When I was contemplating moving to Italy, I made a vow that I would open a Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena account. Why? It’s the oldest continuously operating bank in the world, having been established in 1472. It’s still a bit shocking to me, but it’s not the oldest Italian business. This honor goes to the Pontificia Fonderia Marinelli bell findry, which was established in 1040. It is one of the oldest family-owned businesses in existence.
This month’s Italy Roundtable topic is FAMILY BUILD. I am not going to do a deep dive on history but you can find some context here. It’s the type of information that I believe will be helpful to enlighten potential travelers before they arrive in Italy.
You can take a break from the sightseeing and walk into a small Italian shop. Any shop will work. You can see that every surface is covered with items for sale or a sleeping cat. Somewhere, a welcoming voice calls out from the midst of the piles. You resist the urge to look into every corner and to leave as if someone is home.
Conscientious holiday shoppers in America have been extolling the virtues “shopping small” and supporting small businesses over big box stores in recent years. However, it can sometimes be easier to find large chains than small businesses. It’s much easier to shop small in the historic towns of Italian cities where there is no space for large chains.
About 2/3 of all businesses in the world are family-owned. This percentage is higher than 85% in Italy. 15 of the 100 oldest businesses in the world are from Italy, and five are among the top 10 oldest still in operation today.
Given the importance of family in Italian life, it shouldn’t surprise that family-owned businesses are so important to the Italian economy. In Italy, family – your origin – is more important than in the United States. It’s rare for young people in Italy to live far from their grandparents and parents. Although Italians may have close friends of their own age, they will not be able to form a strong family bond .
I have written about how close family or community ties can lead to xenophobia , and that I believe it to still be true. is a bit more complicated than that. It has to do with survival.
Imagine a country that has a corrupt bureaucracy and little regard for the law. One country that has been controlled by foreign powers for 1,500+ years and is therefore, in the eyes of the people, the State is the enemy. This country is Italy. Now you will understand why the family, ‘la Familia’ in Italian culture, is so important. There is no better place to turn when you are in need of assistance. Your family is the one person you can trust in a chaotic country with high unemployment rates. They are the ones who provide you with your first job and then the people you hire when you start your company.
This brings us back to the Italian family business phenomenon. If your family is the only person you trust, you will likely start a business with them, or hire them to work for you. There is no other way.
This may not be the reason why the shopkeeper behind all the piles, the one who greets you when you enter the store, is not able to give you an academic explanation as to why you don’t work in a large multi-national company. It’s just one part of the foundation that brought you to this moment.
On a trip to Italy early in my life, I learned that Italians like to meet outside their homes. This may be due to the small size of many Italian homes, particularly in the cities, but it also has to do with the fact that the home is a sacred space for the family. However, I have found that small family-run shops can feel like an extension of the home. They feel familiar.
fa*mil*iar – A person who is well known through a long or close relationship. Close friendship. Origin: Middle English. In the sense of ‘intimate’ or ‘on a familia footing’: From Old French familier, Latin familiaris.
When you have that split-second debate over whether you should continue to shop in a small, quaint shop or if you should leave because you fear you might invade a private space, remember that you are continuing a long-standing tradition. You are simply socializing outside of your home with an Italian, but in a space they know and that is familiar to you.
We are glad you joined our family.
Italy Roundtable: Other Voices
My cohorts are here for you! Follow me to each of the links below to see their posts. Please leave comments and share them with friends. Tune in next month to learn more about Italy Blogging Roundtable topics!
- Home in Tuscany Family-owned businesses in Tuscany
- Bleeding Espresso –
- Brigolante – Everything But Second Best: Foligno’s Pasticceria Muzzi
- Driving like a Maniac
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