Archive for the ‘Mezzadria’ Tag

Source: Wine harvest c. 1900   Leave a comment

The wine harvest described here took place in ‘a picturesque old mansion’ (once belonging to the Arte della Lana) ‘slightly raised above the plain, and about two miles from the Arno’, ‘opposite Monte Morello’ c. 1900. It would be interesting to identify the building in question. The illustration comes from the same source. SY

In this pleasant and picturesque old mansion were assembled a joyous company, mixed Italian and English, for the vintage of 1874. To the advent of the forestieri was ascribed by the courteous contadini the splendid yield of grapes, better than they had seen for twenty-six years. [Note here in the text: That is to say, since the outbreak of the iodium. To give some idea of the virulence of the disease, the farms on this estate, though two less in number, used to produce at least two thousand barile of wine ; and in this, an exceptional year, the yield was only one thousand one hundred. One year, when the disease was at its height, they had five barile of stuff resembling mud! A barile holds fifty litres.]

On a fine September morning we started, Italian and English, men and women, masters and mistresses, and servants laden with innumerable baskets, big and little, each armed with a rough pair of scissors, and our padrona leading the way, with her guitar, pouring out as she went an endless flow of stornelli, rispetti, and canzoni, in which Tuscany is as rich as in any of the country products, maize or figs, pumpkins or tomatoes, oil or wine, or grain, the Italians amongst us improvising words to the well-known airs.

The vintage is always a happy time; everyone works with a will, and is contented and light-hearted. As Modesto, one of our men, said, ‘Buon vino fa buon sangue’ (Good wine makes good blood).

The old fattore (bailiff), who had retired from all active work on the estate, except the management of his especial pets, the vineyards alla francese (vines cut low in the French fashion, and not allowed to straggle from tree to tree as is the Tuscan usage), was very great on this occasion. He pointed out trees he had planted, and works he had done, fifty years ago, before the padrone was born. The dear old man was now seventy-eight, and as brisk and alert as any of us; with an eye still bright, and his keen, humorous face as full of vivacity as the youngest. He was full of old proverbs and wise sayings, like all peasants of the Casentino, his native region, about twenty miles south-west of Florence; and looked sharply after all our workmen to see that each duly did the picking of his row of vines. He was struck with great admiration at the way in which Englishmen, and women too, worked, and quite concerned for the repeated drenchings in perspiration of a strenuous old gentleman of the party, remarking gravely, ‘Questo povero Signor Antonio! ma suda troppo!’ (‘This poor Mr. Tom, he sweats too much’). He chuckled when we got hot and red under the burning sun, gracefully putting it to the ladies, ‘Il sole di Italia vi ha baciato’ (‘the sun of Italy has kissed you’).

By eleven we were thoroughly tired, and went to rest under the scanty shade of the olives and fig trees with our guitar. One of the young peasants had lost his grandfather in Russia with Napoleon I., and we called him up, and told him to sing about the great general. He sung to a favourite stornello air:

‘Guarda, Napoleon, quello che fai ;

La meglio giovcntu tutta la vuoi,

E le ragazze te le friggerai.’

‘Napoleon, fa le cose giuste,

Falla la coscrizion delle ragazze,

Piglia le belle, e lasciar star le brutte.’

‘Napoleon, te ne pentirai!

La meglio gioventu tutta la vuoi;

Della vecchiaia, che te ne farai.’

‘Napoleon, non ti stimar guerriero

A Mosca lo troveresti l’osso duro,

All’ isola dell’ Elba prigioniero.’

(‘While you go our youths collecting, All our pretty girls neglecting, Pause, Napoleon, and beware. Deal more justly with all classes, Make conscription of the lasses, Leave the plain and choose the fair. Napoleon, if with ruthless hand, Of its flower you mow the land: In old age you’ll pay it dear. Boast not, tyrant, of your glory, Moscow’s plains were grim and gory, Elba was a prison drear.’)

Twelve o’clock brought a welcome arrival – lunch from the villa. Grape-picking is a capital sharpener of the appetite. We were soon reclining – sub tegmine fagi – round a steaming dish of risotto con funghi, and a knightly sirloin of roast beef, which would have done honour to old England. A big fiasco (a large bottle bound round with reeds or straw, and holding three ordinary bottles) of last year’s red wine was soon emptied, well tempered, I should say, with water from the neighbouring well. At a little distance the labourers in the vineyard were enjoying the unwonted luxury of a big wooden bowl full of white beans crowned with polpette, little sausages of minced meat and rice.

We first gathered all the white grapes. These were transferred from our small baskets to big ones, placed at the end of each row of vines. These bigger baskets were then carried on men’s backs to the villa, where the grapes were laid out to dry in one of the towers, on stoje, great trays made of canes. Here they are exposed to sun and air for some weeks, when they are used for making the vin’ santo. After the white grapes were gathered, we fell to on the black, of the choice kinds, the San Giovese, the Aleatico, the Colorino, and the Occhio di Pernice.

These also were destined to be exposed on stoie in the same manner. They are used as governo, that is to say, when the new wine is racked for the first time these choice black grapes are put in, so as to cause another fermentation, they at once deepen the colour of the wine and make it clear.

How melancholy the vines looked stripped of their grapes! The glorious white and golden, and pink and deep red bunches had given a beauty to the landscape which one did not realise until they were gone, and the poor vines stood bare.

In our discussions about the progress of our work, the time of day often came in question. The old fattore was very anxious to know how we in England knew the hour, as he had heard that our churches did not ring the Ave Maria at midday or in the evening. He had, doubtless, a settled conviction that we were little better than heathens, but was too polite to say so. We explained that we had abundance of both big clocks and little watches; but he answered, ‘Ma che’  (with a horizontal wave of the hand), ‘I have a watch too. I set it by the Ave Maria and hardly ever use it. At midday, when the Ave Maria rings, we know we are to eat; and when we hear it at sundown, twenty-four o’clock, as we say here, we leave off work; and at one o’clock of night (an hour after sunset) it rings again so that we may remember our dead and say an Ave for them.’ All our arguments to prove that clocks and watches might be good substitutes for the Ave Maria were useless, and he remained stanch to his idea that England must be a wretched place without the Ave Maria ‘Si deve star male in Inghilterra senza Ave Maria.’

At last the beautiful great white oxen, with their large, soft, black eyes, tassels of red and yellow worsted dangling about the roots of their horns and over their cool moist noses, came to the edge of the vineyard drawing a large vat (tino) fixed on the cart. Into this all the remaining grapes were thrown. A handsome lad of sixteen, after tucking up his trousers and washing his feet in a bucket of water drawn from the well close by, jumped atop of the vat and lustily stamped down the contents, singing as he plied his purple-stained feet: ‘Bella bellina, chi vi ha fatto gli occhi? Che ve gli ha fatti tanto innamorati? Da letto levereste gli ammalati, Di sotto terra levereste i morti. Tanto valore e tanta valoranza! Vostri begli occhi son la mia speranza.’ (‘My lovely charmer, who hath made thine eyes, That fill our bosoms with such ecstasies? Their glance would draw the sick man from his bed, Or haply pierce the tomb and raise the dead. Oh! my sweet love, thy beauty and thy worth, Are all my hope and all my joy on earth.’)

Of such tender sentiment and musical sound are the songs of the Tuscan ‘roughs’. These songs are most of them the composition, both words and airs, of the peasants and artisans who sing them. The hills round Pistoia and the streets of Florence ring with an ever-renewed outpour of such sweet and simple song.

The padrone prides himself much on his fine breed of oxen, and told us the old Tuscan proverb, ‘Chi ha carro e buoi,fa bene i fatti suoi’ (‘Whoso has cart and oxen does good business’).

When the last load of grapes was carted off we returned to the villa, where we found all hands busy in the great courtyard of the fattoria on one side of the villa, emptying the grapes and must out of the vats with wooden bigoncie, high wooden pails without handles. These are carried on men’s shoulders, and their contents poured into immense vats (tino) ranged all round the courtyard under covered arcades. In our wine-shed (tinaia) there are about fifty of these, containing from five to fifty butts each, besides three large square reservoirs of stone each holding three hundred barrels. The bubbling and boiling of the fermenting wine fills the air, and the smell is almost strong enough to get drunk upon. The men often do get tipsy, if they remain too long treading the grapes, or drawing off the new wine.

But here it is an article of faith that the perfume of the must is the best medicine, and people bring weakly children to tread the grapes and remain in the tinaia to breathe the fume-laden air and eat of the fresh fruit; for at vintage-time no peasant or padrone refuses grapes to anyone who asks. They say that il buon Dio has given them plenty, and why should they in their turn not give to those who have nothing?

I suppose this universal readiness to give is one reason why there is so little stealing here. You see vines full of fruit close to the roads, and quite unprotected by any sort of fence, and yet no one of the country-side ever takes them. There are, it is true, certain malfamati villages, whose inhabitants have the reputation of thieves, and against these, and pilferers from the large towns, the vineyards are guarded by men armed with guns, with which they keep popping the night through. At times you see twenty or thirty poor people standing quietly looking on, until called up to receive their dole of grapes, with which they go away happy, with their graceful ‘Dio ve ne renda merito’. At home they will mix water with the must they squeeze out of their basket or apronful of such ungrudged gifts, and make mezzo vino, or acquavello (water and wine fermented together), for the winter.

The same thing is done on a large scale at many fattorie. This mixture of wine and water is distributed to the poor in winter, and is the common drink of the workmen about the villa. After the first good wine is drawn off from the vats, the vinaccia (skins, grape-stones, and stalks) is put into the press, and the second wine pressed out. This is good, but considerably rougher, from the larger amount of tannin, due to the skins and stalks, than that which is drawn off from the vats after fermentation without any agency of the press. After passing through the press, the clots of vinaccia are again put into the vats, and water is poured upon them. In eight or ten days a fresh fermentation takes place, and the vinaccia is once more pressed in the wine-press. This gives mezzo vino, or acquarello (half-wine), not at all bad, but of course of insufficient body to keep through the summer. For this there is no want of demand at the villa. Besides the rations of the workpeople, there are the poveri del buon Dio.

In Tuscany there are no almshouses or poorhouses, save in the chief towns. Most villas have one or two days in the week when alms are distributed to all who come and ask. Here the gathering of poor occurs every Monday and Thursday, at ten in the morning. A hunch of bread, a glass of half-wine, and five centimes are doled out to every applicant, and on Christmas Day anyone who brings a fiasco has it filled with mezzo-vino, and gets half a loaf of bread and a half a pound of uncooked meat. Such has been the custom, I am told, for many hundred years.

Our happy holiday vintaging lasted for five days, and then we went to help the vintaging of one of the contadini of the padrone, a family that had been on the estate for two hundred and eighty years. All their vines were trained Tuscan fashion on maples, and we had the help of ladders and steps to gather the grapes. Half the grapes, and indeed half of all the produce of the land – grain, pumpkins, flax, fruit, or wine – belongs to the padrone, who pays all the taxes and buys the cattle. The contadino pays no rent for his house, which the padrone keeps in repair. The peasant gives the labour, and the master finds the capital. This is, in rough outline, the system of mezzeria, or half-and-half tenure, still universal in Tuscany. Like all human things, it has two sides, and may be condemned as the most backward, or defended as the most patriarchal and wholesome of systems, binding landlord and tenant in the bond of an obviously common interest, and encouraging the closest and most familiar relations between the two. When the landlord is intelligent, active, and judicious, he may become a centre of enlightenment and improvement to his tenantry; but all his attempts must be made with the most cautious discretion, or he will infallibly frighten, and perhaps alienate, his tenantry, who are thorough Conservatives, and love stare super antiques vias. Thus the best commentary on the Georgics is still agriculture in action in Tuscany, a passing peep into one of whose most pleasing chapters has been attempted in this paper.

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Posted January 8, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Source: A communist farmer speaks about agriculture   Leave a comment

In 1966 Belden Paulson published The Searchers: Conflict and Communism in an Italian Town. In writing the book Paulson interviewed representative citizens from the small Lazio town of Castelfuoco of all social classes and all political groups. The following is from an interview with the young Communist Mario Libertini and is one of several passages in the book that give insights into agricultural relations in the dopo guerra.

It is not true that Italy has made giant steps since the war, as the Christian Democrats, would have us believe. Other countries, much more damaged – Germany, for example – have done a lot more than Italy. I do not know whether this depends on the people or the government; anyway, millions and billions have been spent, but double or triple could have been done. Take the crisis that has hit the farmers; our group should have been helped the most. After all, at the end of the war this was most of the population. Instead, it has been treated the worst. The young farmers are abandoning the land, and the must marry late because they have no money. The government has given us no help to form a cooperative, even though the farmer getsonly 35 or 40 lire for a liter of wine, while the prince in Rome is 160 to 200 lire. The pensione of the small farmer is 10,000 lire a month – real poverty. Can you imagine anyone living on that, even Cristoforo Sereni in his straw hut? So eighty year-old farmers must continue to work the fields. The farmer, after paying expenses, is lucky to earn 250 lire a day. And the government still wants us to do all the work with the hoe. They pass a law to get us machinery, but Bonomi, as ex fascist, controls the Federconsorzi which sells the tractors and machines. It is a big monopoly that charges high prices, gets the little farmer in debt, and finally ruins us. But most schifose [disgusting] of all are the enfiteusi, which are obligations set up in medieval times when the Colonna feudo was formed and today are still with us. Maybe once they made sense; Colonna at least gave his farmers protection in return for their feudal dues. But now it is plain injustice, benefiting only the signori. My father, for example, bought his several hectares when he returned from America; he paid the full price to the agrari at the time of the sale fifty years ago, yet the contract stipulated that he must continue to pay corrisposte, a part of his product to the original owner. Over half the land in Castelfuoco still suffers from the ridiculous arrangement. It all began when the feudal owners first ‘conceded’ land to the small farmers who were forced to kneel at the agrarians’ feet and accept humiliating conditions. The only way to get out of paying the corriposte now is to pay the old owner hundreds of thousands of lire. This is impossible for a farmer, given his tiny return from the land. I remember when I was little: each year at harvest time Tramonta would send out his guardiano who rode his horse through the land ordering everyone to give a percentage of the harvest. If we did not pay he would call the carabinieri, who worked for the agrarians anyway. Now these signori are a bit more moderate. Prince Colonna has forfeited some of his dues, for they are not worth the trouble to collect. Most of the farmers have agreed to pay so much each year, without the humiliation of the guardiano coming on your land. But it is always a heavy burden, because if I have a bad year and make only four quintali of grapes, I must give the same percentage. There are rumours that these absurd obligations are about to end; I think the problem has been taken to parliament. So far it is only a hope. If anything is changing today it is because we have a strong Communist party opposing these injustices. Otherwise the medieval system would always be with us. Everything I owe to the party. Through it I oriented myself – in the party, in the Federterra, in the Unione Contadini, in protest demonstrations. Who come into my field to talk with me – apart from election day – except my party? When bad weather wrecked my crop and I was desperate, the government did nothing – no one cared. But some of us in the party went as a delegation to the ministry in Rome. We were given only 150 lire apiece – just enough to pay our bus fare – but we have fought anyway.

Posted September 10, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Source: the mezzadria system   Leave a comment

An English overview of the mezzadria system from about 1900. Even twenty years later it would have been difficult to find a favourable account such as this one… SY

Of land-leasing in the English sense there is little: on almost every estate is established the system of mezzadria, a division of labour and capital which arouses in the contadini, as part-proprietor, a genuine interest in crops and cattle. Every estate worked upon the mezzadria plan is divided into various farms or poderes, varying in extent from seven or eight to thirty acres, or even more. Upon each podere stands a house, stables, and outbuildings, all provided by the padrone, and for the use of these and the land the contadino gives his work, so that a farm is often handed down from father to son, from one generation to another, and the peasant learns to love the land he cultivates as something of his own. This system of half-and-half tenure was instituted, writes one of its Italian supporters, ‘in the palmy days of the Roman Republic, when the plebeians obtained civil rights, but fell into disuse when slavery became general’. It was re-established in the fourteenth century, and perhaps the peasants’ custom of speaking of themselves as their padrone’s gente (Latin, gens) is a survival of the Roman origin.

It is a system which has many advantages. The people, if poor, have at least a roof to cover them, a piece of land to till. They learn to love the soil they cultivate with something of the old pagan passion for the earth, which is, after all, natural to all men, since we, too, are of the clay from which the Potter shapeth the world. The bitter, grudging feeling, often aroused in a day-labourer towards his master, is unfelt, for the contadino and padrone share both gains and losses, and the former in desiring his master’s prosperity is also desiring his own.

The padrone, in addition to land and house, provides such oxen, horses and donkeys as are necessary, presses for oil and wine making, and tools, carts, and other stock; but if an ox or other beast dies, the loss is shared. The contadino, on his side, pays, instead of rent, one half in kind of every crop corn, grapes and olives; and in money, one half of any profit made by the sale of animals, vegetables, eggs and milk. A bailiff, known as the fattore keeps all accounts, and once a year a professional accountant goes over the books and reads out to each man in the padrone’s presence all the items to his own credit or his master’s during the year, so that either can correct any mistake.

Of course this system, like all others, is capable of abuse, especially when an absentee landlord leaves all in the hands of his facttore, who in such cases, by skilful adjustment of the books, makes his profit from master and peasant alike. ‘Fammi Fattore un anno E se non mi aricco, mi danno’, is a saying supposed to express the usual way of bailiffs, but where the fattore is an honest man there can be little doubt that the system works well.

Posted September 5, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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