Thursday, March 27, 2014

Italian relatives faced difficulties that finally subsided after World War II

Grazia Michelotti and Franca Spadoni in Grazia's house.
Wednesday, March 26
While my grandparents Michele and Anita were struggling to make a start in the new world of America during the early 1900s, Michele’s brother Enrico faced his own set of difficulties in Italy. My aunts Lola and Clara had told me that Enrico, as the eldest brother, inherited the family farm from his father Pietro, while younger brothers Eugenio and Michele had to make it on their own, but today I learned that this was not so: Pietro had no land for any of them to inherit. He was a sharecropper, working under the mezzadria system.

GianFranco Del Terra

Lucy and I learned this while interviewing my second cousin Franca Spadoni, at age 82 the oldest of my Italian cousins, at the home of Grazia Michelotti, another second cousin. Also present were Grazia’s sister Marta and Martas husband GianFranco Del Terra, who helped me translate phrases beyond my understanding.


Franca, born in 1932 to Enrico’s son Ferruccio, grew up around her grandparents, and she said her nonno still holds a “very special place in my heart.” He would carry her around in a little bag strapped to his shoulders when he went out working on the farm or even hunting. Pietro died in 1904, the year after Michele left for America, but the most Enrico would have inherited would have been some tools and furniture. By the time Enrico’s grandchildren were born, his family no longer lived in San Salvatore. They had moved to a neighborhood near Pescia called Molinaccio, and later they moved again to Via di Campo, very near Molinaccio. It is possible they also lived other places between 1910 and 1930, but Franca doesn’t know.
Marta Michelotti

They moved because mezzadria contracts typically lasted no more than five years before having to be renewed, and the contadino or colono might find a better contract at another farm. Either that or the padrone might demand a more favorable contract for the right to continue farming his land. Under the mezzadria, land was divided into poderes, varying in size from seven or eight to thirty acres, sometimes even more. A padrone would provide a house, barns and stables, plow animals and other livestock, presses for oil and wine making, and carts and other tools. Instead of paying rent, a colono would give one half of every crop harvest and half of any profit made from the sale of animals, vegetables, eggs and milk. A manager known as a fattore kept the accounts. Some fattore were said to skillfully manipulate the ledgers to make a profit from both padrone and contadino, as is expressed in this old saying: “Fammi fattore un anno e se non mi aricco, mi dannĂ³.” Make me a fattore for a year, and if I don’t get rich, I’ll be damned.

The system strongly favored the landowners, though, because of the abundance of peasants struggling to survive. Landowners could require additional payments beyond the fifty percent, such as extra meat and other produce for holidays, and the contadino might also have to provide his own tools. The harshness of the system eventually led to uprisings and strikes shortly after World War I which threatened to paralyze the country’s agriculture system. In turn, this led the landowners to support the Fascists, who promised to restore order and crush the uprisings—and they did, bringing further suffering to the oppressed contadini.

Ferruccio Spadoni

Enrico’s eldest sons Adolfo and Alfredo had escaped this poverty and oppression by immigrating to the United States in 1913 and 1920, respectively, but Enrico and his two remaining sons, Ferruccio and Pietro, continued to struggle, not only under the mezzadria but now under the strict rule of Benito Mussolini. Ferruccio and his wife Nella had their passports in hand and were ready to follow Adolfo and Alfredo to America, but they had waited too long. In 1921 and 1924, new U.S. restrictions on immigration essentially closed down the borders. Marta said her parents tried to go to France, but that didn’t work out either. Ferruccio owned a horse, though, and he supplemented his farm income for five or six years by running a delivery service between Pescia and Livorno and other cities—until one day he woke up to find that the horse had dropped dead.

Pietro Spadoni

Ferruccio, along with Domenico, the father of Marta and Grazia, did go to the island of Corsica, a part of France, for three or four years during the late 1920s and early 1930s. They worked making paving stones and laying them down for roads. However, this was during the Great Depression, and they ended up doing much of the work without ever getting paid, and so they returned as poor as they were before. Pietro moved to nearby Pieve a Nievole and worked a very productive farm with his own horse; he also had  a dozen piglets and a big sow. He enjoyed a good relationship with his padrone, who owned a restaurant in Montecatini Alto, and Pietro would go daily to collect the leftover food for his pigs. However, when Italy went to war, Pietro’s house was occupied by German soldiers and he was taken to Germany by force to work. Domenico was recalled into the army in 1943, but fortunately he was not sent to fight outside the country. He served on guard duty at Postumia, a small city in Northern Italy, and when Italy changed sides, he was captured by the Germans, but he escaped and made his way home with the assistance of helpful farmers along the way.

Rina Spadoni and Domenico Michelotti, taken
around the time of their wedding.


A few years after World War II ended, Italy made a remarkable recovery that is referred to as the Miracolo Economico. Bolstered by U.S. aid from the Marshall Plan and a demand for metals and other manufactured goods prompted by the Korean War, the Italian economy experienced an average rate of growth of nearly six percent per year between 1951 and 1963 and five percent annually between 1964 and 1973. “A nation once literally in ruins, beset by heavy unemployment and inflation, has expanded its output and assets, stabilized its costs and currency and created new jobs and new industries at a rate unmatched in the Western world,” President John Kennedy remarked in 1963. Electric lines were run to the farming neighborhoods. Machines took over much of the farming work. The mezzadria disappeared because the peasants could find better paying work in factories and stores. Franca’s brother Romano, for example, went to Milano and worked many years for Alfa Romeo before returning to retire in Toscana. With few experienced farmers available to work their fields, landowners had to start selling off pieces of their property, which went for bargain rates to contadini who wished to buy their own land.
Since then, most of my Italian cousins have left their contadini roots and found work elsewhere. Before retiring, Franca’s eldest son Giovanni worked in a factory making glass bottles, and Paolo, her other son, repaired cars in a body shop. Both of Marta’s sons are policemen. Others cousins of the same generation include a chemist, a geologist and an orthodontist. Another is interning in a law office, and one is a tennis instructor at a sports club. After years of struggling under inferior economic conditions, the relatives who stayed in Italy are now enjoying essentially the same prosperity that their American counterparts achieved a bit earlier. While most Spadonis today still enjoy working in their own small gardens, no one depends on working the soil for a livelihood. However, it seems that the farmer’s work ethic and love of family learned through the centuries have not been lost.

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