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Sunday, 7 October, 2001, 13:20 GMT 14:20 UK
Small was beautiful
Butcher in traditional shop in Rome serves customer
Traditional Roman shops are going out of business

By Joanna Robertson in Rome

Rome has rocked for centuries to the rhythm and hum of steady individual industry.

A random selection, all a short walk from my front door.

The Innocenti family, who have been baking biscuits for over 100 years; the Sisters of the Jewish Ghetto and their long line of female ancestors who've been whisking, creaming and folding-in ricotta and chocolate tarts for the last two centuries.

Virginia Valzani stands behind the counter of her chocolate shop as she has done since 1936. And then Antonietta and Lamberto, in business since 1953. who are about to close their fruit and vegetable shop - forever.

Big international brands are muscling-in, squeezing out small characterful shops; and the carefully controlled balance of a butcher, baker, greengrocer, grocer, fishmonger, tobacconist, sweet-shop, news-stand - per tiny neighbourhood - is under threat.

The tightly-knit, ancient metropolis of small shops and workshops that is historic Rome has started to unravel. Belatedly toeing the EU line, Italy has finally repealed many of its tightly-controlled shop licensing laws, to meet the Union-wide intention of prising open the market to innovation and competition.

Worthy aims - but two years on, the not-so-worthy change is tangible.

Big international brands are muscling-in, squeezing out small characterful shops; and the carefully controlled balance of a butcher, baker, greengrocer, grocer, fishmonger, tobacconist, sweet-shop, news-stand - in each tiny neighbourhood - is under threat.

Closing time

In their sitting-room of a fruit and vegetable shop, Antonietta and Lamberto mark out the final days of business.

It's a sitting room with only one chair - a well-worn wooden picnic chair - on which Antonietta - dark hair wisped with grey - sits to prepare salad, or trim artichokes. It's a sitting-room because it's like home. Full of chat and debate and imagined-meals-in-the-making as shoppers decide just what to cook that day.

View of Rome
Italy has repealed laws that protected traditional businesses
Antonietta's sister has the neighbouring tobacconists shop, Lamberto's cousin runs the bar on the corner, and next door to that is Virginia Valzani's chocolate shop, where her son now helps her pound the cocoa-beans they themselves order direct from Central America, then mix and temper the chocolate to the local children's taste.

Guilio and Flaminia, two of various grandchildren, play up and down the street each day, in and out of their relatives' shops.

All - each generation - were born within this half-kilometre of tiny streets. Antonietta and Lamberto are now in their seventies. The new business climate creates profits too small to interest their children.

So, 49 years after opening, the family business stops right here.

Changes afoot

An important neighbourhood resource, their greengrocer's could now become anything.

Before, if a shop was designated to sell fruit and vegetables, it could only sell fruit and vegetables.

Just as only tobacconists could sell salt, cigarettes and lottery tickets.

And in a city where bread is bought fresh twice a day, a bakery was always a bakery.

With the new laws, a butcher's can now become a fashion boutique, that sacred bakery, a bar.

Now, small specialist food shops are turning into loud, night-time bars, fashion boutiques, novelty-soap emporiums and scented candle shops

A short walk across the soupy River Tiber lies Campo de' Fiori, a market place in the heart of medieval Rome. Meandering off from the riot of stalls in various vague directions are cobbled streets formed and shaped by centuries of small business.

The oldest trade in the world, Via delle Zoccolette - the street of the prostitutes - Via dei Guibbonari, the jacket-makers - the cross-bow makers, the furriers - and many more.

The market place has always been about food - and, for a few centuries, grisly public executions that sent blood spattering amongst the tomatoes.

Now, small specialist food shops are turning into loud, night-time bars, fashion boutiques, novelty soap emporiums and scented candle shops.

A family grocer's has become The Drunken Ship Pub, a salami shop, Sloppy Sam's American Bar, and below an elegantly carved marble sign saying Macelleria - Butcher - lies a display of sequinned tops and platform shoes.

Local anger

The residents are furious, apoplectically filing list after list of complaints to the city council. Incessant noise 24 hours a day, broken bottles and vomit on the early-morning streets - a shattering of their community they feel is directly related to the change in shop laws.

Via dei Cappellari - the street of the hat makers - forgot about making hats long ago, and is now the street of the carpenters, the furniture makers and restorers.

Snaking away from the Drunken Ship Pub, it wends beneath an ancient archway. The cries of the market meld into hammering, sawing and drilling as craftsmen work in tiny studios or outside on the cobblestones.

Franco Martino can't understand it. There are fewer and fewer customers for his well-built, affordable hand-made furniture. He thinks it might have something to do with the new, giant Swedish-furniture store that has opened up on the city's ring road.

Their bookshelves are nothing like as good as his, he feels. There's not even much of a price difference.

Standing amidst the wood shavings, Franco is bemused.

See also:

30 Apr 01 | Euro-glossary
European Union
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