Way back when I contemplated moving to Italy, I vowed that I would open an account at Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena. Why? Because it’s the world’s oldest continuously operating bank, founded in 1472. That still sort of blows me away, and yet it’s not even close to being Italy’s oldest business. That honor belongs to the Pontificia Fonderia Marinelli bell foundry, established in 1040. It’s one of the world’s oldest family businesses still in operation.
For this month’s Italy Roundtable topic of FAMILY BUSINESS, I’m not doing a deep dive into history, but there’s a little history here for context. And I think it’s the kind of information that will help enlighten would-be travelers before arriving in Italy.
Take a break from sightseeing to walk into a small shop in Italy. Any small shop will do. Notice how every flat surface in the tiny space is piled with goods for sale, or perhaps a slumbering cat. A welcoming voice calls from somewhere amidst the piles. You fight the simultaneous urges to peek into every nook, and to depart quietly as if you’ve disturbed someone at home.
In recent years, conscientious holiday shoppers in the United States extol the virtues of “shopping small,” supporting small businesses in lieu of big box stores, though of course it’s sometimes much easier to find those gigantic chain stores than it is small businesses. In the historic town centers of Italian cities, however, where there’s no room for big chains, it’s infinitely easier – and, indeed, a pleasure – to shop small.
Family-run businesses account for roughly 2/3 of businesses worldwide. In Italy, that percentage jumps to more than 85%. Not only that, of the 100 oldest businesses anywhere in the world, 15 are Italian and five are in the top 10 oldest businesses still active today.
It shouldn’t be surprising in the least that family businesses are so central to the Italian economy, when family is so central to Italian life. Family – where you’re from – defines you in Italy far more than it does in a mobile country like the United States. In Italy, you’ll be asked where you’re from long before you are asked what you do, and it’s a much rarer thing for young people to move far away from their parents (and grandparents) when they leave home than it is in the US. Of course, Italians have friends their own age who aren’t blood relations, but those ties “will never be as strong as a family bond.”
I’ve written before about how close community or family ties can lead to xenophobia if one isn’t careful, and I still believe that to be true. The more complex backstory to why Italians are often both strongly tied to family and, yes, xenophobic, has a little bit to do with survival:
“Imagine a country with an unreliable bureaucracy and little respect for law. A country that has been dominated by foreign powers for 1,500 years over the last 1,650 years, and thus, in the eye of the people the State is the enemy. That country is Italy, and now you can better understand why the family – ‘la Famiglia‘ – is so important in Italian culture. When you need help, there is simply no other place to go. In a chaotic country, with a high unemployment rate, your family are the people you can trust, the people who give you your first job, and eventually the people you employ first when you start your own company.”
And this leads us back to the prevalence of family businesses in Italy. If family are the only people you know you can count on, then of course you go into business with relatives, hire relatives, and work for relatives. There is no other sensible solution.
The shopkeeper behind all those piles, the one you hear calling out a welcome when you walk in the door, may not give you this academic explanation for not working in a big multi-national company. But it’s at least a part of the foundation that led to that moment.
One of the things I remember learning on an early trip to Italy was that Italians prefer to socialize outside the home. This is partly due to the small sizes of many Italian homes, especially in cities, but also because the home is somewhat sacred family space. What I find, however, is that small family-run shops often feel like extensions of the home. They are, in a word, familiar.
fa·mil·iar – Well known from long or close association. In close friendship; intimate. Origin: Middle English (in the sense ‘intimate,’ ‘on a family footing’): from Old French familier, from Latin familiaris, from familia ‘household servants, household, family’, from famulus ‘servant’.
So, the next time you are having that split-second debate about continuing to browse the odd wares of a closet-sized shop or to bolt because you’re afraid you’ve intruded accidentally into a private space, consider that you’re keeping a long-standing tradition going. You’re simply socializing with an Italian outside his or her home, but in a space that’s been made familiar to them, and – therefore – to you.
Welcome to the family.
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