THIRD LETTER FROM ROME: Throwing down the shopping gauntlet in Rome: around the Spanish Steps and Mo
Buying one’s first pair of leather gloves in Italy is a rite of passage. I had been told to wait until I reached Florence but as a young girl, I couldn’t wait. My anticipation outpaced my itinerary.
So, while I can tell you where to buy silk scarves and supple leather handbags in Florence, my only intelligence about gloves is Roman.
That, and stories about my wide eyed, breathless introduction to Via Dei Condotti in Rome, is the subject of this post.
If you are a shopper (actually best if you’re not), you may want to see the rarefied shopping district at the base of the Spanish Steps.
Via Dei Condotti, usually referred to as just Via Condotti, is its entrance point. Go early in the day and never on the weekends – far too many tourists who'll get in your way.
PHOTO CREDIT: early morning in Rome. The imposing Trinità dei Monti Church at the top, the obelisk. Then the Scalinata - the 135 steps to the Piazza di Spagna and the Fontana della Barcaccia. On the right of the photo is the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, in the opposite angle is the Babington's Tea Room, founded in 1893.
In Roman times it was one of the streets that crossed the ancient Via Flaminia and enabled people who crossed the Tiber to reach the Pincio Hill. In those early days, the road was known as ‘Via Trinitatis’ and was changed by Pope Gregor X111 around 1580 to better reflect its ancient use as a water conduit or channel that carried water to the Baths of Agrippa. (No cheap jokes, please, about money going down the same gurgler.)
Today, it is the street which contains the greatest number of Rome-based Italian fashion labels, known as griffe, equivalent to Paris' Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré or London's Bond Street. Expect to see Dior, Gucci, Valentino, Hermès, Tod's, Zegna, et al in and around Via Condutti.
I am no longer dazzled by the names and I prefer the side streets where heavily backed, up and coming designers show their stuff. More about them later.
Being near the Spanish steps, the street is visited by large numbers of tourists. There is a shocking incongruity seeing tourists in shorts and sandals in the Ferragamo sanctuary or turning over scarves in Hermes, but now I’m just being a snob. I’m prepared to believe that some people don’t like shopping but others love the rarefied atmosphere of voices hushed by cashmere. Don’t judge.
The sanctity of the street is always under attack. In May 1986, fashion designer Valentino took McDonald's “Hamburgery” to court, complaining of "noise and disgusting odours" below his six-story palazzo in the vicinity of Via Condotti. But to the dismay of the Romans and Italians countrywide, McDonalds has successfully remained to this day, albeit with certain peculiarly Italian caveats. The saga of this first McDonald in Italy, saw the birth of Carlo Petrini's The Slow Food Movement which is another specific Italian story.
So let’s approach Via Dei Condotti majestically and start at the top of the Spanish Steps, in Italian, La Scalinata di Trinita’ dei Monti. These steps connect two piazze - the Piazza di Spagna at the base and Piazza Trinità dei Monti, dominated by the Trinità dei Monti church at the top. The monumental stairway of 135 steps, was designed by architects Francesco de Sanctis and Alessandro Specchi and paid for by French diplomat Étienne Gueffier who wanted to link the Bourbon Spanish Embassy and the Trinità dei Monti church that was under the patronage of the Bourbon kings of France, to the Holy See in Palazzo Monaldeschi located below. Even today, the church and its surrounding area (including the Villa Medici at the top of the steps) are the responsibility of the French State.
In front of the church stands the Obelisco Sallustiano, one of the many obelisks in Rome, moved here in 1789. It is a Roman obelisk in imitation of Egyptian ones, originally constructed in the early years of the Roman Empire for the Gardens of Sallust near the Porta Salaria.
From this lofty position we descend the 135 steps to the Piazza di Spagna at the base. Here is the early Baroque fountain called Fontana della Barcaccia ("Fountain of the Longboat"), built in 1627–29 by Pietro Bernini, father of a more famous son, Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
In the corner of the Piazza, on one's left hand as one completes the steps, is the house where English poet John Keats lived and died in 1821. It is now a museum, the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, dedicated to his memory, full of memorabilia of the English Romantic generation. In the opposite angle is the Babington's Tea Room, founded in 1893. These both make a discreet English statement in a quintessential part of Italy.
PHOTO CREDIT: tea and scones in Babington's Tea Room, Rome. What?
Fortified perhaps with tea and scones from Babingtons, we enter Via Dei Condotti itself. Its evolution as a shopping mecca belies its stately, elegant palazzi such as Palazzo Maruscelli at Number 11 and further down the street the 18th C church of Ss. Trinita’ degli Spagnoli with its impressive concave Baroque facade.
It was the jewellery house of Bulgari who gingerly established the street as a destination when Sotirios Bulgari with his two sons, Costantino and Giorgio moved their store to Via Condotti in 1905. Soon, the other houses followed suit.
Given that I no longer have the necessary disposable income nor the nerves of steel required to be a high fashion roller, what am I doing in this esoteric shopping haven?
I have come to buy another pair of gloves.
My shop of choice is Di Cori. Piazza di Spagna 53. They only sell gloves. Driving gloves, cashmere lined gloves, gloves in every imaginable colour. On my first visit, a gentleman, perhaps Sergio Di Cori himself, showed me how to put on gloves so as not to distort the soft leather. A life lesson for a gormless young woman.
Just further along Piazza di Spagna at 61 you will find another shop selling gloves exclusively, Sermoneta. I love this place too, but I remain loyal to Di Cori.
If you've timed your walk well, you'll need a coffee just about now. Caffé Greco (or Antico Caffé Greco) at Via dei Condotti 86 was established in 1760 and only Caffè Florian in Venice (established in 1720) is older. A Greek trader, Nicola della Maddalena, set up his coffee shop in the midst of a world wide shortage of coffee beans. Cleverly, they managed to sell their genuine coffee to their patrons (while other shops substituted chicory) by decreasing the cup size and so they established the caffe ristretto in a tiny coffee cup.
PHOTO CREDIT: Caffe' Greco, Via Dei Condutti, 86
Caffe' Greco: old world charm and good coffee. Wikipedia.
Now, to get away from the maddening crowds (I am not quoting Thomas Hardy), we can walk over to Via Margutta 11, made famous by Gregory Peck whose apartment was on this street in Roman Holiday.
PHOTO CREDIT: Via Margutta. Roman Holiday. A quiet shopping street. Here, we’ll find some quirky treasures.
If you need a classic, solid bag, a retro wallet or belt, Saddlers Union is the place. While we’re on Margutta, I have the best souvenir for you to take home. Maurizio Grossi will dispatch a torso, full sized statue or bas relief in marble. Or, you could buy an imitation marble pomegranate, figs and chestnuts – a better proposition if you are carrying everything home yourself.
PHOTO CREDIT: MAURIZIO GROSSI, Via Margutta, 109.
In the little side streets away from Via Condutti you will find calm, urbane pockets of artisan style. Via del Babuino, for instance has loads of edgy design studios. To keep out time wasting 'tourists', the shops often respond only to discreet inquiries or appointment times but there is no obligation to buy and there is always someone happy to talk about the studio's philosophy and the artists' work. Such an atelier is
My Cup of Tea on Via Del Babuino, 65 which features new designers, jewellery and art. If you are in the market for fine antiques, maps and estate jewellery you'll lose yourself happily for a couple of hours on this street alone.
If labels do nothing for you, a five minute walk will take you to one of my favourite Roman neighbourhoods, Monti. This old neighbourhood has always held a certain 'boho chic' charm and there are many alleyways to discover. I like the vintage shops on Via del Boschetto. Along with the vintage clothes there are also stylish new comers to the fashion scene, studios selling hand made shoes. I have even bought second hand leather gloves here.
PHOTO CREDIT: Vintage leather gloves, Via del Boschetto, Monti.