The Roman tavern of the Risorgimento

In the memory and in the common imagination, the tavern is today a symbol of an entirely Italian tradition and belongs to a past that has its roots, at least in its recognizable features, in the late nineteenth century.

In some ways this image makes the tavern appear to us as a place ancient, still capable of recovering traditional flavors and customs today, of course, but substantially linked to a past no longer capable of communicating - and competing - with the rhythms and devilries of contemporary catering, increasingly contaminated and international, increasingly 'fast' and with an indispensable vocation for innovation at all costs.

While a factual historical reading can easily lead us to notice those who have been the decidedly modern features of the tavern of the late nineteenth century, particularly in that former Papal Rome which suddenly found itself playing the role of Capital of the new Kingdom of Italy, with all that this entailed on an anthropological and social level.

A few weeks ago it was published an article on the history of the spread of gin in England in which emerged, against the light, that path that would lead to the birth of modern pubs Victorians, forerunners and direct progenitors of what is still today the identity and role of the contemporary pub.

Me too'Roman tavern of Risorgimento tradition will definitely play a role modern, in the space of a few decades between the mid-nineteenth century and up to the entire Giolittian age, in welcoming the processes of aggregation of the new citizen classes that had been gathering in Rome, well before but above all after the fateful breach of Porta Pia, when in 1870 the Piedmontese put an end to the temporal power of the papacy of Pius IX.

A suggestive look at this historical moment can also be obtained in this case from a painting, an oil on canvas from 1866 Danish painter Carl Heinrich Bloch.

osteria romana

As clearly emerges from the painting, the Roman tavern was not exactly a 'luxury' establishment, at least in first appearance.

The dirty and unadorned walls immediately suggest the 'popular' soul of the Roman tavern of the time, an element which therefore at least partially confirms the stereotype that still lingers in the common imagination today.

Generally speaking, the very first taverns were actually used by the poorest sections of the population, that is, the families of seasonal workers - arriving mainly from the province closest to Rome and from Abruzzo - who stayed in Rome without necessarily having a domicile available , but rather settling in makeshift barracks in what were still known as at the time suburre, or the very first suburbs of what would become the metropolitan city of the following century.

These seasonal workers went to the taverns to eat with their families, but they brought with them the food that would guarantee the family meal and therefore the innkeeper was necessary - as well as for the use of the premises and sometimes even the kitchen - for the purchase of the wine, an element that was then simply indispensable in the daily diet of these peasant classes, who stayed in the city to carry out seasonal work, in fact, and therefore access alternative incomes to those traditionally available through sheep farming and agriculture.

But among these popular classes also emerged the new artisan classes who would have populated the City starting from the end of the century, when Rome's new role from a political point of view brought tens of thousands of Italians to the city in the space of just under thirty years.

In fact, Bloch's painting portrays a tavern already openly bourgeois from an anthropological point of view.

In the foreground we have a table of commoners, that is, an artisan class that is not exactly rich but certainly not impoverished either, as the necklaces and jewels of the beautiful women who look at us can only testify. But their companion looks at us suspiciously, as is customary with foreigners, and has a knife visibly protruding from his pocket.

In the background, however, we can clearly see some bourgeois discussing - about politics, economics, and not theology, probably - and they are gentlemen with courteous faces, well dressed, who continue their conversation regardless of the painter's 'gaze' (as we one would expect, in fact, in any modern public place used for catering).

And the modernity of the Risorgimento Roman tavern is all here, just as in the case of English Victorian pubs.

The taverns were the first public places able to accommodate – not only for the serving of wine but soon also for the food offering, drawing on the hot and cold dishes of the popular gastronomic tradition – the new citizen classes of modern Italy, mixing anthropologies and social classes on the same solid wood tables, typical of taverns and which still remain firmly planted in the common imagination today.

A common imagination that still represents the tavern as the most informal, genuine and authentic place of public catering, directly connected with past traditions with an ancient flavor but nevertheless intimately pervaded by modern features, also thanks to lenticular ideas and innovations that the metropolitan eclecticism of a constantly evolving society has been able to favor, for better or for worse, over the course of the last two centuries.