Immigration Strains Italian Market’s Identity

An outdoor market bustles daily in the shadow of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, Italy, as scores of vendors hawk their wares for tourists and locals alike. Some families have worked the market for generations, but a rapid influx of immigrants—some legal, some not—is transforming the face of the historic marketplace, says Dr. Anne Schiller, a professor of anthropology in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHASS). “Florence is normally associated with artistic masterpieces, but at its heart, Florence has always been a city of merchants,” says Schiller, who has spent three summers working at the market while researching social networks there.

A growing immigrant presence has encouraged native Florentines to reflect on what it means to be Italian.

Italy has become an important destination for immigrants from Africa, the Middle East, and China in recent years. Émigrés have brought their cultural beliefs and practices with them, and their presence has encouraged locals to reflect on what it means to be Italian, Schiller says, noting that Italy was formed from a collection of city-states in the 1800s and a national identity is only now taking shape. As part of her research, College of Design students have mapped changes in the types of goods sold in the market, while CHASS students have conducted interviews with English-speaking merchants and tourists. Fewer than half of the vendors at the San Lorenzo market now are native Italians, Schiller says, and the social transformation taking place has raised questions about the cultural identity of the marketplace.

Schiller has found that, although merchants compete for customers, they have established a collective identity that emphasizes professionalism in the workplace. Vendors who purchase business licenses, pay their taxes, and use a traditional stand are seen as part of the group—whether they’re Italians or immigrants. These merchants worry about the effect that "irregular vendors," mostly illegal immigrants, may have on the market’s reputation. Irregular vendors sell goods off the top of cardboard boxes that can be whisked away if police approach. Clashes between licensed and unlicensed vendors are not unusual.

Merchants worry that “irregular vendors,” mostly illegal immigrants, will affect the San Lorenzo market’s reputation.

Neighborhood associations, political parties, and other groups have organized campaigns to “Save San Lorenzo,” proposing various solutions to the challenges confronting the marketplace. Schiller plans to monitor the changing relationships among the groups over time and examine the consequences on heritage preservation efforts. “Long-term interaction can affect not only how merchants treat one another and their customers,” she says, “but also how they think about their own identity.”


Dr. Anne Schiller has sold hand-painted trays in a Florentine market in recent summers while researching social networks there.

Merchants and shoppers mingle in an outdoor market in the shadows of Florence’s historic buildings.