Lord Finchley tried to mend the electric light
himself. It struck him dead. And serve him right!
It is the duty of the wealthy man
to give employment to the artisan!
Hilaire Belloc, from More Peers 1911.
One of the many things one noted as different when first coming to Rome in the early 1960s was the abundance of artisans or craftspeople plying their trades in little botteghe. Everything from jobbing carpenters to almond-nut crackers (a very skilful occupation and exceedingly painful for the beginner), from picture framers to knife-grinders, from chair-menders to, in season, hot-chestnut men. Over the years, many of these trades have either disappeared or modernised, using machines instead of manual dexterity (almonds, for example, are now cracked by machines rather than by hand). Some however linger on, but it wont be long before they are just memories.
Take, for example, the lavender man. He appears each June with a huge basket of heavily perfumed lavender flowers. These are manipulated into exquisite balls or drumsticks and sold for perfuming your linen cupboards. He grows the lavender on his land at Nemi and has been selling flowers of all kinds since he was 12 years old. He is now 82 and when asked, who will carry on when you retire? he replies, simply, tutti morti!... all dead! Augusto is the last of his family and when he goes, the local lavender trade will go with him.
October and November see the arrival of the hot-chestnut men. This trade, particularly in the historic centre, has been taken over by organisations that employ immigrants to sell the caldarroste (hot chestnuts) by weight and at relatively high prices. But just move outside the centre and you will find the traditional stands. These are run by contadini (country people) who come in from areas around Rome where chestnut forests are to be found. Our local seller comes from Soriano and his family has traditional rights to the chestnuts from a specific group of trees in the nearby forest. Most of the crop will go to the confectionery trade but there are still plenty of nuts left to make it worth his while to run a simple pavement stand and sell hot chestnuts. He doesnt sell by weight but rather by number and one can always count on a few extras being thrown in. But again, he is getting older and his children have no intention of following in fathers footsteps. Sooner or later he will retire and his place will probably be taken by a modern trader with his weighing scales but with no real knowledge of or love for the trade, except for what profits might be made.
Readers have probably seen and heard the big black cars touring around the city announcing, E arrivato larrotino! (the knife-grinder is here!). These men expect their customers to bring knives, scissors, etc. to them for treatment. They are a far cry from the traditional knife-grinders who used to trudge from street market to street corner with their home-made Heath-Robinson contraptions, worked by a treadle. One or two of these traditional characters are still plying their trade. One of them, who is to be met almost anywhere in Rome (Ive met him at the Pantheon and at Piazza Vescovio), walks from point to point all day long on each working day. He serves housewives, public markets and shops. He is over 80 now and has no time for the modern car driven young men. They dont understand what they are supposed to be doing the knives they sharpen dont last. My knives remain sharp for months because I know how to treat them. So be it, but he cant last much longer and another traditional artisan will become a quaint memory.
The chair-mender specialises in split cane or rush bottomed chairs. He uses only natural materials and has a regular workshop but fewer and fewer customers each year. Modern chairs of the same kind are made with synthetic, plastic materials that need repairs less often. His natural products are much more beautiful but they are also more fragile especially when there are small children around. He hasnt retired yet so to find more customers he goes looking for them by setting up a small store on the pavement in areas where people might still have, and want to keep, original, natural materials. He takes the order, collects the chairs from the home and delivers the finished articles about a week later. By this means he manages to stay in business. But it wont last, he says, and he knows that before many more years have passed he will retire and leave the field to industrially-produced, synthetic, materials.
And then there is the umbrella-man. He used to have his own workshop where he repaired umbrellas all day long. This was in the days when an umbrella was a prized and often expensive possession. The problem here is that nowadays umbrellas are mass produced and cost as little as e2 or e3, so repairs can easily cost more than the new article. He has given up his permanent workshop and scrapes a living by, yet again, setting up a small pavement stall on street corners hoping for customers who might want their old umbrellas repaired. He wont last much longer.
All things must pass and what about the old lamplighter of long, long ago?