Monday, March 3, 2014

The life of an Italian contadino 100 years ago—and before

Monday, March 3
Pietro Seghieri
In an effort to understand the way of life and the struggles and challenges that my ancestors in the Valdinievole endured, I spoke to brothers Sergio and Pietro Seghieri and Gino Petrocchi, one of Sergio’s cousins on his grandmother’s side of the family. With the help of friend and translator Elena Benvenuti, I asked these men, all born in the 1930s, what life was like for them and their parents and grandparents. I knew that prior to the early 1900s, life here had continued largely unchanged for some centuries, so if I could obtain a portrait of their parent’s lives, I would have a good idea what both of my Italian grandfathers and quite a few generations before them had endured.

Gino and the Seghieri brothers said that a typical farmer in San Salvatore would have produced all the food needed to feed his family. Four or five people could survive on the produce of one ettaro of land, about two and a half acres. Their gardens would have grown a large variety of vegetables the same as are seen in farmers’ markets today, including carrots, potatoes, beets, garlic, radishes, turnips, artichokes, tomatoes, eggplant, asparagus, fennel, chard, spinach, broccoli, cabbages, cauliflower, peppers, beans, lentils, chickpeas, zucchini and other types of squash and another handful of verdure I have neglected to mention. Then they would have had fruit trees: apples, pears, apricots, peaches, figs. Every family had its own chickens, pigs, rabbits and cows. Extra eggs, vegetables and fruit would have been sold at the market in Montecatini, they said.

Pietro shows how he used this tool, which he called a frullana, to cut his wheat.
A cash crop of particular importance to this region since the twelfth century was the mulberry silkworm. Lucca’s silk production and textile factories made a vital contribution to its prosperity in the late middle ages and Renaissance, and that continued but on a much smaller scale in later years. Sergio said that mulberry bushes were planted on the edges of their farm, and he can still vividly recall the crunching sound that the voracious leaf-eating caterpillars made when he walked past the bushes. Farmers did not spin the thread but instead sold the pupae to factories. Now, though, most silk is made in Asia.

Sergio Seghieri
Of course every farming family also had its vines to make grapes for wine and olive trees to produce oil. Wheat, corn and olives were brought to local water mills for grinding. Chestnuts were also used to make flour, especially important for farms on the hillsides that were not suitable for growing grain. Much of the grain had to be dried and stored on the upper floor of the houses and barns to keep the animals fed during the winter months.

A macellaio would come by every week to see what animals were ready for slaughter, Pietro said. Sergio recalled that the piglets would be butchered before Christmas so the family would have plenty of meat for the holidays. Every day, a lattiao would come on a horse to collect milk, with two big bombole hanging down on each side of the horse to hold the milk. “Milk from our cows was not for the family,” Pietro said. “It was to be sold. We would make bread once a week, enough to last all week. It was better than the bread they make today.”

None of the houses had inside bathrooms, running water or heat. Water had to be drawn from the well each day. Firewood had to be cut and gathered for winter warmth. And of course all the planting and harvesting was done by hand with simple tools, though man and animal worked together with machines to plough the fields.

zappa would be used to cover
up the seeds of grain.
The Seghieri families in the Marcucci neighborhood have owned their own land since at least the 1300s, but many less fortunate contadini had to sharecrop, a system known as the mezzadria. Large landowners would divide their land into sections and allow other families to live on it and grow crops. Half of the produce would go to the landowner. Gino said that on Saturdays and Sundays, needing to rest, the contadini would go to San Salvatore to socialize in the bars, but when the landowners saw the sharecroppers resting, they would badger them to get back to work.

“The contadini would go the bar owner,” Gino said, “and they’d say, ‘Give us a room of our own where we can lock the door and not be seen by the padroni.”

Huge advancements came at the end of World War 2. Technology advanced so that machines took over much of the work. Electric lines were run to the Marcucci neighborhood. The mezzadria was abolished. But perhaps the biggest change was the development of the flower market, which hit the Valdinievole like a storm. Farmers who formerly had to sharecrop were able to buy their own land, and those who already owned land and made the switch to flower farming—including Pietro, Sergio and Mario Seghieri
prospered, though not without a lot of lot of back-breaking work. Today these cousins of mine are retired and able to enjoy some leisure time in the same neighborhood where they and our ancestors tilled the ground for centuries. However, now they live in clean, modern and spacious houses they were able to build by strain, sweat and the mid-1900s boom of the plant industry.  “It was a simpler life before the flowers,” Pietro said, “but the flower business was better.”

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