Saturday, January 24, 2015

Annie Hawes Extra Virgin tops my list of favorite Italian memoirs

I read Frances Mayes Under the Tuscan Sun shortly after it was published in 1997, and that hooked me on the genre of memoirs about people moving to Italy, buying homes in Italy, or visiting Italy for extended stays. Now I have read at least twenty-five of these, and I would like to name my favorites, starting with my top choice. More will come in successive entries.

Extra Virgin, by Annie Hawes, 2001
While Frances Mayes did a nice job of describing menus, fabulous foods and landscapes and the joys and pitfalls of buying and remodeling a home in Italy, Annie Hawes goes deeper. While she and her sister do not easily assimilate into the small community they try to join, the book tells the often amusing story of their attempts to do so. In the process, Hawes tells far more about the authentic Italian characters she encounters than does Mayes. Hawes made plenty of mistakes; she comes across as a naive English girl, which she initially was, and the stories she tells entertain while revealing insights behind the seemingly strange peasant beliefs and the everyday life of a small Italian town on the Ligurian coast. It helps that she lived in the town for twenty years before writing the book, which gave her plenty of time to accumulate stories and understand the people and their culture.

Amazon reviewer Gothamannie writes: “Whereas the Mayes series focus on the earthly pleasures of Italy, Extra Virgin is about character—from the social protocol amid the local gentry at the village coffee shop to the laughs the sisters endure when they take another helping of antipasti or primi (shame on them!) Here is an outsider’s honest, non-academic attempt to dissect the prejudices between Northern & Southern Italians—to probe their grudges and prejudices—and maybe even bend the rules a little (never too much!) Yet the reader never gets the sense that the Italians aren’t warm to the author—on the contrary, despite the occasional playful ridicule, they are portrayed as kind, generous, resourceful, rugged and hardworking . . . It serves as a terrific and necessary guidebook cloaked in a travelogue—it has the fantasy aspect of moving to Italy, but it’s done with a heaping dose of reality.”

Hawes writes descriptively without being flowery or poetic, and her wry and witty observations will keep the reader smiling. She comes across as neither infatuated with nor cynical about Italy, but one can see that the country gradually reveals its charms to her. Hawes has written two follow-up books about her later experiences, both of which continue in the same style, so if you like Extra Virgin as much as I did, you can move on to Ripe for the Picking and Journey to the South.

My second favorite Italy memoir is not so widely known and is a bit offbeat. Click here to read about A Valley in Italy.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Franca’s Story tells tragic saga of Italian suffering during World War II

What would it feel like to have your country join in a war on the side of one of the most evil dictators in modern history, and then have his fanatic soldiers occupy your country, killing and starving your family, friends and fellow citizens? This is a question answered by author Diane Kinman in Franca’s Story, a true account of teenager Franca Mercati, who lived in Italy during the years of World War II. The conflict shatters Franca’s childhood and devastates her family, but she finds the strength to overcome obstacles with courage and ingenuity.

Franca and her family flee their home in Florence to escape Allied bombs and settle in their beach home at Viareggio. One brother is soon killed, and a second is missing in action. She watches in horror as her school friends die in a bombing at the Pisa train station and narrowly escapes from a visit to her sister in Buggiano with a deserting Nazi doctor. Shortly after this, she and her family narrowly escape death when their home is destroyed in a bombing raid. Franca and her friend must scavenge for food to feed their families and many other people, since the occupying German army has less interest in the business of two small girls than they would with older members of the families.

The story is narrated in a matter-of-fact voice—without anger or bitterness—but with ample descriptions to bring the characters and drama to life. It is particular poignant to Italian-Americans, like me, who had relatives in the same region forced to live through this frightening and brutal time. I highly recommend it to anyone who want to understand Italian history and events of the last century which shaped today’s Italian people.

Other blogs about Italy during World War II:
Mario Seghieri, World War 2, Montecarlo and the Gothic Line
Surviving Facism and the war, Gig di Meo thrives on geniality, good fortune

Friday, January 16, 2015

Early Spadoni families of the Valdinievole survived wars, famines, ice ages, epidemics and poverty

The earliest known ancestor in our branch of the Spadoni family lived during the 1400s in a remote village called Marliana, about seven miles north of Montecatini in Toscana’s chestnut-covered lower hills of the Alpi Apuane. This isolated location may have helped Bartolomeo Spadoni avoid the plagues and wars that decimated the more populous locales. In the mid-1400s, Bartolomeo’s son Francesco moved seven miles southwest to Stignano, next to the larger towns of Pescia and Montecatini, and only three miles east of the Seghieri family. Though geographically close and sharing the same profession—farming—it is doubtful that the Spadoni and Seghieri families of the medieval era were well acquainted. The Spadoni family would have gone to market in Pescia or Montecatini and the Seghieris in Montecarlo or Altopascio. Additionally, the three miles between Montecarlo and Montecatini for some centuries was a borderline between the kingdoms of Lucca and Firenze, further dividing the neighboring communities.

A cycle of wars, famines, ice ages and epidemics that started in the 1300s continued with varying severity all the way into the 1800s. Periods of peace alternated with renewed warfare as various rulers battled to control the fertile Valdinievole, the valley of the Nievole River. The city walls of Stignano were destroyed by warfare and subsequently rebuilt several times, until the citizens finally gave up and stopped rebuilding.
Cosimo I de' Medici
The castle of Montecatini Alto contained twenty-five towers and two fortresses surrounded by nearly two miles of stone walls, but Cosimo I de’ Medici, angered because the city’s inhabitants refused to side with him, ordered that the city be destroyed in 1554. Of the wall, only a single door remains, and only two towers were left standing. Obviously, some of my ancestors and their family members and friends would have fought in these battles, as historians estimate that around ten to fifteen percent of the population participated in armies during the Middle Ages. Piero Spadoni, born in 1617, is listed in church records as a corporale in 1661, and by 1664 he had been promoted to sergente. The cessation of a war brought celebration: A document from Buggiano, a sister city half a mile from Stignano, announces a community festa for the cessation of a war in 1544, to be celebrated with great bonfires.

Cosimo also struck a more indirect blow to the region in 1548 when he ordered dams built to stop the outflow from the swamps in the southern Valdinievole, turning the marshy ground into a lake that buried forests and farmland and prompted frequent epidemics of malaria commencing in 1550. Buggiano, Stignano and Montecatini were particularly hard hit in 1554 and 1557, but malaria outbreaks continued well into the 1800s. The bubonic plague which had devasted Italy in the 1300s also returned to claim more lives throughout the centuries. The Italian Plague of 1629-31 killed another 28,000. It hit hardest in the north, but a similar outbreak, focused in Florence, occurred from 1630 to 1633. 
Stignano and Buggiano instituted a quarantine prohibiting commercial activities with Lucca and dozens of other cities in an attempt to keep the plague away, but it had only moderate success. Parish priest Francesco Pellegrini wrote in 1631: “In Pescia certainly more than 2,000 people have died, and in Massa so many have died that now there are no more than 300 souls remaining, big and small, and maybe fewer in this community of Buggiano . . . and it is the same in Stignano.

It was during this time that my descendants moved out of the hill village of Stignano and down into the flats of the Valdinievole. Most relocated only as far as Borgo a Buggiano and Ponte Buggianese, both within a few miles of Stignano. The reason for the movement appears to be a combination of limited area for farming in Stignano and abundant vacant fields in the plains below—an area prone to flooding but gradually becoming more usable through the construction of networks of canals and levees. Two Spadonis, Michele and Battista, are listed as attending the first Mass of the church of San Michele Archangelo in Ponte Buggianese in 1602. Antonio joined them in 1623. The church did not have a baptismal font until 1634, so children were baptized in either Stignano or Buggiano. The first Spadoni baptized in Ponte Buggianese was Lorenza, daughter of Antonio and Bartolomea, in 1637. Her cousin Lorenzo was born next in 1638, to my ancestors, Lionardo and Agnola. Within the next twenty-five years, numerous other Spadonis moved from Stignano to Ponte Buggianese, including two Giovannis, two Pieros, two Domenicos and an Andrea and a Carlo.

Le lagon gelé en 1708, by Gabriele Bella, part of a
lagoon which froze over in 1708-9, Venice, Italy.
They chose a difficult time to start over, as the peak years of the Little Ice Age occurred shortly after, during a period of weak solar activity from 1645 to 1715 called the Maunder Minimum. Italian researchers Nazzareno Diodato and Gianni Bellochi reported in a 2012 study: “Extreme cold with snow occurred in sixteen of twenty-five winters between 1675 and 1700. Especially the years 1665, 1677, 1684, 1687 and 1692 temperatures fell sharply and rivers on the Italian peninsula froze. The Venetian Lagoon froze over in 1684 and 1709.”

A priest in Angers, France, wrote: “The cold began on January 6, 1709. The crops that had been sewn were all completely destroyed. Most of the hens had died of cold, as had the beasts in the stables. When any poultry did survive the cold, their combs were seen to freeze and fall off. Many birds, ducks, partridges, woodcock and blackbirds died and were found on the roads and on the thick ice and frequent snow. Oaks, ashes and other valley trees split with cold. Two thirds of the vines died. No grape harvest was gathered at all in Anjou. I myself did not get enough wine from my vineyard to fill a nutshell.”

On a positive note, the Valdinievole during the 1600s and 1700s experienced a respite from the frequent major wars, even if the ruling foreign governments of Italy changed fairly often. In the early 1800s, the area succumbed with almost no resistance to the governance of Napoleon Bonaparte, a rule which lasted until his defeat and abdication in 1814, at which time the area again became part of the duchy of Tuscany. When Italy finally united as one country during the mid-1800s, the people of Tuscany voted overwhelmingly in favor of joining the new government, and the transition took place peacefully, with little interruption in the daily routines of the common people.

In fact, throughout the hardships, warfare and changes of loyalties between the 1300s and the 1800s, for the farmers in the region, life changed very little. Each family would have kept donkeys, oxen or cows to help plow the fields, which were planted with wheat, olives, grapes and fruit trees—Biblical products, common food for all peoples of Mediterranean stock. Every family threshed its own wheat with heavy wooden flails, which can still be seen today in some remote Tuscan farms. Likely my ancestors wore the common dress of peasant farmers of the time, a short gray tunic of coarse homespun wool called a bigella.

From the writings of Francesco Datini, a wealthy merchant who lived in the late 1300s in nearby Prato, we can see foods that were common during the era, which are largely the same today. He wrote of eating lasagne, ravioli, minestra, mortadella, eggs, cheese, bread made from finely ground wheat flour, fish, pork and a wide variety of fowls, both wild and domesticated. Datini’s stuffing for ravioli consisted of “pounded pork, eggs, cheese and a little sugar and parsley, after which the ravioli were fried in pork lard and powdered with sugar.” It is likely that ravioli made by Spadoni and Seghieri women were simpler, though, as they were not as well off as Datini.

A cookbook of the day describes a red sauce made of raisins, cinnamon, sandal and sumach (a substance now used only for tanning). These were pounded together and mixed with wine and meat. A white sauce used sugar, cinnamon, cloves, bread and vinegar. Of course olive oil, wild herbs and nuts were probably used frequently to complement pasta as well, especially by peasants.

A typical contadino 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, onions, leeks, radishes, turnips, artichokes, eggplant, asparagus, fennel, chard, spinach, broccoli, cabbages, cauliflower, peppers, basil, beans, lentils, chickpeas, zucchini and other types of squash and another handful of verdure, quite a bit of which also grew wild. Included in the latter category were fungi, wild mushrooms, of which there were dozens of varieties to seek out in the hills. Then they would have had fruit trees: apples, pears, apricots, peaches, figs. Each year, the farmers would plant a few new olive trees and dig several ditches for new vines. Every family had its own chickens, pigs, rabbits and cows, and they knew how to use every part for food. Extra eggs, milk, vegetables and fruit would have been sold at the markets in Pescia and Montecatini.

While wars and political intrigue often threatened their families, the farmers’ more immediate concerns were providing for their families. They met to establish local laws that would prevent farmers upstream for impeding the waterways, and local committees met regularly to mete out penalties if the cattle of one farmer damaged the fields of another. Fines were doubled if the infraction occurred during the time of harvest. Fines were cut in half if the offending animal was a horse, donkey or under a year of age. In addition, the number of animals was restricted, at least in the area around Stignano. Each family could possess twelve sheep, two goats, two pigs and six oxen, with the obligation to conduct them to the mountains for pasture. Strict laws were also enacted to prevent anyone from cutting herbs or hay on the fields of a neighbor. Festivals revolved around the harvests of the most vital of the crops—grains, grapes and olives in particular.

Some integral foods now automatically associated with Italy were unavailable to my ancestors: They had no tomatoes, corn or coffee. Coffee was not introduced until the 1600s in Venezia, coming from the east and spreading throughout Italy and then into the rest of Europe. When paesano Cristoforo Colombo of Genova reached America in 1492 and imports from the new country began to arrive, two of the more significant changes in the Italian family diet came with the arrival of tomatoes and corn, now considered indispensable in the Italian diet.

Colombo brought corn to Europe on either his first or second voyage. In 1519, Spanish explorer Cortez discovered tomatoes growing in Montezuma’s gardens and brought seeds back to Europe, where they were planted only as an ornamental crop. Italy was the first to cultivate the “pomo d’oro,” or yellow apple, outside of South America. The first reference to tomato sauce in Italian cuisine came in Antonio Latini’s cookbook, Lo scalco alla moderna. Latini was chef to the Spanish viceroy of Napoli, and one of his recipes was for sauce alla spagnuola, “in the Spanish style.” The first reference for using tomato sauce with pasta appears in the Italian cookbook L’Apicio moderno, by chef Francesco Leonardi of Roma, edited in 1790.

Tomatoes were initially thought to be poisonous by wealthy Europeans, who used flatware made from pewter, which has a high lead content. Foods high in acids, as tomatoes are, would cause the lead to leech out into the food, resulting in lead poisoning and death. But the contadini, who ate off wooden plates, did not have that problem. Pizza, though, was not invented until the 1880s in Napoli, and it was unknown to many 20th century Italian immigrants from northern and central Italy, including my own grandparents and their children, who first tasted pizza in America.

While the first members of the Spadoni family in the Valdinievole were landowners, there was not enough property for all of their children. Parents could usually leave the family property only to the eldest child, and the younger ones would have to move out and seek their own fortunes—which usually meant starting out as sharecroppers under the mezzadria. Under this system, 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 dannó.” 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. Most coloni never saved enough money to buy their own land, and the cycle continued from generation to generation, with the landowners staying rich and the workers barely surviving. This was the situation for my branch of the Spadonis, which is obvious from the fact that the family moved to various locations from time to time. 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.

A few Valdinievole Spadonis did receive some prominence—Emilio Spadoni was mayor of Ponte Buggianese from 1896 to 1903 and Astolfo Spadoni from 1925 to 1931, while Elio Spadoni was mayor of Montecarlo from 1959 to 1974—but the branch of the Spadoni family line that I descend from had no property of its own in Italy from at least 1800—probably much earlier—until the mid-1950s. In 1863, my greatgrandfather Pietro Spadoni of Ponte Buggianese married Maria Marchi of Pescia and signed a contract to work a farm in San Salvatore. Pietro brought his aged father Pellegrino and mother Faustina, then sixty-eight and sixty-six, with him. There, Pietro and Maria gave birth to seven children. The first, Maria Luisa Zelinda, died at age eleven on October 28, 1875. One day later, second-born Zelinda, age nine, died as well. Historical documents show that an epidemic of cholera swept through Italy in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Cholera is caused by bacteria that thrive in stagnant water—something the swampy Valdinievole had in abundance. The disease killed 113,000 Italians in 1867.

Some historians have speculated that the high infant mortality of earlier times desensitized parents to death. Others dispute this claim, including historian Sophie Oosterwijk, who writes: “It seems inconceivable that, in a period when the most popular image was that of the Madonna and Child, there was little or no understanding of or affection for children in everyday life. High infant mortality rates do not seem to have prevented parents from being fond of their children, however likely they were to lose at least some of them to diseases or accidents. Miracle reports and other types of documents attest to the lengths to which parents were prepared to go to obtain healing, rescue or salvation for their children, as well as to their grief when their efforts proved futile.”

Pietro and Maria had three boys born in the 1870s: Enrico, Eugenio and Michele, the latter being my grandfather. Pietro and Maria gave birth to a second Zelinda in 1880, and then to Giuseppe Giovanni Lindoro in 1883, the same year Anita Seghieri was born, just two miles away in San Salvatore. Giuseppe died when he was only two, and Zelinda met a tragic end at age seven when she died in a house fire (The sad story of Zelinda Spadoni).

Seven years later, Enrico married Eufemia Banchieri and she moved into the Spadoni household. Eufemia gave birth to Adolfo in 1885 and Alfredo in 1887 and then they named their first-born daughter Zelinda. It’s worth noting that this Zelinda not only survived childhood but lived to age eighty-six. They had four more children as well: Ferruccio, Pietro, Maria and Rina.

Eugenio married Isola Fantozzi and they had a daughter, Maria Bruna, born in 1907. Michele, meanwhile, had gone to America in 1902 to improve his economic conditions. He returned to Italy briefly in 1908 to marry Anita Seghieri. The couple moved to America in 1909, starting a new chapter in their lives—and that will be a story for another time . . .

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The story of an Italian nickname

I recently met, online, Carolyn Pieri, the wife of a distant relative. Her husband and I have the same great great grandfather, Giocondo Capocchi. Carolyn shared an interesting story of how her husband’s father Julius Pieri, born in Chicago in 1917, earned the nickname Toby. Julius’ father Giulio Pieri was born in Montecarlo, Italy, in 1884 and came to Chicago in 1907.

“It was his (Giulio) habit to sit with the other Italian men in the fresh air markets,” Carolyn said, “where fruit, vegetables and fresh breads were put into large wooden bins. He would often bring his son along. Young Julius would amuse himself by playing hide and seek by hiding in the empty wooden bins. The other men would laugh and point, ‘Ah, a Topo! I see a little Topo!’ (Topo is the Italian word for mouse) The American men, not understanding Italian, mistook them as saying Toby, and that is what the younger Julius went by for the rest of his life. He even named one of his sons Toby as well.”