by Roderick Conway Morris

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Metro Italia
Fontane delle Tartarughe in Piazza Mattei in Rome

A discriminating shopper's guide

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 10 January 2003


You have a day off in Rome, or the best part of a day, and want to find some gifts for your nearest and dearest, friends and colleagues, of a kind that would be hard to find elsewhere.

Whether Rome's mile-long central thoroughfare, Via del Corso, begins or ends at Piazza Venezia is a moot point given that the sequence of the street numbers runs all the way down one side of the road and then up the other. But here it is that, famously, a lone gesticulating policeman perched on a podium in the middle of the road, controls, or fails to control, the city's entire traffic system. In any case, apart from this entertaining spectacle, Piazza Venezia, or more exactly the corner of it at the foot of the Campidoglio, or Capitoline Hill, is a good starting point.

A broad flight of steps leads up to the Piazza Campidoglio, designed by Michelangelo and flanked by the recently refurbished Capitoline Museums and Rome's City Hall. Off to the right is Palazzo Caffarelli, the top floor of which is occupied by the Caffé Capitolino, one of Rome's newest and most attractive watering holes. The panoramic view from the spacious terrace is one of the city's finest.

The main shopping district with the swank (as well as some frankly bargain-basement) fashion stores is along the central stretch of Via del Corso and the regular grid of streets running off this part of it toward Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps. So you head for there, right? Wrong.

For it is on the other side of the Corso, amid the picturesque winding lanes and piazzas between the Corso and the Tiber that you will find many of the places that the Romans themselves rely on when they are looking for something unusual and special.

Descending the hill, you turn left down the Via del Teatro di Marcello and then right into Piazza Campitelli. This is the first of a series of charming old Roman squares, streets, fountains and monuments you will have the pleasure of seeing on your shopping mission.

Piazza Lovatelli and Via dei Funari lead on to the Piazza Mattei and its playful 16th-century fountain with figures of naked pagan youths eternally assisting wildly paddling bronze turtles over the rim of its brimming basin. Via dei Falegnami carries on to Via Arenula and a wide square, Largo Argentina, off which runs Via dei Barbieri, our first port of call. At No. 7, behind an anonymous-looking side door of the grand Palazzo on the left, is Spazio Sette (Space 7). This is a favorite Roman resort for one-stop gift shopping. Here you will find a big range of eye-catching Italian kitchen utensils and tableware; decorative and practical objects in ceramic, porcelain, glass, metal and wood; jewelry, and office gizmos, with prices starting at less than €1.

On the other side of Largo Argentina - the sunken center of which features early Roman ruins inhabited by a colony of cats - Corso Vittorio Emanuele runs back toward Piazza Venezia and the first street to the left is Via del Gesu. On the corner is the Linearea Art and Museum Store, which has an extensive selection of posters and prints.

At the far end of Via del Gesu, at No. 73, is Simona de Cubellis's and Vivianna Violo's Materie. They specialize in contemporary designer jewelry, scarves, bags and other accessories obtained directly from some 40 artists and craftsmen. Prices begin at around €30.

Via del Pie di Marmo cuts across the end of Via del Gesu and at Nos. 21-22 is one of the city's most popular institutions, the Confetteria Moriondo & Gariglio. For more than 130 years they have been making homemade chocolates, crystallized fruits and other bonbons, still regarded by their devoted clientele as without equal anywhere.

This street leads to Piazza della Minerva beyond which is the Emperor Hadrian's second-century Pantheon, one of the most perfectly preserved of all Roman monuments. From Piazza della Rotonda, in front of this magnificent edifice, Via Giustiniani takes you in the direction of Piazza Navona, the former Roman stadium transformed by Borromini's Sant'Agnese church and Bernini's Four Rivers Fountain into a baroque masterpiece. At Nos. 82-84 Piazza Navona, is De Sanctis (founded in 1890), which has an excellent choice from all over Italy of traditional ceramics for everyday and decorative use, from classic designs from Abruzzi to colorful modern lines from Sicily. Prices start at around €20.

On Corso Rinascimento at No. 72 is Ai Monasteri, another handy store with products from the length and breadth of the peninsula. Owned by the fourth generation of the Nardi family, the store retails a wide range of produce from Italy's monastic orders, including wines, liqueurs, olive oils, honeys and jams, to scents, soaps, cosmetics and age-old remedies.

Returning along Via delle Copelle in the direction of the Pantheon, you come to Via della Maddalena. At No. 50 is the Ferramenta, a simple, workaday ironmongers shop, but it also has a diverting choice of hand-crafted terra-cottas - from panels based on ancient Roman originals, suns, moons, masks, fruit and fish, to clocks, money boxes, lamps and amphora. Prices range from €2 to €50.

A couple of minutes' walk to the north, beyond the Parliament House, at 41 Via Campo Marzio, is another source of handmade gifts, Campo Marzio Penne. Here you can find not only stylish ballpoints, fountain pens and inks, but also watches; colorful, soft-leather-bound notebooks; photo albums; CD cases, and seal-and-wax sets. Prices start at €10.

A few steps farther north brings you to Via del Leone, which runs into Piazza Borghese, home of the old books and prints open-air market. It is still possible to find some good things here, notably engravings of Italian views, but as in any market of this kind you need to take your time and follow your instincts. Claudia Bonino, for example, has been setting new standards with her smart new, user-friendly stall, Gioielli de Carta (Paper Jewels). She specializes in original drawings, watercolors and autographed letters by artists, writers and musicians, from the 16th century and on. Carefully selected, in prime condition, they make for unique gifts.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023