Shopping in Rome: around the Pantheon and Piazza Navona

by Lee.Marshall

The delightful cobbled lanes around these two Roman landmarks are great places to browse for antiques, design, books, jewellery, and offbeat fashion items in Rome

Here in the heart of the centro storico, shops are hidden down cobbled lanes or stand in the shadow of Ancient Roman monuments and Baroque churches. This is not the place for an intensive retail blitz. But if your idea of shopping heaven is to browse among quirky fashion and accessory boutiques, vintage stores, design shops, antique dealers and bookstores, making discoveries along the way, there is no better hunting ground.

A good place to start is Piazza del Collegio Romano. Though it’s just off busy Via del Corso and around the corner from the seemingly permanent traffic logjam of Piazza Venezia, this long square, sandwiched between the aristocratic Doria Pamphili palace and one of Rome’s top high schools, immediately feels part of a calmer and more intimate city. If you press on in to winding Via del Piè di Marmo – so-called because of the huge marble foot that stands on a plinth a third of the way down, part of a long-lost colossal statue of an emperor – the village-in-the-city atmosphere is stronger still.

You’re going to need some energy for this retail expedition – so look into Moriondo & Gariglio (Via del Pie’ di Marmo 21, 00186 Roma; +39 06 699 0856). a sin-red cocoa boutique where handmade chocolates are displayed like diamond rings. Elaborate party pieces and presentation boxes of chocolates testify to this choc-artisan’s illustrious history – they were once official confectioner to the House of Savoy. They also do delicious things with nuts. In the run-up to Christmas, the shop is full of fur-coated dowagers stocking up on marrons glacés.

A little further on is the first of three boutiques of homegrown Roman designer Susanna Liso’s Le Tartarughe label (Via del Piè di Marmo 17, 00187 Roma; +39 06 679 2240; www.susannalisoperletartarughe.it) . A cult favourite among well-dressed romane, Liso makes clothes that look relaxed and elegant at the same time. There’s an Asian slant to some of her garments, which come both tailored and knitted. Across the road at number 33 is Liso’s accessories store, while there are more off-the-peg clothes from the collection on offer around the corner in Via del Gesù 71A.

Even if you’re not an artist, it’s worth looking into Ditta G. Poggi (Via del Gesù 74, 00187 Roma; +39 06 678 4477; www.poggi1825.it), a historic artists’ supply shop that was founded in 1875. Inside this cave of wonders you’ll find burins and easels, ley figures (those little wooden men used for figure drawing), sable brushes, and rows of jars containing powdered colours like burnt umber, Pompeii red and even lapis lazuli. If you ask garrulous owner Memmo how you actually use these colours to paint the walls of your house, as I once did, he’ll hand you ‘la ricetta della Sovrintendenza’: a recipe involving quicklime and, believe it or not, a dash of milk, that is used by Rome’s heritage department (la Sovrintendenza dei Beni Culturali) when they restore frescoes. It’s exactly the same formula that Late Medieval artist Cennino Cennini recommended in his Libro dell’Arte at the beginning of the 15th century.

Directly opposite, tiny Materie (Via del Gesù 73, 00187 Roma; +39 06 679 3199; www.materieshop.com) is one of those shops that’s all about good taste. The owners source contemporary jewellery from Italian and European designers, with the emphasis on innovative or recycled materials – like a leafy necklace made from old bike tyres. They also carry a few scarves, handbags, and exquisite ceramic vases. Such is the quality of the selection that it’s difficult to come away empty-handed.

At the end of Via del Piè di Marmo you come out into a piazza with a charming centerpiece: Bernini’s sculpture of a winsome baby elephant, bearing on its back an Egyptian obelisk that was unearthed nearby. Turn left here to find two streets that have been colonised by Rome’s clerical outfitters since at least the 18th century. One of the most famous is Gammarelli (Via di Santa Chiara 34, tel +39 06 6880 1314), which traditionally makes all the Pope’s outfits. Whenever there’s a conclave to elect a new Pope, they deliver a small, medium and large set to the Vatican – so the new man, whoever he is, is ready to appear on the balcony and address the waiting crowds in robes that are more or less the right size. This venerable family firm has also developed a cult following around the world for their men’s socks. In fine cotton or Merino wool, these are available in just three colours: priestly black, bishop’s purple and cardinal’s red. I have a friend in New York who orders two pairs of the red ones each year.

Cross the lower end of Piazza Navona to find Piazza Pasquino, location of Rome’s most famous ‘talking statues’ (classical statues used by the populace as bulletin boards for satirical messages and verses directed at the powers-that-be). Just off the compact piazza is SBU (Via di San Pantaleo 68-69; +39 06 6880 2547; www.sbu.it), Rome’s trendiest jeanseria (jeans shop). The worn wooden counters and cast iron columns of this former draper’s provide an ideal, understated setting for the Perfetti brothers’ range of jeans, which are low cut, in light Japanese denim. They also do some very desirable vintage jeans and a range of printed t-shirts, crisp cotton shirts and stylish jackets.

Finally, if you’re feeling flush, head for Massimo Maria Melis (Via dell’Orso 57; +39 06 686 9188; www.massimomariamelis.com), who specialises in gold jewellery in the ‘archaeological’ style: pendants, brooches, rings, necklaces and earrings either imitating or inspired by Etruscan, Greek and Roman originals. It’s a great place to pick up some bling to wear to that Ancient Roman orgy.

More expert advice on Rome

For more shopping advice, read my Shopping in Rome page.

For suggestions on where to stay in Rome, see my Rome Hotels – Award winning expert hotel reviews, from cheap to luxury hotels in Rome page.

Lee.Marshall

I've lived in Rome since 1984. For the last fifteen years, I've made a living as a travel writer specialising in Italy (I'm a contributing editor for Condé Nast Traveller UK and the US travel and lifestyle magazine Departures). But that's really just an extension of the way I live in places and the way I travel: I've never been the kind of person who always goes on holiday to the same place, or who settles on one favourite trattoria and never eats anywhere else. So if I have any authority as a Rome expert, I suppose it's because - in addition to my passion for my adopted hometown – I'm just plain curious.

I arrived in Rome with my partner in September 1984, fresh out of university in England and with no clear idea about how long the stay might last (was it a holiday or a serious move? Neither of us were sure). It was touch and go at first, and fate took a hand in our decision to stay: on the day the money ran out, we both found jobs teaching English. Then came the sheer effort of finding somewhere to live, assembling all those bits of paper that Italian officialdom is so fond of, getting to grips with a new culture, a new language, a new job. All of this gave me an unusually intense and untouristy introduction to Roman life.

I’m ashamed to say that it was four years before I got around to looking inside the Colosseum – by this time I was an honorary Roman, and so I had the same slight resistance that a New Yorker might have to visiting the Statue of Liberty. But it was probably also something to do with the obviousness of the attraction – by this time my wife and I (we got married in the Rome registry office on the Campidoglio in 1988) had visited most of the city’s Medieval churches, toured the lesser Etruscan sites of Lazio, been to Ostia Antica (easily my favourite Ancient Roman site in Italy) three or four times. It’s the richness of Rome that I’ve always loved: ten different visitors could spend ten days in the city and not overlap once.

Not long after the birth of our daughter Clara in 1990, I gave up English teaching and became a freelance writer, soon specialising in two of my great passions – film and travel. In between the major film festivals, my wife and I worked on updates of the Time Out Rome guide and I wrote article after article on Italy for Condé Nast Traveller and other publications.

But it has always been a special treat to be able to write about Rome – I think I put more or myself into these pieces, because I'm working out on paper how it was that I came to think of this city as home. It’s difficult to analyse one’s love for a place. There’s the food, and the wine, and the weather, and the sheer beauty of the city – all those things are important. But the draw for me has a lot to do with Rome’s air of theatricality – all those Baroque stage sets that just happen to be piazzas and churches; and all those locals who walk and talk and gesture with the innate confidence of people who are always on camera. After more than a quarter of a century and plenty of run-ins with reality, I have never quite got over the feeling that my life in Rome is one long film (shot, or course, in golden evening light).

These days I divide my time between an apartment in the Testaccio district of the city and a house in the Umbrian countryside, but for all the charms of la campagna umbra it’s still Rome that really stirs my soul. I hope I’ve been able to communicate something of this passion in my Rome Expert guides and blog for Simonseeks. Personally I don’t think anyone can ever claim to be a real Rome Expert: there’s just too much to see, do, eat, study and drink. But I’ve built up a decent Rome radar in the last couple of decades – and I’m going to give it my best shot.

My Rome

Where I always grab a coffee
My local is a buzzy place called Linari (Via Zabaglia 9) in the down-to-earth Testaccio district. They know just how I like my cappuccino (in a small glass, with less milk than usual), and their cornetti (breakfast pastries) are some of the best in Rome.

My favourite stroll
Rome backstreets in general. I love working out routes across the city that take me down Medieval lanes and across Renaissance piazzas, avoiding the traffic. It makes you realise that there’s a secret city out there that those in cars never see.

Fiction for inspiration

The great Rome epic novel has yet to be written – but I enjoyed When We Were Romans, written by my friend Matthew Kneale, which gives a very evocative and dramatic child’s-eye-view of the Eternal City.

Where to be seen this summer
The hot ticket will be Zaha Hadid’s new MAXXI contemporary art and architecture museum (www.maxxi.beniculturali.it), due to be inaugurated towards the end of May. It should breathe new life into the rather sleepy Flaminio quartiere north of Piazza del Popolo, where cool bar/restaurant chalet Tree Bar (Via Flaminia 226) currently gives a taste of how the area might evolve.

The most breathtaking view
Rome spread out like a 3-D diorama from the main terrace of the Gianicolo hill above Trastevere.

The best spot for some peace and quiet
Rome’s Orto Botanico, or Botanical Garden, is perhaps not the world’s best kept, but it is a lovely green oasis on the edge of Trastevere (Largo Cristina di Svezia 24, tel +39 06 4991 7108, entrance €4, closed Sun).

Shopaholics beware!
I love the quirky mix of shops in the lanes that lie just one or two blocks north of Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Artists’ supply shops, designer chocolate, creative jewellery and accessory boutiques, vintage clothes stores, shops selling modernist antiques, my favourite no-brand jeans brand, SBU (Via San Pantaleo 68-69, tel +39 06 6880 2547) – this is a great area for alternative shopping.

City soundtrack
Load Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater on your MP3 player, and use it as your background music. It’s pure Baroque drama – just like Rome itself.

Don’t leave without... looking through the keyhole of the gate into the garden of the Knights of Malta HQ on the Aventine hill (Piazza Cavalieri di Malta). The cupola of Saint Peter’s is framed at the end of the rose walk, with the rooftops of Rome on either side. Where else in the world can you see three sovereign states through one keyhole?