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On the Land in Umbria - Umbria's Good Earth and Good People

Anne Robichaud

In 1975, after two years teaching in Rome, I moved to the land in Umbria with my Sicilian husband, Pino. We had very little money, perhaps $100 between us, but a lot of volont (or "will"), as the Italians would say. We moved into a rundown farmhouse on eight acres about six km from Assisi. Our home was a stone ruin with terracotta roof and breathtaking views all around. Our rent was about $25 per month; a fair price since we had no electricity, no heat, no hot water, no bathroom, and the one km dirt road through the woods was impassable. The farm had been abandoned for 10 years.

But we wanted to work the land, so we set to work, learning everything from our surrounding farm neighbors, all of them mezzadri - farmers who worked the land without owning it. Our farm neighbors all worked small plots, 10 to 30 acres of non-irrigable hillside land, for landowners.

Mezzadri roughly translates to "sharecroppers," though the word literally means "half-ers." The mezzadri received 53% of the yield of their small plots of hillside land and the landowners received 47%. An odd division meant to make the mezzadro feel as if he was coming out ahead, I guess. This system had been the backbone of the Italian economy for a millennium but it abruptly ended in 1977 when the Italian government abolished this feudal system of farming. No new mezzadria contracts could be stipulated, though the existing mezzadri could continue working the land for the landowners until they chose to move.

Can you imagine an extended family of eight to ten people living off 53% of the yield of 18 acres of hillside land in the late 1970's? They did. They lived a subsistence level of life which exhibited that inimitable l'arte di arrangiarsi (creative inventiveness) innate to all Italians: selling wild mushrooms in the fall to buy the tangerines for Christmas dinners, making the brooms from the hillside scrub brush, the ginestra (Scotch broom), slaughtering a pig or two in December and turning it into capocollo, salami, sausages, bacon, prosciutto, lard, all of which were the main meat source for all the family and could also feed the extra hands that helped at harvest times.

As Pino and I farmed in Umbria in the late 1970's, we did not realize that we were living a way of life which was about to end. Had I realized this, I would have made time to take photographs and keep a diary. Instead, all these years later, I am starting a series of stories about our life during this time, this end of a long chapter of rural history in Italy.

I did not take photos in the spring when we women washed our sheep's wool down in the creek in preparation for carding and then quilt and pillow making. But then, have you ever photographed yourself loading the washing machine? Nor did I photograph us hunting wild mushrooms, searching for signs of wild asparagus, picking and cleaning wild greens to cook for dinner. But then, have you ever photographed yourself at the grocery store?

No photos were taken of us preparing the bed warmers to slide into the icy sheets in the winter, or cleaning the chickens or rabbits to cook them for dinner, or chopping wood for the woodstove, or scything grasses for the rabbits with the huge arc-bladed scythes. No photos were taken when my neighbor Chiara taught me to make pasta or roll out gnocchi. We simply lived our days on the land as people had lived for centuries.

Pino and I were not mezzadri. We rented our farmhouse and the surrounding eight acres of land and supplemented our farm work with outside labor and then bought a farm. I worked teaching; Pino restored medieval architecture. But from 1975 until 1982, we lived and farmed as our mezzadri neighbors did, for they were our only role models!

We were privileged to live through the wind-up of a thousand-year period of history. I'm happy to share the rich and happy memories of "the end of an era" in this first of a series of stories about our life in rural Umbria.


Slow Travel Photos: See larger versions of Anne's photos on our photo gallery.

Anne Robichaud lives near Assisi and gives lectures and tours. www.annesitaly.com

© Anne Robichaud, 2005. Do not republish without permission.

This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.

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