To say that history is alive, well and lavishly on display in the sprawling city of Rome is something of an understatement. Every turn and corner reveals a new take on the past, not just on the imposing Via dei Fori Imperiali, which commands views of the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the grand Altare della Patria, but in the winding back alleys lined with balconies draped with bougainvillea. Unsurprisingly for a city with such a rich and far-reaching history, Rome is filled with tiny, independent stores that have formed the fabric of the city’s purchasing past and survive to this day, offering a touch of antiquated charm and old-world tradition against the whirring of Vespas and bustle of the city. The Associazione dei Negozi Storici di Eccellenza di Roma (association of historical stores of excellence in Rome), founded in 2008, looks after the interests of these retail treasures, so that new and new and future generations can continue to follow in the footsteps of Rome’s past style connoisseurs.
The first stop on the search into centuries gone by might not look especially ancient, but its legacy is incredible. A meander through the Fabriano store on Via del Babuino – light and airy, with clean, white shelving and elegant parquet flooring – is to peruse the same goods that Michelangelo once sketched on. Fabriano is widely regarded as one of the world’s oldest paper producers. The first Fabriano paper mill was opened in 1264 and the brand describes itself as ‘the cradle of production of modern paper’. Fabriano developed techniques for mass-producing paper and the label’s notebooks and accessories are still made in mills in Italy. For any stationery aficionado, this store is a magnet; the smell alone is heavenly, with crisp sheets of thick, creamy paper housed in handsome leather books. Today, the brand has embraced contemporary design to produce notebooks, photo albums and diaries in an array of zinging colours and modern prints, but the fact remains that investing in a Fabriano journal is to invest in a piece of Italian history.
From the gleaming surroundings of Fabriano, the next stop on this history tour is an altogether different affair; stepping through the door of Antica Erboristeria Romana on Via di Torre Argentina near the Piazza Navona is like taking a time machine back to the 18th century. Walnut panelling, a frescoed ceiling and row upon row of glass jars and bottles lend the effect of venturing into a film set in this herbalist’s emporium. Herbalists were once common in the city but only a few rare examples survive today. Antica Erboristeria Romana was founded in 1752 and potions and lotions are still concocted on site by the Ospici family, which has owned it since 1948 and also offer exotic teas and essential oils that act as a perfect antidote to Rome’s fast pace. Another USP? Not many stores can boast that they’ve had a sonnet written in their honour – 18th-century poet GG Belli was a fan.
Old curiosity shop
The history at nearby Polvere di Tempo (‘Sands of Time’ in English) on Via del Moro may not go back as far (the store is a relative newcomer), but the pieces hand-crafted by the owner Adrian Rodriguez are thoroughly old-school and indicative of another era; curiosities including measuring implements, beautifully crafted sundials and hourglasses, compasses and globes bring a sense of Renaissance Italy to 21st-century life.
The imposing splendour of Rome’s parliament building acts as the backdrop to Tebro on Via dei Prefetti. Tebro has specialised in linen since 1867 (a trip to Italy wouldn’t be complete without indulging in some Italian bedsheets) and has occupied the same premises on Via dei Prefetti ever since. This linen specialist label was one of the first textile labels to mass-produce homeware, bedding and tableware. The store can customise pieces to order, and created table cloths for the dining rooms of Pope John Paul II.
The ecclesiastical link is also in evidence at Cereria Di Giorgio on Via di San Francesco di Sales, one of the city’s most ancient candlemakers. Family-run since 1908, this wax artisan provides candles to the Vatican, from huge cylindrical pieces to elegant tapered kinds in every conceivable colour. Alongside the candles themselves, candleholders, sconces and beautiful packaging mean that hours can be spent idly (and blissfully) lost in here.
And when you’re weary of shopping and suitably furnished with Rome’s finest homeware and accessories? Although the city’s gelaterie battle over who can lay claim to being the oldest, San Crispino on Via della Panetteria is certainly a strong contender. Founded in 1880, it’s become so renowned for having reportedly the ‘best ice cream in Rome’ that it featured in the Julia Roberts film Eat, Pray, Love. There’s certainly something heavenly about how good it tastes.