That old proverb “one man’s junk is another’s treasure” is very true in the Viterbo area as the recent visit of Australian friends proved. When we visited the yard of a local rigattiere who makes a living cleaning out cellars and attics, the ladies happily spent a few hours browsing among his stash and paying well for the old vases and knickknacks which they considered precious antiques .
Our visit to the junk dealer reminded me of the 1970s when Rome’s antiques dealers combed the Viterbo area for used furniture they would restore and offer for sale at a 100% mark-up in Via Giulia, Via dei Coronari and Via di Monserrato’s chic antiques galleries.
Viterbo was a perfect place for a weekend antiques hunting expedition for the 80 km distance from Rome was like time machine travel with as destination a different, less expensive and complicated world . Even the traffic on the Via Cassia was slower for the presence of farm wagons and tractors.
One of the thousands of old auction catalogues I conserve, dated 27 Nov-5 Dec 1970, illustrates the furnishings of Castello Vinci in Cura di Vetralla : carpets, paintings, ceramics and arms collections, which were sold by auction. A magnificent sculpted chest dating from the 1650’s could be purchased then with a mere 300,000 lire. But auctions were a rarity in the area and most young couples wanting to furnish a first home, in those pre-IKEA days, searched the rigattiere or junk shops for solid but inexpensive used furniture. One of these rigattieri , DM, had a showroom in the medieval San Pellegrino quarter but kept larger pieces of furniture in cave like storage areas outside Viterbo’s medieval city walls .
These grottos were stuffed with antique church furniture, cupboards, madie (for making bread), kitchen furniture and lots of broken, rush bottomed chairs. It was the Swinging Sixties and local families were eager to exchange boring wooden furniture for brightly colored fitted kitchens in Formica .
In one of DM’s cantine we saw a sculpted chest similar to those going at auction, its two bronze handles and coat of arms showed a noble provenance and the price, by Rome standards, was very low. Just like IKEA today, it was strictly “cash and carry” so we hauled the chest onto the top of our tiny Fiat 500, strapped it on and covered it with an old blanket. It was slow travel back to Rome along the Via Cassia through Vetralla, Capranica and Sutri. Whenever we stopped for a coffee and to check the ropes, a knot of curious local fellows stared at our load and we replied to their curious glances that it was “ grandfather’s casket” we were transporting.
“Rustico” furniture was all the rage in the glossy magazines in the 70s-80s and everyone wanted chocolate colored cupboards for their city dining rooms. A madia used for bread could be found at MV’s barn in Campagnano for 30,000 lire which then became 130,000 lire after a complete restoration. This included scraping away numerous coats of paint, one for each generation that had used the madia for leavening bread, then staining the wood a darker color.
Only in the mid 1980s did the real value of old furniture began to be understood and the first Antiques Show was organized in the prestigious venue of Viterbo’s Papal Palace.
The importance of the Antiques Fair can be judged by the catalogues published: the first edition of 1980 was a thin brochure with black/white photos listing 39 participants. This was followed by a fancy catalogue and by the late 90s they had evolved to full color volumes with plasticized inserts.
For a dozen years the Antiques Show was relegated to a modern exhibition center out in the countryside but last year it returned to a suitable venue in the city center: the lovely ex-convent of St.Teresa in Piazza Fontana Grande.
History comes in waves so we should not be surprised when our daughters start wearing the 1950s sunglasses that once belonged to great grandmother and the old chest of drawers is taken down from the attic and given the place of honor in a modern living room.