cross the Tiber River from the palm-rich Baroque behemoth that houses the Italian cassation court is a stretch of buildings with walled-up windows and rusty pylons stuck spear-like into its façades. I first noticed the condemned buildings in 1970, when visiting Rome with my father. He explained the Tiber had a strong current that gnawed away at nearby foundations. His remark was borne out by later work on the court, which in the mid-1980s was walled off to allow for the re-cementing of its wet and settling basement.
But the late 1980s also brought a housing boom. Property values along the river soared. Billions went into transforming semi-ruins into office space. Construction oiled most corruption and cash flow. Yet my sad stretch of buildings remained untouched.
I then learned that the Tiber’s caprices shared only part of the blame, supplemented by civil law suits. Owners were at war over what should be done and even ownership of the buildings was ambiguous.
More than any other capital in Europe, Rome is awash in vacant apartments, either “protected” by miserly owners or trapped in decades-long legal disputes. So bad is the problem that new property taxes may well single out unoccupied flats for steeper levies — a symbolic measure at best, since well-off owners are usually unbothered by taxes.
Underlying the dilemma is how civil lawsuits fit into Rome culture. If the American judicial system is mocked for 1-800 malpractice, Rome tops the charts when it comes to the longevity and complication of legal quarrels. Condo neighbors sue each other with noxious zeal, seeing litigation not necessarily as a means to solve a problem but to make a point, or save face, after which the hotly debated issue is often relegated to legal cold storage. The average adjudication time for a civil suit regarding urban property is nearly a decade, with preliminary hearings on complaints sometimes taking three years before they even reach heavily backlogged courts. The average doesn’t include the appeals process. Some families actually pass down lawsuits by generation, father to son, as if still living in Napoleonic times.
A case in point is my own. In the early 1970s, a neighbor of my mother, a stoic, Fascist-era lawyer who had never practiced and lived on the floor below, filed a suit denouncing a tiny pipe — about the circumferance of a coin — that ran from my mother’s kitchen sink drain to an outside balcony downspout, about a meter in all. Its existence, he raged, was “bindingly illegitimate” and “could not be seen as having the objective right” to course over the “violated” balcony, which belonged to the condominium.
Thus began “la causa del tubo,” or “the cause of the tube,” as I joked; more literally, “the pipe suit.” Mindful of the protracted oddities along the Tiber, I should have withheld mockery. The cause of the tube extended from the early 1970s, throughout the 1980s, and well into the late 1990s, making good on a latter-day Holy Crusade. Thousands of pages of paperwork were filed. Old lawyers grew old and were replaced by their brothers or cousins. The poor tube sat mute for portraits, both drawn and photographed. The man behind the crusade, whose name rhymed with Congo, lectured owners about the merits of his lawsuit, which he said was at the heart of all civil society, since the tube’s vulgar progress reflected the essence of right and wrong in its purest form. No tube, said Rhymes With Congo, should violate a balcony’s sanctity, and if it did its heinous facilitator should be punished to the extreme.
My mother’s death from cancer in 1988 didn’t stop Rhymes With Congo, nor did losing the case eight years later. After my mother’s death, eager to moot the battle, I removed the pipe, redirecting the water flow and putting the tube out of its misery.
It made no difference. Even in the tube’s absence, Rhymes With Congo appealed, “for retroactive justice,” or so read his lawyer’s brief. The appeal decision was issued on Dec. 31, 1999, and published by executive order in early 2004, just less than 30 years after original filing. The late tube was exonerated but I was still ordered to pay his legal fees, “since the plaintiff has suffered the moral abuse caused by the existence of tube while it existed…” By then, he’d sold the apartment and moved to a seafront retirement home.
When I met him in court to hand him his check, he told me he’d been vindicated and that the rule of law had prevailed thanks to his persistance. Rhymes With Congo, who had started his quixotic crusade at about age 40, was now verging on 80. Meanwhile, the pylons on in the buildings along the Tiber remain where I first saw them 42 years ago.