As Rome’s historical retailers struggle to stay afloat in a world of fast fashion and cheap imported goods, one local is championing her city’s artisanal scene through walking tours, events, classes and performances. Here, Simona Basili shares some of her favourite artisanal retailers in Rome.
Simona Basili knew she had to do something when her local blacksmith didn’t greet her during her daily dog walk. Not that she had done anything to upset him – he simply wasn’t there. Yet another traditional Roman shop had closed down.
Basili was experiencing this decline first-hand; working with her media and communication agency in the centre of Rome, she could see the different shops dropping like flies. “In a place where streets were named after different artisans – via dei Leutari (lutist street), via dei Sediari (chair-makers street) – you could hardly find their shops anymore.”
That’s when she had the idea of founding Botteghiamo, a project that has the goal of safeguarding and highlighting the artisanal scene in Italy – starting from her hometown of Rome. “At first, it wasn’t easy,” Basili explained, “The artisans were wary, worried I was just going to exploit them or something, but then the project started gaining traction and they gave in. Now we’re working with nine rioni (Rome’s neighbourhoods), on top of a couple of cities in the South of Italy.”
Today, Basili and her business partner, Giuseppina Ascione, take part in institutional campaigns alongside the artisans to make sure these historical shops stay open. The soul of Botteghiamo lies in their tours, in Italian and English, which travellers and locals can join to discover the beautiful shops hidden in Rome’s winding alleys. Taking the tour, you’ll get to see masters at work, learn more about them and their craft and, of course, have the opportunity to buy some of their wares. You can also take classes to make your own artisanal piece, attend performances and be the first to know about special events or markets. All tours and events are centred on the fine, hand-drawn Botteghiamo maps, illustrated by local artist Mario Camerini; you can even buy them as a print as a unique meta-souvenir.
Let Basili guide you through a tour featuring incredible shops where you’ll be able to purchase a piece of Rome and its craft scene. Follow her tips through the rioni of Parione, Regola and Ponte and marvel at the skills of these artisans, both those long-established and the ones who are newer to the city. Once you’re there, say that Botteghiamo sends you – you’ll be greeted like a long-lost friend.
Start your tour at the Antica Libreria Cascianelli, a bookshop that Claudio Cascianelli’s family managed for four generations, located in an ex-ecclesiastic haberdashery which once made robes for Rome’s religious orders. This ancient, charming shop is every bookworm’s dream, shelves stacked high with antique volumes and vintage prints for sale. “The shop is insane,” says Basili. “You can find so many quirky things, that go from an authentic diving helmet to an antique school desk.” This fascinating place, home to secret doors hidden in bookcases, and rare first editions, will make you feel like you’re on the set of a magical film. “They still use the original rail mechanism to operate the retractable store window,” explains Basili, emphasising the rich history of the bookshop. “It’s something I’ve never seen anywhere else.”
Fabio Bordi creates incredible Roman mosiacs in his shop | Courtesy of Fabio Bordi
Passing in front of Luigi Sasso’s shop – itself one of the oldest barber shops in Rome – you’ll arrive in the rione Ponte, where Fabio Bordi’s mosaic shop is located. Basili explains that it’s a lot harder to get into this career, as Bordi did, without a family history backing it up. “I really admire people like Bordi. I find him very brave – he decided to persevere with his craft and made it more appealing to younger generations, too.” Bordi specialises in cut mosaic and weaved micro mosaic, two traditionally Roman techniques. He started his business out of passion, and now he makes stunning jewellery, religious-themed work and what he calls artistic mosaics – mosaic reproductions of famous works of art or photographs. You can also commission a personalised mosaic – like one of his clients did with a portrait of their cat – which makes for a unique souvenir from your time in Rome.
SPAZIOiF's Roman shop sells thoughtfully designed fashion accessories | Courtesy of SpazioiF
“We always try to highlight young craftsmen – because that’s the problem, you know, young people don’t do this job anymore, so it gets lost,” explains Basili, introducing her work with Irene Ferrara, a young designer and artisan from Palermo, Sicily. “She’s just so creative, and she makes her ideas come to life with her masterly craft. It’s fascinating.” In her showroom, with the help of her sister and business partner Carla, Ferrara creates handmade shoes, accessories and jewellery, each designed with a Sicilian flair. The tarta-ruga (turtle) is one of her most outstanding pieces – a genuinely versatile accessory that transitions seamlessly from bag to backpack. Ferrara is also always coming up with new designs, so her showroom is more than worth a visit.
Everyone knows Italian culture is deeply rooted in food and wine, and that’s why an osteria, (tavern) could not be left out of Basili’s tour. At Enoteca il Piccolo you’ll be greeted by Giancarlo, known as Il Piccolo (the tiny). It’s a description that can also be applied to the small, cosy wine bar. He runs the place with his son Riccardo, and together they give a warm, welcoming service; they can recommend the perfect wine to enjoy by the glass in the bar, or to take home in bottle form. This wine bar is classified as a historical shop by the city of Rome, which means that it’s been there for over 50 years and managed by the same family all that time. What’s really special about this place, though, are the regular visitors. “This is a hub in the neighbourhood,” says Basili, “You can find locals drinking their glass of wine over cheese and meat boards, chatting about life and politics. It’s really hard not to stop for a glass of red or white every time you walk by.”
Intricate fabrics are used to design home furnishings at Valli | Courtesy of Valli
Valli is another historical shop – it’s been running since 1860, and ownership spans over three generations. Nowadays, this home-furnishing shop is helmed by Leda Rocchi, who follows the traditional artisanal techniques but makes sure to constantly change up the assortment of goods on offer to keep it fresh and appealing. “They create custom carpets, but also sell lots of handmade pieces that you can simply purchase and take home,” Basili says. Today, you’ll find much of their work made with newer, more innovative materials like bamboo and coconut fibre, too, but keep their origins in mind: Valli is the only place where you can buy the truly authentic storini, traditional Roman window blinds made to measure out of natural fibres.
Alessandro Nicotra di San Giacomo founded his first studio in 1999, with the intention of creating a modern and entrepreneurial approach to goldsmith’s art. “They work with precious materials like fabric, it’s so unique,” Basili says. Tessitore di gioielli, in fact, literally means jewel weaver, and you’ll get where the name comes from looking at his intricately crafted pieces. With a range of prices and the option of having a custom-designed jewellery piece, Nicotra di Giacomo’s unique creations are the ideal gift for a friend, a family member or, of course, yourself.
Passing Stefano the Florist (who decorates churches and houses with his creations), you’ll find yourself beside the Antico Forno di Campo de’ Fiori. This historical forno (bakery) isn’t just a place to buy bread – it’s an institution. Run by the same family for three generations, it’s now headed by star chef Dino Bartocci, one of the biggest names in Roman bread-making. They only use the best ingredients, and it shows in the finished product. Their most popular item is the Roman pizza al taglio, designed to be eaten when walking and very different from the classical round number you’d eat sitting down at a table. “You cannot leave Rome without having tried one of their stuffed pizzas,” affirms Basili.
Umberto Giovagnoli's workshop welcomes guests to a world of wicker | Courtesy of Umberto Giovagnoli
Umberto Giovagnoli is a wicker and basket weaver, a craft he learned from his father and has since passed down to his daughters. His work is now displayed in the same shop his dad opened in 1960, continuing to sell handmade objects made of wicker, rattan and cane. “You can find chairs, bags, hats but also picnic baskets and rug beaters,” explains Basili. “I’d recommend you go into the shop, as you can see the pieces being made, and it’s a very interesting process.” With the wicker homewares and accessories becoming more and more fashionable, Giuncart is definitely worth a visit to pick up a one-of-a kind piece.
The last stop on Basili’s Culture Trip itinerary is a visit to Massimo Maria Melis, a goldsmith like no other. He used to be a set and costume designer and also worked as a graphic designer before realising his true calling. “He became a goldsmith almost by chance. He has a passion for Ancient Rome, and that’s how he started. He makes jewellery with antique stones and Imperial designs, that’s why he’s known all around the world.” In his shop, you can find unique and stunning pieces that feature emperors’ cameos and natural stones, including necklaces and bracelets, cufflinks, brooches and custom jewels.