics and other lavish decorations earned the site a reputation for beauty and luxury. Despite destruction by looters and an earthquake in the centuries that followed, the baths remained in use until the sixth century, when the spot was sacked by the Ostrogoths during the Gothic War in 537 C.E. The design of the Baths of Caracalla inspired Renaissance architecture and even New York City’s original Penn Station, with its coffered ceilings and Corinthian columns. 

This isn’t the first time McDonald’s has waded into controversy over franchise locations in Rome. In 2017, some local business owners raised objections to the opening of one of its restaurants beside the Vatican, as reported by Reuters in 2017. Cardinal Elio Sgreccia called the opening of the “mega sandwich shop” a “disgrace.”

“It would be better to use those spaces to help the needy of the area, spaces for hospitality, shelter and help for those who suffer, as the Holy Father teaches,” he said.

And in 2019, Rome denied the restaurant chain a request to open a location beside the Pantheon, per Wanted in Rome.

Under the new court ruling, the court states that the Lazio region and the Italian culture ministry can stop new projects to protect heritage sites or areas “that have not yet been declared to be of cultural or landscape interest.”  Heritage protection group Italia Nostra calls the clarification “extremely important for the future protection of our cultural and archaeological patrimony,” and says it will help with more consistent planning throughout the country, reports the Art Newspaper.

Nonetheless, McDonald’s still has big plans for the country. Dario Baroni, the company’s chief executive in Italy, said in December that it plans to open 200 new restaurants there by 2025, as reported by Reuters at the time. That would bring the total to more than 800 locations in Italy.

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