Their local name is bumpers because they used to hit tourists with their mobile desks chock-full of souvenirs on sale. They are an officially recognized category with a register and a trade union, and they’re all Jews except one, their leader. You shouldn’t confuse them with the hordes of illegal street vendors that crowd Rome’s downtown roads and squares because they have a proper license and were created as a gild at the end of the 19th century when Jews were still closed in the ghetto.
Rome’s “bumpers” know no Saturdays nor Sundays, they’re always out there, on the road. Except for a week or two in January-February. Sun glasses permanently on, they are really dark and tanned because of the copious dose of sun that the Eternal city grants them. A hard but solid job. The recent increase in illegal on the road trade, however, puts it seriously at risk.
They’re 112 as of now and they’re divided in two groups: the privileged ones (A1) can sell in the Vatican and the Colosseum areas, while the others (A2) can only operate near the Spanish steps, Navona square and Castle S. Angelo. All of them speak many languages, with some able to say a few words in up to 20 idioms. They sell post-cards, magnets, bracelets, rosaries and small statues of popes and madonnas.
GRADING THE POPES
Until John Paul II was alive sales were good. But then things started to worsen. Pope Benedict XVI’s severe figure cut the number of pilgrims in Rome and the economic crisis reduced it even more. Accordingly, many bumpers were close to going bust from 2008 until the election of Bergoglio. It was only with Pope Francis that business picked up again with the first ones who had on sale the rosaries with Bergoglio’s face making a lot of money.
Going back to their oldest memories Paul VI, the last big Italian pope, in a 1 to 10 scale deserves a 7, while Wojtyla was the very best with a 9. Marks for Ratzinger are very low, about 4, while pope Francis is doing very well: 8.
Even if abusive sellers don’t buy any license and don’t pay taxes, Rome’s authorized street vendors hold on. It is an hereditary job that connotes the Jewish community of Rome, one of the world’s oldest of the Diaspora. And it would be a real pity for Rome if they disappeared. Because these people are really part of the city’s soul and identity.