Source: a visit to a contadino family, c. 1900   Leave a comment

The text here dates to about a century ago and describes the visit of an English woman and her Italian charge, the young Italian girl, Mafalda to a neighbouring contadino family. Her description is unusual at this date as being generally – and patronisingly! – approving of the contadino system. SY

Dario and his father-in-law, old Sorbi, were mending a wagon on the Aia, the former chanting lustily one of those untranslatable stornelli which are the growth of the Italian soil. Song is the habit of Tuscan peasants and servants, who sing alike at work and play for gladness of spirit; and Dario, especially, inherits this gift from his grandfather, who was one of the old minstrels who used to roam the country from fair to wedding, improvising rhymes and songs.

Both he and Sorbi at once dropped their tools and hastened forward with brilliant smiles of welcome, and quite a pleasant bustle of excitement pervaded the little homestead as we arrived on the doorstep with half a dozen dogs. No courtier could have done the honours of his house more simply or more graciously than did these peasants. With frank and charming courtesy they offered us their best, both of accommodation and refreshment. Dario, hastening to and fro on bare brown feet, brought rushbottomed chairs from the house and ranged them under  the loggia; then, responding to our tentative suggestion of fruit with a cheery ‘Eh, altro!’ seized a basket and disappeared into the podere, to return in a few minutes with the freshest of green and purple figs. ‘La Sorba’, an old woman whose wide straw hat framed a face like a ruddy, wrinkled apple, fetched glasses and a great straw-covered fiasco of wine; while the sposina, Dario’s wife, and daughter of the house, smiled shyly at us from the doorstep, where she sat with three black-eyed children clinging to her, and the last baby in her arms.

It must be owned that both she and La Sorba were, like most peasant women on six days of the week, very slatternly, with old petticoats, loose, coloured bodices and uncombed hair, but none the less were they very picturesque. The quaint costumes of the contadini have, alas!, disappeared; but whatever the Tuscan peasant dons as a working dress seems to acquire a certain intangible charm. While the clothes they proudly put on for Sunday the loud stripes and plaids, the bright printed calicoes, the yellow boots are hideous, the weather-worn garments of every day, faded and mellowed by the weather, make patches of warm colour, purple, red and orange, among the olives and vines.

The scene on that autumn morning was a quaint and pretty one, essentially Italian in all its details, as was the old farm with its thick walls of rough stone, and its loggia with rounded arches one of the characteristic features of a contadino’s house. A stone stair up the side of the house, opening at the top on to a balcony, led into the large dim kitchen, where a faint oil-lamp flickered before a picture of Our Lady. A small iron-barred window beyond gave a glimpse of far blue hills. There was a hooded stone fireplace, over which was fastened a bough of olive blessed at the church last Palm Sunday; a rough wooden table, an old cupboard, and a few stools. A bundle of hemp hung in one corner; from the beams were suspended strings of onions and bunches of dried herbs. Clean it was not, certainly, indeed, I doubt if the peasants ever wash their houses, and the stone walls and rafters were blackened by wood smoke; but it must be remembered that water, especially in summer, is scarce in Tuscany, so that cleanliness requires an effort greater perhaps than the people have any inclination to make.

Outside, under the loggia, stood a scarlet ox-waggon, and some huge earthenware vessels, coloured an exquisite blue from having contained the sulphate of copper with which olives are syringed as a protection against blight a blue with which the peasants sometimes dye their old straw hats. Against the wall hung a sickle and other tools, and several flasks made from dried and emptied gourds.

Beyond lay the Aia, a large yard irregularly paved with grey stone, where fowls were pecking; on the low, broad wall which surrounded it were spread trays of figs, split peaches, scarlet tomatoes and orange-tinted pumpkins, drying in the sun for winter use.

In the thickness of the house-wall a little shrine had been hollowed to hold a figure of Madonna with the Gesulino in her arms, and before it stood a handful of wildflowers in a china cup. Beyond the Aia lay the podere, a serene world of grey and green; the olives varied in tint, now green, now silver, as the breeze swept over them; the vines burned bronze and crimson; and shutting in this peaceful nook were the pine-woods, and range after range of purple hills.

Certainly, seen on a sunny day in such surroundings, the peasant’s seems an enviable lot, spent in the pure air, in the midst of lovely scenery, his labour to till the soil from which he was taken and to which he must, by and by, return. Sunshine around him, songs on his lips, gaiety in his heart, these are the first impressions made by a Tuscan peasant. But in reality it is a hard life of incessant toil, alike for men and women. The contadino, from dawn to sunset, must dig and plant and sow and reap: his wife must nurse, cook, clean, feed the beasts, cut grass and fodder, help in the work of the fields. Even the children must work as soon as they are big enough to weed or pick out stones.

The peasants live poorly, the most prosperous having three meals a day, but eating little save polenta made of maize flour; beans, mixed with salt and oil; bread, and occasional additions of vegetables, maccaroni and cheese. Few of them keep cows, and so have no milk, though a goat sometimes supplies a little for the children. They use oil for cooking; and butter is almost unknown to them, as even those who have cows do not make it, but sell the milk direct to the padrone or to some large dairy in the town.

It was a gay little meal which we had there on the old Aia, the fruit of the land, offered and received with the simplicity of Arcadia, and eaten on the soil where it was grown, in sight of sky and hills. The red country wine, the round amber-coloured loaf of dark bread which Dario sliced with a sickle-shaped knife, the fresh figs and clusters of white and purple grapes, were all simple things, yet surely, in their fresh perfection, food fit for the gods. Wine for the children is usually a forbidden luxury, but on this day of days they were allowed it as a treat and considered Dario the most amiable of men when, far from pouring out a grudging finger-breadth, he filled their glasses with an unsparing hand and a cheery ‘Non faccia complimenti! fa bene! fa bene!’

Old Sorbi, a short, sturdy man in a soft felt hat, stood by, entertaining us with his views on the weather, the crops, and the coming fair at the Impruneta; while Dario enlivened us from time to time with a burst of vivacious talk.

No, in answer to Mafalda’s shy question, he had no sheep. There was no one to mind them: but the padrone had promised that when the bimbo there, with a jerk of his head towards his eldest grandchild, a round-eyed, barefooted boy of seven, should be big enough to mind them, he should have a flock. Meantime, he had oxen, and a pig, if the signorina wished to see the pig? The signorina did, and the creature dear to St. Anthony’s heart was accordingly ushered on to the Aia, grunting cheerfully, and eager to accept fig-skins and crusts of bread.

Old Sorbi is the capoccia or head of his family, a dignity strictly observed in every contadino household. It is an office which usually, though not necessarily, descends from father to son, and gives the person who fills it full authority in all family affairs. It is he who manages everything, keeps the money, rules despotically younger brothers, sons, and daughters-in-law. It is he who represents the family legally to the padrone, and is responsible in all things for the land, utensils, and beasts. The other members of the household may offer advice, may join him in consultation, but it is emphatically he who acts.

The head of the women, or house-mother, is called the massaia, and is usually an elderly person, who may be mother, wife, or sister of the capoccia. It is she who controls the feminine branch of the establishment subject always to the Capoccia’s approval; she who apportions work to the daughters and daughters-in-law, oversees the cooking, the sewing, the straw-plaiting, and all such woman’s work.

Family affections are usually very strong among the peasants, as well as affection for the land on which they were born. They live together in patriarchal fashion; the old father, with possibly a younger brother or two, three or four stalwart sons, and their wives, who come to settle in their father-in-law’s house and share the work in-doors and out, mere farm servants without a servant’s wage. To these may be added a tribe of children; and yet, wonderful to relate, considering how trying such an arrangement must be to the temper, and what friction must at times ensue, they live, as a rule, in good-fellowship and peace.

Occasionally, when a clan becomes too numerous to be accommodated by the house, or supported by the crops, a branch settles on another farm on the same estate, or, where that is impossible, as near the old home as they can. The ambition of a contadino is to have many sons to work the land, as otherwise labour must be hired, and where that cannot be afforded the peasant’s lot is indeed a hard one. When a contadino possesses, like Sorbi, one daughter, it is usual to marry her ‘in the house’; that is, to take her husband into her father’s house to help her father in the work, and some day to succeed himself to the proud position of capoccia and see his own sons grow up as heirs to the goodly acres and the old stone farm. Dario might well have good hopes of this happy consummation, being already the father of three chubby boys and a mimina; and he surveyed the little group on the doorstep proudly, as a man who had well fulfilled his mission, for where could old Sorbi have found a worthier son-in-law than he?

Mafalda, having heard rumours of a new-born calf, grew restless with excitement, and a visit to the byre was accordingly suggested, where, by its creamy mother’s side, lay the tiny, wistful-eyed creature, a red string tied round its neck to keep off the evil eye, for the contadini, though they do not care to admit it, are full of superstitions, and cherish many an old legend about ghosts, witches, fays and elves. Woe to the unfortunate person who acquires the reputation for having the evil eye! He may be the gentlest of creatures, overflowing with the milk of human kindness, and blameless of any ill-will towards his neighbours or their goods. To have been present two or three times when misfortunes have occurred; to have, in a careless moment, suggested the possibility of some evil happening which afterwards came to pass, these things are quite enough to start the rumour which will grow faster than Jack’s magic beanstalk, and, wherever he passes, ‘horns’ will be surreptitiously made to ward off the mischief which his presence would otherwise bring.

Old Sorbi gazed proudly at the calf and its mother, and with even more affection at the pair of great white oxen in the neighbouring stall; one of whom, lying on his bed of dry fern, rose indolently at the sound of his master’s voice, first kneeling, and then straightening his hind legs with deliberation, until at last he stood erect. The contadini have usually a passion for their oxen, treat them with the utmost kindness, and talk to them as if they were human, for, as Sorbi told us, with a sounding slap by way of caress on the shoulder of the nearest, ‘It is they, signorina, who earn the bread’. ‘Chi ha carro e buoi, fa bene i fatti suoi’; and Dario nodded approvingly as, with a handful of straw, he occupied the shining moment in grooming their glossy sides.

Dario is a tall, able-bodied fellow, but his head was much below the level of the oxen, who looked, as the peasants say, like mountains, so enormous was their height and bulk.

The last words of old Bacchiche, one of the contadini, to the sorrowing sons gathered round his bed when he was cut off untimely by pneumonia at the age of seventy-seven, were, ‘Ragazzi, rispettate sempre il bestiame e i padroni’, words entirely typical of the attitude to life of a peasant of the old school.

The sons to whom this exhortation was addressed, grown men of forty or fifty, had been in subjection to their father all their lives as completely as children. In obedience to him they had trudged week by week to a distant and lonely church, because he believed that the village church, which stood several miles nearer, was a place of temptation; since a village meant a wine-shop, and evil companions who might tempt these blameless youths from the paths of sobriety and virtue. In vain their comrades twitted them with their submission ; they had been trained to respect their father’s will implicitly, even in the matter of the wives he chose for them, and were so well accustomed to order themselves lowly and reverently to all their betters, first of whom stood the padrone, that there was hardly need of their father’s dying words.

On our return to the Aia, La Sorba peasant women being generally referred to with the utmost simplicity by the feminine form of their husband’s name invited me, in response to some comment on the size of the house, to visit the upper storey and see for myself what a Tuscan farm was like. Mounting the flight of stone stairs, we passed from the kitchen through several rooms, all comfortless and bare. The old people’s room contained only a bed, a chair, and a chest on which stood, under a glass case, a plaster Bambino Gesu; the next was as scantily furnished; in the remaining rooms were tools and piles of grain.

I asked La Sorba if she had any of the jewellery which the contadini used to hand down from one generation to another; for the Sorbi, being a prosperous family, were likely to own such things. ‘Eh, altro!’ she responded, with a proud nod of the head, ‘the signorina shall see’; and leading the way to the chest of drawers, she drew out a necklace and earrings of garnets and pearls, a string of corals, and two silver daggers for the hair. They were typical peasant ornaments of the ancient days, quaint and charming, of no little value, and I should have liked to possess them for myself! ‘There was Pietro, my brother’, she told me as she laid them back in the boxes; ‘he took a wife of a rich family, her father was a fattore, and she had more things in her dote than I. But when she died, and the child, Pietro sold them. For, said he, who is to wear them now? A pity, was it not, signorina? And the dealers gave him very little, though they say the signori in the city pay dear to have such things.’ They do indeed, and the dealers must make good bargains, buying as they do from the contadini, who generally only under stress of debt or illness part with these family heirlooms, and selling to the rich English and American travellers in search of curios.

At last the height of the sun in heaven warned me, even without an appeal to Dario, that it was close upon midday, so, calling the children, who were examining the baby with interest, we said our farewells, with much exchange of complimenti, good wishes, and promises of a speedy return. The rural feast had been a charming little episode, a pleasure to those who received, a pride to those who gave; and as, at the turn of the cart-track into the woods, I looked back at the farmhouse, I saw the whole family still grouped on the Aia, to watch us and smile a last good-bye.

Ah, the dear Tuscan peasants, how I love them! There may be much to criticise in them, but there always is in children; and what are they, after all, but children of a larger growth? Of course they are very ignorant, very pig-headed. They will keep a child sick of diphtheria shut in a close room where no fresh air may penetrate, refusing to let it go to the hospital, because they have heard that in hospitals the windows are opened and the children die of cold. When the poor mite dies of suffocation, they do not think it owing to negligence on their part. No, the buon Dio wanted the Angiolino and has taken him, and blessed be all the saints that he died in his own bed with his own family at home!

Dirty they are, certainly, and superstitious; very passionate; subject to swift rages and violent jealousies; rough and untaught: yet, in spite of all these defects, I love them; partly, perhaps, because they are the survival of an order of things which in our own country, with its progress and higher education, is passing fast away. They live their simple lives, their daily round of rhythmic toil, between three points the home, the Church, the Campo Santo. Born on the soil, they are contented to live by the soil, seldom desiring to strike out a new line as servant or artisan. Their primitive souls are free from all touch of modernity; they cling to their ancient traditions and customs, and to the old home among the olives, where often generations of a family are born and die.

They find joy in their simple work; they love the ground they cultivate; the only excitements which break the monotony of their lives are the weekly messa, a vintage or marriage dance, or a country fair. They are usually, at least when young, sunny-tempered, debonair, vivacious, pleased with little, gay on almost nothing. They are warm-hearted, and, to their padroni at all events, manifest a charming cordiality of manner, a rough but sincere courtesy which prompts them to offer their best.

They are generally very poor, though the term is, after all, relative, and to a Calabrian or Sicilian peasant the possessions of a Tuscan would be wealth, but, if poor, they are seldom discontented. They are industrious, and, as a rule, sober; drunkenness for which the Tuscan euphemism is ‘raising the elbow’! being not a common vice. They are both proud and respectful, perhaps respectful to others because proud themselves. They are unstudied in manner, graceful in gesture and attitude, as may be seen by a glance at any Tuscan taking his siesta in the shade. They always retain a touch of natural dignity well becoming those whose ancestry runs back to old Etruscan races, and who have the blood of Caesar’s armies in their veins. They are devout in their primitive way, desire the blessing of the Church on their crops and cattle, and cherish a profound belief in the protection of Mary V irgin and the saints. Ah yes, with all their faults which I do not deny they are lovable. They charm by their very simplicity and spontaneousness in an age so little simple as our own. And, for all their failings, is there not ever in their ready smiles something of their southern sunshine? are they not the true sons of that dear soil which once mothered all Europe, and of which, for many of us, are born the loveliest and most precious of our dreams?

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Posted January 1, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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