For the photographer Francesco Pergolesi, his hometown of Spoleto, Italy, is synonymous with the mom-and-pop shops that pepper its streets. When he returned home after studying in Rome, he noticed that some of the shops had started closing down because of big chain shopping centers that had opened in the suburbs. Saddened by the change, Pergolesi set out to capture the shops and their keepers, a project which turned into his series Heroes.
Italy’s family-run shops sell handmade leather goods, buttons, and textiles of all kinds–and in the touristy town centers of Florence, Venice, and Rome, they can seem quaint and kitschy. But these kinds of specialized shops have been an economic mainstay in Italy for centuries–and they were on the scene when the roots of European capitalism emerged during the Renaissance.
Pergolesi’s photographs, while taken over the last three years, are a far cry from the department stores, chains, and supermarkets that populate much of the U.S. and Western Europe. In one, a jeweler sits in his hole-in-the-wall shop, studying a gem intently. In another, a seller of curios and paintings looks out at the camera from under a brimmed hat. A third shows a man looking thoughtfully out the open door of his empty knife shop, as if awaiting a customer. The photographs seem to depict another era.
And in a way, they do.
According to the Renaissance scholar Evelyn Welch, all businesses in Italy during the 15th century were family-owned, whether it was a global bank or a flower shop. It was a system based on trust and credit, and shopkeepers placed great care in getting to know their customers, some of whom might only have paid once or twice a year (or, perhaps, waited until they died for debts to be settled). “You [didn’t] trust in brands in the way you understand them today,” Welch says. “You [trusted] in people and places.”
Starting in the 12th century, there were global movements of goods, services, people, and financial transactions that centered around the cities Venice and Florence, and later on in Bruges, London, and Paris–the beginnings of a capitalist system in Europe. While the economy during that time relied on global trade, it was preindustrial. “It’s about human skill and human labor,” Welch said. “One of the things that continues in Italy is the pride in the amazing skill of the handmade. You actually got better value using human capital.”
As Welch writes in her book Shopping in the Renaissance, even Italy’s smallest towns had established marketplaces and permanent shops. During the end of the 16th century in Venice, there was increasing specialization in types of shops and a new emphasis on patents. But by the end of the 17th century, the Italian economy was often thought of as backward or outdated. “You just see a very different economic trajectory in Italy than you see in England and Holland, where the emphasis is on invention in terms of new machines, rather than invention in terms of skills demonstrated by people,” Welch explains.
By the time the 20th century came around, small shops in Italy had increased their economic and political power. According to the consumption historian Jonathan Morris, the sheer number of shopkeepers in Italian society helped them keep a large part of the retail market for themselves. Laws passed by the Italian fascists that were meant to limit the number of shops through regulation ended up reinforcing the shopkeepers’ positions, Morris said. When supermarkets became more common, Italians introduced planning restrictions to preserve the shops in the city centers, he said. Unlike the trends in most European economies, Italy has seen the proportion of shopkeepers increase throughout the 20th century.
But that’s beginning to change. Since the turn of the century, supermarkets and chain stores have begun to take over larger chunks of the retail sector, though they still control a much smaller percentage of the market (about 50%, Morris said) than in most European countries.
Pergolesi’s photographs capture more than moments in the lives of individual shopkeepers. His images recall the institution of Italy’s mom-and-pop shops–a tradition that has shaped the course of Italian history.
[All Photos: © Francesco Pergolesi/courtesy Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago]