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I'm very fortunate to have parents who love to travel... when I was a teenager, they took my sister and I on many overseas trips. Italy was a country we travelled to on several occasions, and the history and beauty that I encountered is still firmly etched in my memory. I clearly remember being mesmerised by all the historic beauty, as well as the absolutely gorgeous little shops we saw, not just in the smaller towns we visited, but in the big cities such as Florence, Venice and Rome.

Everyone and everything just seemed more stylish and beautiful in Italy – probably because it was! I was particularly taken by the fashions – especially the shoes, and of course, handbags. Artisan boutiques with gorgeous, original designs; leathers so exquisite and soft I wished I could just wrap myself up in them. I’m sure my handbag obsession started on these Italian holidays – I can definitely blame my parents for that; along with my desire to look after all the gorgeous bags of the world, and save them from the tyranny of the wardrobe floor.

The creativity and artistry of the shop owners fascinated me, and really opened my eyes to what individuals could create. Call me sentimental (which I am), but it’s heartbreaking to know that less and less of these ‘mom-and-pop’ shops now exist. Yes, we live in exciting times with endless opportunities, but it is a time where big chain multinationals dominate. The financial power these multinationals wield means that these small, independent entrepreneurs are fast become a distant memory. And I’m not alone in my sadness about this.

Photographer Francesco Pergolesi from Spoleto, Italy, noticed the same thing. After returning home after being away for some time, he lamented the fact that the big chains had started taking over, forcing the small shops to close down.

These family run shops may seem quite quaint and kitschy (many just sell a single line of product such as buttons, or fabrics, or shoes, or handmade leather goods etc.). However, these specialised shops have been a huge part of Italy’s economy for centuries – they started to become prominent during the Renaissance when the roots of European capitalism emerged.

Pergolesi decided he wanted to document as many of these shops as he could before they disappeared, and began photographing them three years ago. The photos are mesmerising and seem to depict another era. And in a way, they do. One photo shows a jeweller sitting in his hole-in-the-wall shop, studying a gem closely. In another, a seller of paintings and curios looks at the camera from under his hat.

Interestingly, during the 15th century, all businesses in Italy were family owned – whether it was a handbag shop or a global bank. Shopkeepers took great care in getting to know their customers – some of whom may have only paid for their goods every 6 to 12 months, or out of their estate when they died (it was a system based on trust and credit).

It was in the 12th century that global movements of goods, services, people and financial transactions really began, centred around cities such as Florence, Venice; and then later, Paris, London, Bruges. This was the beginning of the capitalist system in Europe. And even while the economy at that time relied on global trade, being preindustrial, it relied on human skill and labour. According to Renaissance Scholar, Evelyn Welch, “One of the things that continues in Italy is the pride in the amazing skill of the handmade.”

Pergolesi’s beautiful images capture not only the memory of Italy’s ‘mom-and-pop’ shops, but also the tradition of pride and skill in artisan and handmade items. And although the opportunity to walk into a gorgeous shop overflowing with beautiful handmade leather bags is becoming rarer, thankfully, we can still enjoy the incredible craftsmanship and skills that the Italians take such great pride in. The beauty of these bags is testament to that… I can only hope that their owners look after them with the love and care they deserve.

Shop images: @francescopergolesi

Bags: Patrizia Sassetti 

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