Italian Word of the Week URTISTI

italicsBy Daniela Gross

Urtisti, the word of the week, is quite uncommon, and quite hard to understand if you are not Roman. It comes from the verb “urtare”, which probably derives from the Provencal, and it means to bump into someone or something. Since the end of the 19th century, the term “urtista” has been used to mean peddler, specifically that kind of peddler who in Rome sells souvenirs to Catholic pilgrims. There are “urtisti” close to any important monument – the Coliseum, the Vatican, the Ara Coeli – and they sell postcards, magnets, bracelets, rosaries, little statues. It can sound weird, but all of them are Jewish. Their origins date back to a historical period when it was considered inappropriate for Catholics to sell that kind of things to the pilgrims in visit to the Capital. Hence, a specific authorization by the Pope allowed some Jews to do it. The definition of “urtista” comes from the habit of peddlers, in the past, of hitting passers to call their attention. Today there are 63 official vendors, but only a half are active. Long time ago they left the ancient boxes full of memorabilia with which they used to go around, and found a more comfortable location in stalls. Their history, reconstructed and displayed until December 7 at the Rome’s Museum in Trastevere, is a tradition as meaningful for Rome as for the identity of Rome’s Jewish Community.