McDonald’s blocked from building drive-through at Rome's ancient Baths of Caracalla

The council of state upheld a previous ruling preventing the fast food chain from opening at the popular heritage site

McDonald’s wanted to open a branch next to the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome Image: The Art Newspaper

McDonald’s wanted to open a branch next to the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome Image: The Art Newspaper

Italy’s highest administrative court has definitively barred McDonald’s from building a 10,000 sq. m outlet in the shadow of the third-century Baths of Caracalla, one of Rome’s most celebrated ancient sites. Published on 28 December, the council of state’s ruling upheld the verdict of a lower court preventing the fast food chain from using a tract of land adjacent to the baths to open a drive-through restaurant and parking area. It also stated that government authorities are entitled to block future development projects in or near other important heritage sites.

The court reached its decision on the basis of the “importance of protecting cultural heritage”, according to its ruling. As the ancient baths are located within an area including the Caffarella Park, Appian way and Roman aqueducts that is protected by regional and national landscape plans—as well as within the Unesco-protected historic centre of Rome—any development projects “expressly require landscape planning permissions”, which previously had not been granted, the ruling continues.

In the future, the Lazio region and the Italian culture ministry can “order the suspension of works aimed at altering the landscape” both with existing heritage sites and sites that the authorities “intend to protect”. This effectively allows for the “safeguarding of areas or real estate that have not yet been declared to be of cultural or landscape interest”, the ruling indicates.

“This clarification is extremely important for the future protection of our cultural and archaeological patrimony,” Italia Nostra, a heritage protection organisation, said in a statement. The culture ministry should not “intervene in extremis” in future cases but work towards more consistent co-planning between the state and regions “throughout the national territory”.

The Baths of Caracalla were built from 212 to 216 and opened to the public during the reign of Emperor Caracalla. At its height, the enormous structure, which was decorated with marbles, mosaics and sculptures, is believed to have been visited by between 6,000 and 8,000 people every day. It was free to attend.

McDonald’s had already started building its drive-through next to the ancient baths, following a favourable review of the project by the ministry of culture, and the city council which granted permission for it, but the project was halted in 2019 when Rome’s then mayor, Virginia Raggi, intervened following a media outcry. The ministry of culture then reversed its position and also stepped in to fight the development.

In 2016 another McDonald’s development, in the Piazza del Duomo in Florence, was blocked by the city’s mayor, Dario Nardella, who said at the time that he did not want a fast-food chain at the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, according to The Times.

The new chief executive of the McDonald’s group in Italy, Dario Baroni, revealed that the firm plans to open 200 new restaurants in Italy by 2025, according to La Repubblica. The group, which currently has more than 600 outlets in Italy, sees the country “as one of the markets with the greatest potential on a global scale,” Baroni told the Italian newspaper.

McDonald’s said in a statement: "As always, and in this case, McDonald’s met all national, regional and local laws and regulations.
McDonald’s has 54 restaurants in Rome and 2,500 employees, as a proof of the long-term and positive relationship between our company and the city. That’s why we will continue to invest on this area."

UPDATE 1 January: This article was updated to include a statement from McDonald's