It looked like a lop-sided pine cone except that instead of a cluster of leaf panels there was a clump of uneven stalks in pure silver, encrusted with tiny rain drops of glinting diamonds and pearls, fresh from final dusting under a noisy, high-pressure blower.
It was the latest creation to emerge from the busy workshop of Fausto Maria Franchi, goldsmith, silversmith and sculptor, artist in precious metals and wood, an artisan picked out by the Rome chamber of commerce as an example of the phenomenon known as the Rome model, the formula behind a city that is today booming as nowhere else in Italy, far outstripping even Milan in its rate of growth.
Newspapers link the landslide victory of the mayor Walter Veltroni and his left-wing crew in the recent municipal elections precisely to the money-spinning success of the Rome model. Veltroni won in 18 of the 19 municipalities, including the depressed zones of Laurentina 38, Corviale and Quartaccio (all featured in Wanted in Rome this year), his sole defeat being in the 20th municipality in Romes northern sector, the traditionally right-wing Cassia area, taken by the Alleanza Nazionale candidate.
So how does Franchis cluttered workshop, an easy walk from the Spanish Steps, fit into the picture? Everything you see around you was made here on the spot; every piece is different from the rest, each a personal statement. We make nothing in series. We work with passion, not just to make money. To make things, you use the imagination of childhood, even though the results may risk looking ridiculous. We work painstakingly. If youre worried about how long something will take to do, you limit yourself. And then we stick to methods nobody else has time for today chiselling, for example, and enamelling (known more picturesquely in Italian as smalto a fuoco or fire-glazing). So we have no competitors and have captured our own niche in the market, catering mainly to regular foreign visitors.
In other words, his shop stands for innovation, originality and daring, specialising in what is unique about Rome, in his case the citys very individual brand of craftsmanship.
Franchi, an eager 70-year-old and in the jewellery business in Rome for 40 years, tried to describe the model, though it eludes snappy definition. He saw it as the outcome of a new spirit of collaboration between the different bodies in the city, all working together to boost Romes wealth and living standards. Its a synergy involving everybody from the council to the unions, from industry and the confederations.
The idea now, Franchi went on, is to create many, many Romes during Veltronis next five years, by getting activities so far concentrated in the centre to spread outwards, by creating new openings for them, which in turn should distribute well-being more fairly and produce more of a balance in the city. Kids will one day no longer be flocking to discos in the centre. Theyll have their own on hand. A start has been made with the new theatre in Tor Bella Monaca.
Franchi himself, for instance, was deep into a project to open up a brand new centre for Roman craftsmanship in the city, including a training school for the young, so that workshops chased out of the centre by fast-foods and the like could start up again elsewhere.
Rome is modernising at great speed because everything we do is aimed at combining economic growth with social cohesion since the two are inseparable and go hand-in-hand, the mayor explained in a recent article in Fondazione magazine.
What is the link between the two? Well, if you live out in Quartaccio, lets say, and your way of life improves, you have more propensity to spend, which in turn gives a little fillip to commerce, explained Georgia Mirkos from the chamber of commerce press office. Its a psychological process as well. If youre depressed, youre not likely to go out and buy a new pink hat are you? Everything is intertwined.
The results of the complex concept have been spectacular. Romes growth has been far faster than in the rest of the country, boasted a communiqu put out by the city government after the release of figures in May this year. Nobody would have dreamt ten years ago that Romes gross domestic product could have shot up this year to 4.1 per cent as against only 0.4 per cent in Milan, marvelled the magazine Il Socialista. Rome and Lazio have now conquered first place in the national economy.
By the end of 2005, a total of 511,112 new businesses had been registered in Rome, some 9 per cent of the national total, the magazine recalled. The city also poured more than 100 million in the sales tax IVA into the state coffers, largely due to a jump of 1.5 million in the number of tourists visiting the city in 2005, a 10.3 per cent increase on 2004. And on 4 June this year there were a record 1,004 landings and take-offs from Fiumicino airport compared with a daily average of 900.
What the figures do show, in fact, is that free pop concerts, big art shows and the citys museums, in short culture, are now acting as a major stimulus to growth, leading to more jobs and better-off families. The statistics produced a surprise as well: as many as 31,000 employers are from outside the European Union, that is about 10 per cent of the total, most of them hailing from African and east European countries, a fact doubtless recognised through the inclusion of a Congolese journalist, Jean-Leonard Touadi from Brazzaville, in the new city government its first non-white member as the person responsible for universities and youth policies.
Theres one point Ive forgotten, remembered Franchi on the doorstep of his workshop. What binds us all together in this new adventure is a huge love for Rome itself. That has been the real driving force.