After Gen Zers threw tomato soup at a Van Gogh, now climate activists are dumping charcoal into Rome’s Trevi Fountain

Last Generation environmentalists in the Trevi Fountain in Rome show a banner against the use of fossil fuels on Sunday, May 21, 2023.
Mauro Scrobogna—LaPresse via AP Images

Something has cracked with climate protesters. In recent months, some of the world’s great artistic treasures have been sabotaged by activists trying to make some kind of point about the warming atmosphere. Activists have thrown soup on Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers at London’s National Gallery and smeared chocolate cake on the wax statue of King Charles III at London’s Madame Tussauds museum to spread the word about climate change. Now it’s the turn of Rome’s iconic Trevi Fountain.

With its striking white stone structure and light blue water encircling it below, the Trevi Fountain has been one of central Rome’s iconic attractions since it was completed in 1762. Apart from its baroque beauty, the fountain was significant in literally bringing reliable drinking water to Romans who had suffered for generations without it as the ancient aqueducts fell into disrepair. Although Trevi is really used now as a selfie-taking backdrop, the fountain is still fed by such an aqueduct today. All that was rudely interrupted on Sunday, when a group of Italy-based climate protesters from Ultima Generazione (or “Last Generation”) dumped charcoal into it, demanding an end to public subsidies for fossil fuels. They held up signs that read, “We won’t pay for fossil [fuels].” 

The use of charcoal contaminated the water at the fountain, necessitating the replacement of about 79,251 gallons (300,000 liters) of water, the mayor of Rome, Roberto Gualtieri, wrote on Twitter.  

“Today 9 activists poured charcoal into #FontanadiTrevi,” Gualtieri wrote on Sunday. “Thanks to the timely intervention of the local police, the worst was avoided. An intervention is now needed that will commit public resources and lead to the waste of 300,000 liters of water.”

Gualtieri condemned the protest, saying “enough of these absurd attacks on our artistic heritage” in a tweet. He also added that the time, effort, and cost to clean this up would be substantial.

Ultima Generazione pointed to fossil fuel operations as a reason for the floods in the Emilia-Romagna region in Northern Italy last week, which has left at least 13 dead and thousands homeless. The group accused the government of inaction on climate protection and argued that their protest caused no damage. 

“Even today, the vegetable charcoal and the bodies of terrified citizens have not damaged any monument, while the count of the damage to the cultural heritage in Emilia-Romagna devastated by the flood has already begun,” Ultima Generazione said in a statement. The statement was likely referring to the group of activists as “terrified citizens.”

Ultima Generazione did not immediately return Fortune’s request for comment.

Charcoal, soup, and mashed potatoes

Other fountains in Rome have been targeted by other activists in the last two months in protests that have also included the symbolic use of charcoal. Earlier this month, a similar protest occurred at Rome’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, with charcoal symbolizing “the black future that awaits humanity.” And last month, Ultima Generazione also protested by pouring charcoal into the Barcaccia fountain.

“It is absurd that this gesture shocks you, when we are experiencing a drought emergency that is putting agriculture, energy production in crisis…in short, our very livelihood, and there are those responsible,” the group wrote on Twitter.

In October, when two protesters from the Just Stop Oil group smeared tomato soup on a Van Gogh painting in London, the advocacy group wrote on Twitter:

“Is art worth more than life? More than food? More than justice? The cost-of-living crisis and climate crisis is driven by oil and gas.” 

A few days later, an activist group called Letzte Generation threw mashed potatoes and soup on a painting by Claude Monet on display in Germany. 

The string of climate-related protests has become part of a new wave of climate activism in which mostly young protesters are leading the fight, inspired by the likes of Greta Thunberg. The groups have called for urgent climate action, and the protesters involved have claimed that the reason for using unusual means to show their dissent is to draw media attention on climate change and how industries like oil and fossil fuel are hurting the environment. It’s unclear what age the members of Ultima Generazione are, although they appear to be young adults.

Some experts have highlighted that while climate change is a pressing problem, perhaps the approach of wrecking old pieces of art or monuments isn’t the best way to do it, to say the least. 

“Demonstrating is a great thing and everyone has the right to make a point. But please: leave our shared heritage alone. Attacking defenseless works of art is not the right way,” Dutch culture and media minister Gunay Uslu tweeted following the series of museum protests in October.

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