By Romina Monaco

It’s impossible to travel Italy and not stumble upon a town market. Wandering down narrow alleys into the central square looking for your morning cappuccino, your journey abruptly ends. Your view of the piazza obstructed by stalls and tents filled with commercial goodies. This is the famous local market where you can purchase a pair of delicate 'Made in Italy' underclothes, a basket of sun-ripened tomatoes, an extra pair of flip-flops for your beach get-away along with a much-needed replacement for your broken cheese grater.

The market provides an ideal social atmosphere as you never know who you’ll encounter. While waiting for the butcher to prepare your veal for tonight’s dinner you accidently run into your mother’s cousin, Ludovico, whom you’re not supposed to speak to because he had an affair with your father’s best-friend’s wife, Maria, who also happens to be your mother’s cousin…but from the other side! As you can see, all sorts of exciting things can happen here. Even the merchandise can be equally as tempting as a clandestine conversation with the black sheep. Here you can purchase locally-grown veggies instead of opting for supermarket legumes that are genetically enhanced, pumped with steroids and flown in from who-knows-where. Italians, unlike us, don’t care for esthetically perfect vegetables that have no flavor. They’re content with their assortment of locally-grown produce, usually organic, which is picked fresh.
The mercato is also a great place to purchase fashions and textiles. Maybe nonno ripped his pants while picking Cabernet Franc for his latest vintage. Take him there. There are usually caravans behind each booth where he can pop in and try things on. Don’t forget nonna. She needs a new tablecloth because nonno keeps spilling his wine during his numerous toasts and now the stains won’t come out. I always enjoyed visiting the market with my grandparents and hearing to them argue whether or not we should make a pit-stop to the winery afterward for a glass of sweet Picolit. Usually nonno won and we’d end up spending a couple of hours sipping wine and reflecting on the gossip we’d heard while at the market.

Besides the wide assortment of men, children and ladies’ fashions as well as textiles, produce and meat, there are many other items to be found. Cheese, cured meats, fruit, pastries, fresh pasta, preserves, books, music, local art, kitchenware, electronics and other manufactured goods are available. Italians have been big on recycling during the last couple of decades so you’ll have to bring your own bags. Bartering is a big insult to these people. So don’t try it, especially if you’re buying artisanal work. Artistic people can be very sensitive.

Markets are usually a weekly event and its size depends on the population of the town or city. Large urban centres have more than one, which operate in different zones as well as on different days of the week. All neighbouring towns have theirs on opposite days so they don’t overlap and conflict each other. It’s a system that’s worked for centuries and although the merchandise has changed over time the concept is still the same.

Although we see it as the cultural epicenter of town life, its inception came from necessity and survival. Markets materialized for various reasons, a demand for merchandise as well as a necessary avenue for the exchange of goods between merchants and farmers. During the Roman period, markets were much like the shopping malls of today. Goods came from all over the empire to satisfy the overwhelming materialistic needs of the large urban population. Immodest Romans wanted unique and superior items that would reflect their wealth and status. With the fall of the empire the entire peninsula faced economic crisis and a decline in urbanization. Unable to sustain themselves, people resorted to the land where they could grow their own food. This was the birth of the town market.

Appropriately called the Dark Ages, Italy as well as most of Europe found itself without Roman protection and became vulnerable to Barbarian invaders. Farmers began selling and trading their goods at military fortresses belonging to local lords, where there was a high demand for provisions. Due to the continuous invasions people gravitated to these castles for safety, constructing dwellings at their base. A localized population along with an increased demand of goods resulted in a centralized market and the market system. Development around castles and markets continued for centuries issuing the growth of towns.