Rome Travel Guide

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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Before and After Series: Piazza San Silvestro

It's better, right?  Piazza San Silvestro, located in the heart of commercial and tourist Rome--2 minutes from Galleria Sardi and 5 minutes from the Trevi Fountain--used to be a major bus depot of the open air kind.  Dozens of buses stopped or turned around there.  It was convenient for shoppers, but arguably a waste of a large piazza, not to mention a source of pollution.

And so the authorities decided the bus depot would have to go--indeed, cars, too, would be banned from most of the piazza, which would become a place for pedestrians to chill out, for mothers to walk the baby in the stroller without worrying about traffic, and for tourists to sit down at one of the long, curving benches, have a look at their maps, and admire the piazza's churches.  

Demolition of the bus structures began in 2012.

And here's the result:

Today, people sit in the piazza (though not much in the heat of the day, for there are no umbrellas or other shelters from the sun), and mothers walk their babies, and no doubt tourists are glad to have place to sit and browse their guidebooks for what's in the area.  So in some sense the new piazza works.  But there's something missing, too: energy, a focus of activity, trees, enough people to more or less fill the vastness and give the space proportion--and a place to get relief from the sun.  In some sense, it doesn't work.


Monday, October 9, 2017

A powerful anti-globalization polemic: Edoardo Nesi's "Story of My People"

Prato; the wool factory was just outside of Prato in Narnali
Edoardo Nesi stares at likely illegal Chinese immigrants eating, sleeping and, yes, running machines in the same building where he and his ancestors made "the most beautiful fabrics on earth," but which is now a "filthy industrial shed."  He knows they are "an astonishingly young army of extortion victims who often fail to recognize the depth of the inadequacy of their working condition."

Edoardo Nesi, who has translated David Foster Wallace
and is the author of  a dozen books, now also a politician.
Although only a decade or two has passed, what's in his sight, as he accompanies a raid on this illegal operation, seems light-years away from his life as a young businessman in the late '80s to mid-90s. He relates a life then that "really could be exciting," flying from Florence to Munich, driving a BMW at 170 mph to meet with clients, and back in Florence in the evening, where he would "watch the dizzying back-and-forth of the workers on the loading docks...or have fabric assortment meetings and we were all focused on trying to select the best items for the coming season."

Nesi's description of his beloved Prato, the town outside of Florence that was the heart of the textile industry in Italy, as it goes from the glories of small artisan shops to abandoned land, at best - or worst - inhabited by the Chinese he sees, is perhaps the best argument I've read against globalization.

The author of "Story of My People" belongs to the tradition of Herman Melville--or in Italy Italo Svevo and Primo Levi--that subset of writer/businessperson.  The lyricism Nesi brings to the effects of globalization that he experienced first-hand almost makes the reader weep, weep over fabrics and their makers.

A third generation businessman, Nesi oversaw the sale of his family's business, sold before it went bankrupt.  "I can't manage to get out of my head that '& Figli'--'& Sons' [part of the name of his company]--that seals the end of the woolen mill, that announcement of continuity...I can't say whether I was a sly fox or a miserable coward, whether I did the right thing or betrayed my birthright....Then, of course, I get over it.  I go home and get over it."

Nesi, whose tale of growing up is of a rich, spoiled kid, merges business and philosophy and provides a good take-down of the myth that globalization would bring prosperity to Italy as the Chinese would buy Italian products:  "things didn't go the way they said they would; the Chinese didn't rush out to buy Italian style, they hurried out and produced it themselves."

And he suggests there was another way:  "We should have fought tooth and nail, every inch of the way, just as all the other nations did.  We should have negotiated, negotiated, and negotiated some more."  I have my doubts that this plan would have succeeded.  And I'm certain Nesi glamorizes the conditions of his family's factory and their workers.  Nonetheless, Nesi grabs our attention with his personal story, the story of his people.

In 2011, "Story of My People" was the first non-fiction book to win Italy's Strega Prize.  Translated by Antony Shugaar.

Prato's merchant class dates at least as far back as the middle ages.  Iris Origo's first book is "The Merchant of Prato: Francesco Di Marco Datini, 1335-1410.

And a shout-out to my mother, who in the 1970s took me to Prato to buy me outfits made of those wonderful fabrics.