Rome’s Sunday flea market Porta Portese facing possible coronavirus shutdown

Rome’s Porta Portese market, among the best known and largest weekly flea markets in Europe, may end up being another victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The sprawling Sunday bazaar that occupies parts of the Trastevere and Monteverde neighborhoods in Rome was founded in its current spot in 1945, just weeks after the end of World War II in Europe. But it is the latest in a series of traditional outdoor markets in Rome that trace their roots back to the 18th century.

The market takes its name — which translates to “Portuense Gate” — from one of the historic doors to the city, the 1644 version of which still stands, marking the market’s northern cusp.

With more than 1,500 vendors of various sizes most Sundays, and stretching across numerous streets and alleyways for more than 1.5 km along the western bank of the Tiber River, the market is one of the biggest in Europe. It is known for the wide variety of items on sale, ranging from antique furniture and collectibles to second-hand clothing and linens. The market even hosts a range of fortune-tellers, musical buskers, sellers hawking the latest gadgets, and illusionists performing magic acts.

But all of it could be cast in doubt due to health precautions related to the coronavirus outbreak.

Under normal circumstances, the market is a free-for-all, with potential buyers entering the market from dozens of entry points. But now, they must come in from one of seven points where health officials measure each person’s temperature and make sure they are wearing a mask. At least two ambulances are available in case people become sick.

Those precautions are mandated by Italy’s post-coronavirus lockdown rules. But the trouble is, it is not clear how to pay for the associated costs.

“The Porta Portese market has never been particularly well organized, and the current situation is revealing some defects,” Ugo Tortiello, who sells second-hand brand-name clothing at the market, told Xinhua. “We know what needs to be done.”

The shortfall is not a big one: reports are that the health monitoring costs around 1,600 euros (1,800 U.S. dollars) per market day, an amount that could be easily covered by the medium- and large-sized vendors each paying an extra 5 euros (5.60 U.S. dollars) each week.

That would double the modest daily fee sellers pay to the consortium of vendors (that is in addition to rental fees for the space vendors use). The consortium is reportedly in debt for the four weeks the market has been open since coronavirus lockdown rules eased enough for the market to return.

“The problem is, some small vendors earn too little, especially since fewer people come to the market and those who come to spend less because of the pandemic,” Tony Cionna, who sells antique objects at the market, said in an interview. “So far today, I sold three items for a total of 65 euros (73 U.S. dollars). That’s around 20 euros (22.50 U.S. dollars) more than I paid for those things months ago. Am I supposed to hand over half of that?”

According to news reports, the consortium will assume costs for health monitoring for another week. If a solution is not reached by then, the market will close until the health restrictions are lifted, taking away a source of income for hundreds of vendors and depriving many thousands of Romans of a traditional Sunday shopping activity.

Multiple market-goers who spoke to Xinhua Sunday said they hoped vendors, the consortium, and health officials manage to find a compromise to keep the historic market open. They said they’d miss it if it closed.

Francesco Lucatoni, a garment seller who operates four different stands at Porte Portese, said he believed a compromise will be reached.

“There’s a risk (things will close), but I think we’ll work something out,” Lucatoni said. “I think bigger vendors like me will end up paying more to help cover for those who don’t want to pay or who cannot afford to pay and we’ll make it through this and when it’s over we’ll go back to normal.”