Tourism is big business in Rome. I read somewhere that 7-10 million people visit the city each year. Everywhere you go there are entrepreneurs trying to capitalize on this market. In restaurants there are menus in multiple languages, you find people turning their apartments into bed & breakfasts, then there are countless souvenir shops and stands that sell plastic replicas of the iconic monuments of the city like the Colosseum, Michelangelo’s David and his Pieta, (and even some that are found in the Louvre in Paris, like the Venus de Milo – but, who’s keeping track and its a famous statue, right) as well as the requisite religious souvenirs like pictures of the pope, statues of the Madonna, statues of Jesus, and of course rosaries in every size, shape, and color.
Then the are the entrepreneurs with artistic souls who dress in various types of costumes—cowboys, mummies, the Invisible Man, the Statue of Liberty—and position themselves in tourist frequented spots around town waiting to be admired and subsequently tipped for their creativity or tipped if you would like to have a photo taken with them.
My friend Susan has some great photos of a few of her favorites here.
I have seen this group in other European cities and more recently in Manhattan, however, particular to Rome are a group who dress as in costumes of ancient Rome and frequent the Colosseum and the area around the forum. In contrast to the mummies, cowboys, etc who typically don’t move and their goal seems to be to mimic actual statues, this group dressed as ancient Romans, who are often referred to as the ‘gladiators’ (though my friend Laura recently explained to me that they are actually dressed as centurions who were members of the Roman army) actively solicit clients and ham it up for the tourists.
I took a few photos this afternoon and as you can see not only can you pose standing beside a fully-clad-for-battle-centurion, or Julius Caesar (who I caught pausing for a cigarette break) they will also let you pose with their swords or laurel crowns.
According to the BBC, few years ago, tourists were complaining about how much theses ‘gladiators’ charge for posing for pictures and also that when you got close to them, you noticed that their uniforms were plastic on the shabby side. As a result of these complaints, the city decided to put in place regulations so now these performers have to follow a strict dress code with metal head gear and authentic breast plates and tunics as well as and charge standardized rates. As you can see from these pictures, they now wear quite serious costumes.
Another type of entrepreneur I’ve run into a lot around Rome are the people that position themselves at tourist sites and walk through the crowds selling items ranging from handbags, to flowers, to garlic, and tissues. For the most part, this group is all male and appears to be from various Third World countries. What fascinates me about this is that there are different ethnic groups selling different types of goods. So, the Africans sell fake designer purses (as they do in Manhattan), and the East Indians sell flowers and heads of garlic and packets of tissue.
I don’t mind the Africans, they either wander through the crowd showing off their armloads of fake Prada and Gucci bags or spread their wares on a blanket on the sidewalk and call after you “pretty bag for you, good price”. But, the flower sellers, or ‘pushers’ you might call them, is another matter completely.
Recently my friends from Philadelphia, Mete and Larry, came for a visit. One evening Mete suggested we walk around the city and take a look at some of the monuments that are lit at night. Here is a picture of Mete and Larry in front of the Trevi Fountain.
If you take a close look at the photo, you can see one of the flower ‘pushers’ on the far right. Here is their scam at the Trevi Fountain: they approach every women walking towards the fountain with a man (it doesn’t happen if you are alone or with a group women as far as I can tell) and they thrust (quite abruptly I might add) a rose into your hand and then look towards the guy you are with to pay for it. I guess the idea is that the woman will get sentimental – Trevi Fountain, rose, their boyfriend, husband, partner, whatever – and the man will be forced to purchase the rose. What amazes me is that this ploy actually works and I saw that many women walking around the fountain holding roses.
Obviously, Mete and Larry and I presented something of a problem for the ‘pushers’ because they couldn’t figure out which of the guys to manipulate. But, they took their best shot and some looked to Mete and some to Larry as they tried to shove the flowers in my hands. After the third approach, I thought Mete (typically not a violent guy) was going to deck one of them, so I told the guys to walk off on their own. I found them again on a less heavily trafficked part of the fountain where I took this picture. As you can see, the unsuspecting flower ‘pusher’ is leaning over the edge of the wall looking at the fountain and missing a perfect opportunity to sell either Mete or Larry flowers to give the other one.
But, this all raises a larger question for me. As I mentioned earlier, its only the East Indians who are pushing flowers and only the Africans who are selling purses. I don’t know how this all works, I’d like to think that there is a simple explanation. When my Italian relatives came to the U.S. they found jobs through other newly emigrated Italians so many would end up on the same construction site or in the same factory. But, I worry that there is something more sinister happening and that poor men from a third world country are plied to flee their current situations and come to Rome with the agreement that they must pay off their traveling and lodging fees by selling goods to tourists. I don’t know the answer to this but perhaps some Italian anthropologist is looking into these questions as I write this.