During my recent visit to Rome, I called my old barber shop and asked for Piero. Having been away for two years, I was afraid that Piero Migliacci — the owner of the Antica Barberia Peppino in the heart of Rome, just a few blocks from Piazza di Spagna — might not immediately recognize me, and might not give me an appointment, which I needed desperately before I flew back to New York.
“Come no, mi ricordo benissimo, la telefonata di Pechino, e’ vero?” Piero said when he answered the phone — “Sure, I remember well — a call from Beijing, right?” He gave me an appointment two hours later. Not really sure what that phone call from Beijing meant, I walked to the Barberia at the hour that would normally be reserved for lunch break in Rome — a siesta, especially in a summer time. As I opened the door and greeted him, Piero lifted both hands, holding scissors and a comb that had previously been working through the hair of a customer seated in the comfortable chair in front of the barber.
Piero was telling his client a story that we’d shared almost 15 years ago — a story that explained his mention of the phone call from Beijing.
When I was working in Beijing from 1998 to 2003, I came to Rome occasionally, and never missed appointment with my barber. In one of these sessions, Piero told me a story about Berlusconi’s wife, Veronica Lario, who never moved to Rome when her husband was a prime minister. Piero told me that she had a love affair with the left-wing philosopher and mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari. It was stunning news that everyone who disliked Berlusconi would love to hear, but I kept the information mostly to myself, and dropped it only occasionally to specific people who might have some idea of its truth. Since nobody else seemed to know anything about the affair, I thought that the information was just gossip that would end where it started. That is, until one day in Beijing, when an Italian minister visiting China confirmed the news. When I heard this, I apparently picked up a phone and called Piero, telling him that that he was right about Lario and Cacciari.
This was the story Piero was telling to a client — a friend who I did not know and who almost fell of the chair, thinking that Piero telling the story and me walking through the door was complete coincidence. We talked for a while, and I told them that I had mentioned Lario and Cacciari in one of my stories about Melania Trump, where I expressed hope that she would ditch Trump like Lario did Berlusconi.
Piero, who is totally oriented towards his brand — and rightly so — asked me if I had mentioned his Barberia in any of my stories. I hadn’t. We giggled, but it was true.
Getting haircuts was never something I liked very much. When I was a kid, my younger brother and I would be taken together to Brivnica Marko, on the main street of my native town of Celje. I remember we were dropped in the shop and the barbers were told “two boy’s cuts,” which always ended with a tuft of hair in front and a very short, high cut in the back. In spite the fact that Marko was the best barber in town, their boy’s cut was still considered a “pisker” cut, which in our jargon meant putting a pot on someone’s head and then doing a haircut. It was a joke, and we kids all hated it. But who really cared? The world was gorgeous and interesting, and once you shampooed, you could redo your hair as you wished. Which meant that you made sure it was in as much disorder as possible.
My rebelliousness against barbers lasted almost into my adult life, considering the fact that, till the ’80s, most of us wore long hair that was cut by friends.
Rome changed all that. When I first landed there in the mid-’80s, I soon came to understand that having your own barber was as important as having your own butcher, bar, bancarella on the green market, and so on. I tried a few different places before I was introduced to Peppino in the late ’80s. It used to be on Via Mario de’ Fiori, just a few blocks away from where it is now, on Via Della Vite 33.
I hardly remember Peppino Ricciardo Calderaro, who started the shop with his “maestria,” which was known around town. But it was with the “help” of Piero and two other barbers who came along after Peppino’s retirement that I was really cured of my childhood barber trauma.
Piero kept the old name of “Barberia Peppino” and added “Antica” to it. Using “antica” to refer to the year 1957 must be a joke, but I never discussed the issue with Piero. The shop grew with the new owner. In the style of their craft, the barbers at Barberia Peppino practiced what the barber shops always have, from the times of Roman Empire — that is, from 296, when Roman Senator Ticinius Mena returned to Rome from Sicily and introduced barber shops, which would in turn introduce the trends of clean-shaven faces among military commanders and senators, but which also became very popular centres for daily news and gossip. “A morning visit to the tonsor became a part of the daily routine, as important as the visit to the public baths, and a young man’s first shave (tonsura) was considered an essential part of his coming of age ceremony. A few Roman tonsores became wealthy and influential, running shops that were favourite public locations of high society; however, most were simple tradesmen, who owned small storefronts or worked in the streets for low prices.”
So yes, in this sense, Peppino is an antique barber shop where all of these qualities are respected. Plus, the fact that Piero will give you the closest shave you’ve ever had, the best haircut you could ask for (no matter how difficult your hair may be), a head massage… and I don’t know what else because I keep my eyes closed most of the time. It’s so relaxing that they practically have to kick you out of the chair.
Getting a haircut at Peppino Barberia is like sitting on a cloud — a cloud that flies above the ground like a flying carpet. It is this floating space filled with a wonderful mix of words, information and gossip, during which no sources are mentioned by name. Never. It’s like in the Vatican. You may know the source, but you can never quote it.
Above all there is Piero’s voice. He sometimes comes close to your ear to whisper in it or to underline something. On other occasions, he raises his voice slightly, so that his collaborators — including his son — can hear and learn from the story we are telling. Piero is the master voice in the room, while the other barbers move around silently,whispering to each other like the officials in the court of Haile Selassie, as described by Ryszard Kapuscinski in The Emperor.
Customers come to Peppino from all walks of life and from all over the world. For some reason, Piero like monarchs, such as Spanish King Juan Carlos, or the more-or-less forgotten aristocracy of Rome. Politicians and diplomats come into Peppino, too, and journalists regularly flock to his chair. I love the place and all of its verbal decoration. Once in that flying chair, you can can discuss everything from geopolitics to the latest gossip.
When I was in Rome, the city was electing a new mayor. To everyone’s surprise, the populist Five Star Movement wildly defeated the candidate of the united left wing coalition. You do not have to read the papers to figure what was behind the this weird deal. Well, the Peppino chair told me that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi — the head of the center-left coalition — made a pact with the dying devil, Silvio Berlusconi. They decided to make the Five Star Movement win in order to do a purge within their own political parties.
I thought this was rigged, but still a smart idea, and most of my friends in Rome actually agree that a cleaning is needed within Italy’s political parties. They just do not know if they would agree on the second part of this cleansing project, which will involve some constitutional reforms that would reinforce the power of the central government. The left still fears the return of Mussolini. Ah, I love this never-changing Italy.
Also published on Medium.