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Postscript to this Family History

Our subject is a time of darkness in the life of the poor.  You cannot read.  You cannot write.  There are no books.  There are no schools.  There is no travel, except to places that are just like those you have come from.  All you will ever believe you are taught by the Church and by those who, although older, are just as uneducated as you are.  Our subject is not very easy to imagine ...

"... i contadini poveri, gli uomini che fanno fruttificare la terra e soffrono la fame ..." (Ignazio Silone)

Our subject is not the lords and ladies, not the classes that profited by the poverty and ignorance of their fellow human beings, but those whom these lords and ladies called cafoni: "the poor farmers who made the earth fruitful but who themselves went hungry."  And who, as Silone also remarked somewhere, signed documents they could not read with the Sign of the Cross.  May the last be first.

La Vera Panzanella

She fetched a plate in which she poured rancid oil, cut up slices of half-ripe tomatoes, and then put in stale, sour bread which was a month old (for it is only made once a month and a special tool is used for breaking it).... She called her children, whose ages varied from seven to seventeen, and they helped themselves with their fingers to the oily bits of bread and tomatoes, and sat on the doorstep or table to eat.

Through the Apennines and the Lands of the Abruzzi, by Estella Canziani, just before World War I and the great Earthquake of 1915.

The Weather in Southern Italy

In my mind I could see the slopes of our mountain town.  Where I had last seen the dogs among the patches of wheat ... it was as if everything had been cut with a scythe.  In a very few moments the wheat that would have provided bread for the winter was gone....

If it was not the hailstorm which destroyed the crops, it was the torrents of water which carried the land away in the spring and the lack of water in summer which caked the ground.

The Heart is the Teacher by Leonard Covello of Avigliano, Basilicata (1958).

The Agricultural Year

First came the sowing, then the spraying with sulfur, then the reaping, then the harvesting of grapes.  And then?  Then da capo: the sowing, the weeding, the pruning, the spraying with sulfur, the reaping, the harvesting of grapes.  Always the same old song, the same old story.  Always.  The years would pass, the years would accumulate, the young became old, the old died, and you sowed, you weeded, you sprayed sulfur, you reaped, you harvested the grapes.  And again, then?  Again da capo.  Every year like the year before, every season like the season before.

Fontamara by Ignazio Silone of Pescina, Abruzzo (1930), my translation.  Da capo means "from the top" (as in to repeat or to start over again from the beginning of a musical score).

Life in Italy after 1806

"Since Italy was a land of agriculture, peasants made up the great bulk of the population.... During long periods of the year, most agricultural workers were unemployed, and overpopulation kept their wages at a mere subsistence level.  Though legally they were emancipated from feudalism, they had lost rights as well as duties thereby....
     "The compulsion to grind grain at their lord's mill and bake at his oven disappeared in theory, but increased taxation forced poorer farmers to give up subsistence farming in favor of cash crops, and this introduced the extra hazard of market conditions.... The laborer who lacked animals and tools was also at the mercy of the richer peasant, and in a year of bad harvest only the moneylender stood between him and starvation."  (p. 39-40)

The abolition of feudalism in 1806 allowed the peasant to acquire his own small piece of land.  However, where three out of ten harvests failed, he "had insufficient reserves to work on his own", and ended up losing it.  (p. 44-45)
     "Only a small proportion of Italians owned property more extensive than a hovel and a back yard, and many more were casual day laborers whose lot was miserable....
     "The principal crops of Italy were cereals and grapes.  Cereals, needing little capital outlay, were grown even in areas which were thoroughly unsuitable, and took up nearly half the country's productive acreage.... vines, olives, and fruit trees were more suited to the prevalent conditions of scanty and uncertain rainfall."  (p. 45)

Italy on the eve of Unification: "to speak of an Italian people was to speak of a mass of illiterates brutalized by poverty and superstition." (Ignazio Silone).  But when in 1877 the Italian government passed laws making schooling compulsory for children 6-9 years old (but without providing the funds to pay for this), the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church denounced education for the peasants and workers as a "fearful threat to the social order", declaring that for a better life the laborer "does not need books, but strong arms and willing hands".

Census returns of 1881 showed "that out of every thousand inhabitants there were only ... fifty-nine peasant proprietors.  The majority were simple laborers, with luck employed half the year, whose standard of living was minimal, and who gained nothing when higher prices later brought prosperity to those who owned land.  There was no public maintenance for those unable to labor, no public provision for the able-bodied poor...."  Less money was spent by the Liberal Parliament "on actual relief than the Church had formerly spent."  (p. 149-150)

Denis Mack Smith.  Italy: A Modern History.  Rev. ed.  Ann Arbor: 1969.  (University of Michigan history of the world)

Once upon a time ... in Molise

When la miseria ("extreme poverty") was everywhere, i doveri ("duties") and i favori ("favors") were super important, as a kind of social welfare.  But today when we all have everything (and maybe more than everything), often we think that we don't need other people ... About i doveri  there is a legend in Gambatesa known as The Old Man and the Stone.

Letter from Angelo Abiuso (our cousin in Geneva), July 2002

When I told Vittoria Valente this story Angelo sent me, she said: "The old people used to tell us a lot of stories like that when I was a girl, about how the way you treat your mother will be the way your children will treat you."

Immigrant Life

That's how ghettos are formed.  Because you're scared and embarrassed you cling only to the people who know as much as you.  You're exposed to no other way and you learn nothing.

Nunziata DiRenzo in April 1968, speaking about the former Italian colony in Camden, New Jersey.


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Last revised: 21 April 2004 : 2004-04-21

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