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The World Goes to Market



Anne Schiller: ‘Merchants in the City of Art, Work, Identity, and Change in a Florentine Neighborhood’, 2016, University of Toronto Press, 152 pages, ISBN 978-14426-3461-9.

Anne Schiller’s ‘Merchants in the City of Art’ satisfies the demands of an anthropological study. It approaches Florence’s central market of San Lorenzo down the rich byways of ancient scholarship and recent research. The subtitle suggests no weekend stroll in search of the picturesque. The general reader, however, need not fear. Schiller’s methodology presents a refreshing double-view. The frowning scholar goes hand-in-hand with an empathetic twin who delights in being part of the life her curiosity has drawn her into. The anthropologist’s ‘participant observation’ is nothing less than the respectable, academic cousin of gonzo journalism. Hunter S. Thompson rode with the Hell’s Angels so that he could tell us about them.

Partaking observers live among the subjects of their research, master the ins and outs of the language spoken, and have a hand in everyday routines as well as exceptional events. Their interviews, in moments between work and play, are talk with colleagues. Their writing underpins the hard facts gathered with the unspoken attitudes they have uncovered.

Schiller began learning Italian as an undergraduate, and from 1999 to 2005 visited Florence every year to perfect her language skill. For ten summers from 1999 she also served as resident director of a study-abroad program based at the Lorenzo de’ Medici Institute. The San Lorenzo Market on her doorstep caught her imagination and led her to formulate a research project. Her anthropological fieldwork began officially in 2005. Eight undergraduates from the study-abroad program helped as field research assistants. Schiller was taken on by a family of market vendors as a voluntary sales assistant. (She has so far logged over a thousand hours in direct sales  of artisanal handwork.) The subject of her study would be the lives of the vendors working in the market. On Schiller’s second day of work, the market erupted in a spontaneous demonstration. The vendors aired a discontent that revealed their mortal fear for the future.

The disturbance highlighted what Schiller calls the market’s identity crisis. Centuries old, with well established norms and traditions, its licensed vendors had always been seen as members of a  proud profession boasting a recognisable but unwritten code of behavior. In recent decades, however, the increased mobility of the world’s population and goods—in a word globalization—has brought changes that have undermined the old ways. Along with Florence itself, the market has grown as immigration and tourism increased no end. In the face of change the licensed vendors were in disarray (“moral panic”, p.109). Foreigners had acquired licenses and unlicensed vendors of all sorts had upset age-old patterns. ‘Infringers’, often undocumented immigrants, circulated making quick sales before the police could stop them.

The vendors felt they were losing footing, being invaded, overwhelmed. Theirs was something of a dilemma. Change brought an increased number of international tourists as customers, but had also initiated a new kind of competition from sellers who ignored established ways. Not surprising, the reaction of the licensed Florentine and Italian vendors was confused. Some merely called for more regulations and better law enforcement. Others saw the problem larger. The former manner of dealing with colleagues and customers was fraying, becoming rough and rude. Civility had to be restored. This broadened into a call for the return to the market of ‘Florence-ness’. However, as Schiller found, everyone had a different idea of what constituted the essential Florence-quality.actually “Consensus among merchants, customers, residents, and local officials remains elusive.” (p.18) Her book is an attempt to understand why agreement is so difficult.

To call it heritage would seem to beg the question. Everyone has his own version of what was good in the past. Is it artistic and architectural splendor that needs to be honored? The vendors didn't think so when they were asked to disengage a monument and lose market space. Some wanted to hear more Italian in the market, even the local dialect. Others suggested cutting back the market’s size and whirlwind rhythm to win back Florentine shoppers who were put off by its foreignness and feverish pace. Sadly, perhaps the only answer is for the vendors to (heroically) accept change while struggling to check the lawlessness that has come with size and heterogeneity. Schiller, the anthropologist, lays out the many sides of the problem. As a personally involved sympathiser, she notes various community solutions that have been invoked.

The fate of the central markets of our great cities is more than a footnote to urban commercial life. Parisians have never got over the trauma of the movement of ‘les Halles' to the suburbs in 1971. They were left with a great hole in the ground that their hesitation to fill surely came from an awareness that nothing—and certainly not a sleek shopping mall—could replace what they had lost. Even in a small Italian city like Lecce, one still hears echoes of the distress felt when its central market was moved to the outskirts. Talk of the loss fixes on the disappearance of the fine Art Nouveau market structure (‘la Tettoia Liberty’). One guesses, however, that citizens feel much more than a building had been taken from them.

Anthropology doesn’t take sides. By disentangling complexities it furnishes the wherewithal for decisions. Anne Schiller plays her role of anthropologist with scruple. But her twin, the woman who, rain or shine, worked with the beleaguered vendors of San Lorenzo, can’t withhold her affection and support: “…what some of them wish for is as simple as the chance to continue enjoying the ‘lovely side’ of their lives from what is, for now, a precarious perch on bumpy asphalt in the heart of one of the most beautiful cities in the world.” (p.139)

Peter Byrne

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