Rome’s Jewish vendors of souvenirs protest against their expulsion from Vatican

Eleven Jewish souvenir sellers staged a small demonstration on the border between Rome and the Vatican State last Saturday in protest against their expulsion from St Peter’s Square after many centuries.

Waving an Israeli flag and some small banners, the street vendors asked to be again allowed to sell their momentos within the territory of the Holy See.

After negotiations with the Italian and the Vatican police, three of the vendors decided to picket the entrance to St Peter’s Square for a few hours.

The Vatican prefect pledged to meet with his Rome colleague in order to tackle the vendors’ requests.

Of the existing 113 licenses that allow souvenir selling in Rome, 112 belong to Jewish vendors.

The profession dates back dates to the pontificate of Paul IV (1555-1559).

While confining the Jews to the Rome ghetto, the pontiff allowed them to exercise minor street trades.

When Italy unified in 1870 at the expenses of the Pope’s temporal power on Rome, Jews turned into souvenir sellers after obtaining ad hoc licenses from the Italian civil authorities, while some were granted such right directly from the Vatican authorities.

The “urtisti” – literally those who bump into the tourists -, deal in small plaster statues, crucifixes, rosaries and pictures of saints and Popes still nowadays.

Until December 2007, the Jewish sellers were allowed to work on the entire territory of Rome, and part of them directly on St Peter’s Square.

A week ago however, the Vatican City governor, Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, banned all traders from the Baroque Bernini columnade, upsetting the Jewish sellers who claim to have been licensed by a Pope many hundreds of years before.

Lello Zarfatti, chairman of the ‘urtisti’ association told the the Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera: “I have been selling my souvenirs in St. Peter’s Square in the last 50 years thanks to an oral permission then granted by a Vatican prefect. On December 8, 2007, they told us we can no longer sell within the square, but we are only asking to keep working honestly.”

Riccardo Pacifici, Rome’s Jewish community spokesperson, took a public stand in favour of the souvenir sellers explaining that “of the 9,000 Jewish families living in Rome, at least 400 hundred engage in street selling activities.”

He added: “Therefore, any restrictive measure taken against this kind of trade may become a great tragedy for our community.”

The city’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, is reportedly also backing the “urtisti”.

Around 15,000 Jews live in Rome.