Life in Abruzzo in the 50′s and ’60s – My family pictures (part 1)
Being born in the ’80s means I have several albums of pictures; we have few snapshots of my parents wedding in 1982 and their engagement years in the late ’70s. But before that date, the story of the family is only visually documented by a handful of pictures which we obtained from other people only recently. I want to share these images, as well as some of my family story, with you LoveAbruzzo readers to give you a glimpse of life in Abruzzo up to a few decades ago.
These pictures are probably the most valuable inheritance I will ever receive from my family. In fact, they are amongst the most precious possessions – on a spiritual level- my paternal side of the family holds. When we received them, we printed them out and hung them on our living rooms. We are lucky to have old pictures at all as many people in the same areas and living in the same environment do not have pictures at all.
They are visible mementos of our past, offering a clue of who we were and what we looked like back then in the ’50, and also are great quality photographs even by modern standards. Call me sentimental, but this image never fails to move me- I find it carries a striking resemblance to classic Renaissance paintings like Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks and other traditional subjects portaing the Virgin Mary with Saint Anne, baby Jesus and some elderly saint as an onlooker.
This picture was taken in 1957 when my grandparents were working as “contadini” (sharecropping farm workers) for the Arlini family in Silvi. The dark-haired lady on the right is my Nonna Concetta, and she is selling cherries to a neighbour. The man in the background – you may have recognised him? is Nonno Pasquale, who is now such a big part of LoveAbruzzo. And finally, the child picking cherries from the ground is my dad Loreto, who was 4 at the time. He has vivid memories of life in the factory, working the hilly fields between the towns of Atri, Pineto and Silvi– first for the Sorricchio family, then the Arlinis.
These families of wealthy landowners relied on families of skilled agricultural labourers living on their vast estates (latifundia) to tend the land; the produce was exchanged for a labour in a “mezzadria” sharecropping scheme, similar to French metayage. This scheme was actually widely adopted (as enforced by laws under the Fascist regime) only in the ’30 and ’40 – before that, the ratio was more like 80%/20% between the “padrone” (landowner) and the “contadini” (sharecropping peasants). On top of the products of the fields, the workers had “obblighi” (duties) such as giving eggs, cheese, butter and other good to the owners whenever and wherever they pleased. My Grandad often recounts walking from Silvi to Atri, the ancient town on the hills where the padrone lived, just to bring a few eggs or a chicken on request.
I don’t want to enter here into any political controversy here about the land ownership issue in Italy, and the work and life conditions of contadini. It has been a very debated topic by historians and economists for decades, but now nobody likes remembering that Italy was not just a peaceful, plentiful garden of Eden, but a land where exploitation and poverty were rife amongst those very people who produced food. You can read more about it on this interesting website. Also, I can only imagine the psychological impact of living such an isolated, constrained existence ruled by the necessities and hardship of farming work, yet brushing elbows with wealthy, educated, well-travelled people to whom you had to “bear respect” as superiors. I guess most people just coped with patience and a good dose of humour (see my Grandad video where he tells the story of the farmer who sent his son to school).
In the case of my family, it suffice to say, working as mezzadri was certainly hard work and maybe not a well-paid one, but my Grandad and Grandma were good at it and it allowed them to feed their child – at the time, my father Loreto was their only son. This is him playing with their employers ‘pets- two dogs and, if you look closely, a cat too. Looks like he was a very happy kid – and a spitting image of my brother at his age.
These and other now lost pictures, all in black and white, were taken a long time ago and forgotten by the people who appear in them – my Grandad, my now gone Granma, my Dad, their neighbors and friends. As much as I like this picture, it also reminds me that they had no control about what happened to them, in many ways. Somebody came from the big city with a mysterious object – a big, shiny camera – and started tinkering with it for hours, pointing it at them, then disappeared again. The grown ups were busy working and paid little attention- the kids though were fascinated by the camera. My dad always tells me he started saving up to buy one as a pre-teen, although it finally got to buy one in his twenties.
In 1959, my Grandad decided that life in the fields was not for them anymore. The effect of the “Italian economic miracle” – a prolonged period of growth in the post-war years- were slowly starting to trickle down the society ladder. Whilst the mechanization of agriculture meant a much smaller workforce was needed for sowing, plowing, reaping – it also meant slightly less crushing work for the farmers. However, more and more contadini left their jobs in the fields, especially in inner Abruzzo, and moved closer to the sea to look for opportunities elsewhere. My Nonni were amongst them.
More of their story in the next post!