At first it was regarded as an international embarrassment, but there could now be life after death for Rome’s notoriously threadbare Christmas tree, nicknamed The Mangy One.
Romans have taken the shabby spruce fir to their hearts and as the city prepares to take it down on Monday, there are plans to either put it on display in a museum, turn it into tens of thousands of pencils for the children of the Eternal City or use its timber to make a wooden shelter in which mothers could change and breast feed their babies.
The fate of the skeletal, spindly tree, which has been compared to a toilet brush, will be learnt on Monday at a press conference in Rome’s town hall.
When the tree was first erected in early December in Piazza Venezia, the city’s main square, there was outrage over its drooping branches and lacklustre appearance, particularly after it emerged that the city council had paid 48,000 euros to have it transported from the mountains of Trentino in northern Italy.
It was seen as an emblem of the council’s failure to deal with the city’s myriad problems, from uncollected rubbish to double-parking, chaotic traffic, graffiti-strewn walls and woeful public transport.
But indignation gradually turned to fatalistic resignation and then to grudging admiration for the tree, which is now festooned with dozens of messages of adoration, heavily tinged with irony, left by ordinary Romans.
“There’s a Mangy One in all of us,” one couple wrote on an old train ticket, while another message read: “Spelacchio, you’re one of us.”
The tree has become “a rock star”, one Italian newspaper proclaimed this weekend. “Everyone goes to look at it. Everyone wants to touch it.”
Locals have identified with the tree because, like the city they live in, it fails to live up to the glory that once was Rome.
They have embraced it with their trademark bitter-sweet, cynical sense of humour.
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But the jokey messages mask exasperation and anger towards the city council, which is run by Virginia Raggi, a member of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.
“How could they have appointed someone with no experience of governing?” asked Enrico, a pensioner who was reading the messages posted at the base on the tree on Sunday.
“We’re not talking about any old city, this is Rome, the most beautiful in the world, the city with more history than anywhere else. They should put Raggi in a museum, not the tree.”
Despite the Five Star Movement’s disappointing performance in Rome since Ms Raggi was elected in 2016, it remains Italy’s most popular party as the country heads to a general election in March.
Five Star, which has called for a referendum on Italy’s use of the euro, is expected to attract 28 per cent of votes.
It is highly likely to be beaten, however, by a centre-Right coalition led by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is back at the forefront of politics despite a long litany of corruption allegations, criminal trials and “bunga bunga” sex scandals.
Along with his allies the Northern League and a smaller party, Brothers of Italy, Mr Berlusconi’s bloc can expect to attract around 35 per cent of votes.
Whether the tree is placed in Rome’s MAXXI modern art museum, as has been mooted, or turned into pencils or a shelter for mothers and babies, it will not be forgotten in a hurry .
“Spelacchio, you will stay in our hearts forever,” read a message left by a Roman couple, Maria and Raffaele.