Ruining The Ruins: Why Tourists Deface Ancient Monuments

How about a selfie instead?

Caught in the act: In Rome, don't do as the tourists do.
Caught in the act: In Rome, don't do as the tourists do.
Flavia Amabile

ROME — Can we ask people to take more selfies in front of monuments rather than autograph them?

We know that all it takes is a key, just waiting for the right moment, and you can pull of a feat for life — leave your name indelibly on a masterpiece.

The most skillful are able to scribble a heart or the name of their boyfriend or girlfriend. The most naive, as we found out last May, can only manage an initial, when a 16-year-old Brazilian boy on a school trip scratched an "M""onto the wall of the Valadier terrace, the beautiful 19th century viewpoint that overlooks the Colosseum.

A mere prank, you say, but in January — again at the Colosseum — two Australian tourists were caught leaving their traces in eternal memory. One of them was a 12-year-old boy using a rock. The other, keeping watch, was his 45-year-old father. Bravo, dad.

At the Colosseum — Photo: Yortw

For every tourist caught, how many get away with it? At the Colosseum there is just one security guard for every 2,500 tourists, so it's likely that more than a mark or two will elude them. At the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps there is almost always a patrol of guards, but they are more preoccupied with the scores of hawkers and pickpockets in the area.

The sheer mass of those who manage to leave their mark is unfortunately and quite literally written on the monuments themselves. At the Colosseum the long trail of names of those who decided to leave their scratches for posterity begins at the entrance, on the dark stone walls near the ticket office, and continues all the way up to the second floor. Bricks, marble, whatever — if there's space, there are names and drawings.

A public good

Across town, at the Pantheon, the four walls just before the giant bronze doors are completely covered with names, and almost seems like a post-modern monument to the tourists of yore themselves.

Along the Trevi's marble edges, where it should be better protected, there's also a collection of signatures. At the top of the Spanish Steps, the Trinità dei Monti church and obelisk are not quite disfigured, but we're getting there.

The Trevi fountain — Photo: Pete Sheffield

Anna Maria Cerioni, in charge of the restoration of the Capitoline Superintendence, remembers when, back in 1995, she had to intervene in the removal of a signature. "Underneath we found letters 50 centimeters high and it wasn't possible to remove them."

This isn't a phenomenon limited to Rome or famous monuments — from Venice to the abandoned villages in the bottom of Italy's boot, there's eagerness to sign on to the beauty of the past.

Usually, people use keys and stones or paint to leave their mark. In the latter case, it's sometimes impossible to remove the damage; in the former it's always hopeless.

Even if they're caught, the tourists still manage to reach their goal: to leave their mark on the monument permanently.

"It's what they want," says Giuseppe Roma, director general of the CENSIS institute. "The idea that public goods are actually owned by everyone makes people feel that they're entitled to put their hands on things and make it into the history books. It's a material appropriation, not intellectual: Anyone who studies monuments respects them."

So, what if instead of putting your name on a monument you took a selfie in front of it? Aren't photos just as eternal?

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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