If, as a road-tripper through the Alban Hills southeast of Rome, you happen to stop off for a Big Mac or some Chicken McNuggets, you might find something rather more appetising than a carton of fries. A new branch of McDonald's, in a suburb of the town of Marino, has been opened atop an ancient Roman road. As you stand at the counter to order, look down and you'll see the remains of a sidestreet from the 2nd or 3rd century BC, likely built as a route to the residence of a wealthy patrician family.
The road was uncovered when McDonalds broke ground on the new site in 2014. With the approval of Italy's Culture Ministry, the fast food franchise's Italian arm spent €300,000 on restoration, a process that delayed the store's completion until this year. As of last week, visitors are able to glimpse the road beneath a glass floor or else enter the ruin itself through a separate entrance. There is even a wall text explaining the site. "This is," said McDonalds Italia chief Mario Federico in an interview with The Daily Telegraph, "our first museum-restaurant." Although other branches have historical elements – such as the McDonald's at Rome Termini station that incorporates sections of the 4th century BC Servian wall, and a recently closed unit in Shrewsbury, England, that contained a dining area with features of a 12th-century hall – the demarcation of a separate attraction alongside the restaurant is something new.
Ancient ruins are nothing novel in Italy, around Rome in particular. The sheer number of archeological discoveries has overtaken the resources available for conservation, leading to tragicomic occasions in which significant excavations – including Augustus' stables near the Circus Maximus, revealed in 2014 – are reburied for their own protection. If the McDonalds was not built, as the local archeological superintendent Alfonsina Russo hinted in the Telegraph article, this same fate would have befallen the road.
2014 was also the year in which the Italian government introduced the Art Bonus scheme, which offers a tax credit of 65 per cent for those who support culture with charitable donations. From a straight conservationist's perspective this has been enormously beneficial. Diego Della Valle, the president and CEO of Italian shoe and leather goods brand Tod's, personally contributed €25m towards the restoration of the Colosseum; Fendi pledged €2.5m to the Fontana di Trevi; and Renzo Rosso of the OTB Group has given €5m for the cleaning of Venice's Ponte Rialto.
Sometimes, these donations have led to a reciprocal boon: Karl Lagerfield was allowed to parade models on a platform over the Trevi in a dry, joyless restating of the Anita Ekburg scene from La Dolce Vita, and Rosso secured an advertising banner for the six-month duration of the Venice Biennale. And there's the rub: by allowing private individuals and companies to support architectural monuments, you grant them a stake in sites ostensibly in the public realm. When Paolo Bulgari revealed his €1.5m refurbishment of the Spanish Steps in Rome this January, he proposed building a glass screen on either end of the scalinata, to be monitored and closed at night. "We cannot," he declaimed at the opening, "leave it to the barbarians."
The great monuments of antique and papal Rome remain largely unbranded; no-one yet shops on the Campo di Fendi, strolls up the Brionine Hill, or sees Il Trovatore at the Teatro Acqua di Parma. Compared to the oil company and financial services logos slapped onto many large-scale cultural endeavours in the UK, the hands of the luxury tycoons Rome are essentially invisible. It remains a place that thrums with the thrill and vitality of public urban life.
This is far from the case with the Marino McDonald's, where the heritage is physically straddled and guarded by a private enterprise – and a private enterprise which works overtime as a horseman of American economic imperialism, deforestation and unhealthy eating. This is the same company, lest one forget, that last year tried to sue the city of Florence for not allowing a branch on the Piazza del Duomo.
And yet it is thanks to McDonald's that a previously invisible part of architectural heritage is available to witness, free of charge; the chain will also pay for its upkeep. Unlike the glamorous restorations of major sites in Rome and Venice, it lacks the pizzazz of a first-rate publicity stunt. This is a small-scale, local action that will largely be experienced by those from the surrounding area.
The public have a stake in what constitutes public space, regardless of that place’s actual ownership. Picture a Fendi or Bulgari boutique on top of the Roman road, and you have an elegantly designed box that unashamedly signals its own exclusivity; by contrast, a McDonalds is an inexpensive, all-inclusive place of meeting. And what could be more exciting than to encounter cultural heritage in a place of such quotidian, cross-societal use?