Alessandro Spiezia is no ordinary optician, and not just because the head of the Catholic Church is one of his customers. The Pope's optician stands out also by the originality of the models he selects for his customers, and the minute size of his premises. Called Ottica Spezia, his store is just eight square meters in size, but is located in a strategic spot in the historical center of Rome, 20 meters from the magnificent Piazza del Popolo, at 199 via del Babuino. The street is renowned for being home to artists and antique dealers, and it is part of an increasingly fashionable area of the city.
In addition to Pope Francis and his predecessors, the Roman optician's clients have included famous names such as Marcello Mastroianni and Federico Fellini, the famous Italian actor and his filmmaker, who lived nearby in via Margutta. And when the film director wanted to make a discreet phone call he would pop into the optician's tiny shop, out of earshot of indiscreet individuals - these were the days before smartphones, of course.
Some journalists who were working for the Italian state radio located in an aristocratic palazzo just opposite also frequented the shop. When the historical landmark and monumental gardens became the Hotel de Russie, one of its famous guests, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, came to Spiezia's shop to change his glasses during a stay in Rome.
Spezia is as understated as his shop is unpretentious. He has never done any flashy marketing related to the excellence of his clients, Popes included. He was invited to speak on a morning TV program not to talk about his shop but to inform the audience about the mysteries of optical science and to describe potential dangers for our eyesight.
Then on Sept. 3, 2015 his name and his photo went around the world. In the afternoon, Pope Francis had asked his driver to stop his modest personal car outside the optician's shop and walked through the door, like any ordinary client. His white robe attracted the attention of incredulous passers-bys and in no time the crowds had gathered and the first TV cameras had arrived. The news was not so much that Spiezia was the Pope's optician, but that such a major international figure should choose to behave like an ordinary citizen.
Like any other individual, the Pope chose to save some money. He had five old pairs of glasses, and asked for one of the frames to be re-fitted with his new progressive lenses. He insisted on paying the €250 price for the lenses cost, which the optician promptly donated to a charity for needy families. When Pope Francis subsequently inquired whether his visit had been good for business, Spiezia replied that people had flooded to the shop, including lots of Argentinian tourists, but mainly to take a selfie with the Pope's optician rather than to buy a pair of glasses.
The shop opened in 1921, and the young Spiezia bought it in 1967. In the past 50 years, many commercial ventures have come and gone in the historical center of Rome, but his store has survived to this day. A famous antique dealer opened a luxurious 800-square meter optical store in the same street, with original paintings on the walls, but it closed down just a few years later. Spezia was first called to the Vatican in 1978 for Pope Jean Paul II, and he has continued to deal with the Popes' optical requirements ever since. But last year it was different, as the Pontiff himself called in to see him.
When it comes to choosing collections, Spiezia prefers to seek out the most unusual designs from young companies full of original ideas, rather than stick with the styles that we see in all the major stores. The range offered in his store includes some gold-plated frames ordered from Lunor in Germany, styles by Francis Klein of France and some models by William Morris from the U.K. Furthermore, Spezia designs some glasses himself and gets them made by craftsmen in the Cadore region of Italy.