Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Itinerants

Home and Away

Itinerant tradesmen and merchants in the past in Chianti

onion sellers

When older locals talk about the past, they often mention the itinerant workers and merchants who travelled through the area on foot or via infrequent buses. The ritual January killing of the pig occurred when the norcino pork butcher arrived carrying two satchels across his chest, one filled with spices and the other with the equipment to do the job. The norcino passed from one house to the next, staying overnight at each, working with the farm households to prepare the salami, hams and the various cuts of meat. At the end of the day everyone would celebrate with a special meal.

norcino's produce

Old people also talk about how a spice seller from Siena used to bring the mixed spices to the villages so that cooks could bake cavallucci, migliaccio and other native Sienese treats in the wood-fired oven after making the bread.


Once when Cappelli the Greve blacksmith (who does wonders with wrought iron) visited Le Ripe he told me how he and his grandfather (whom he called mio povero nonno, my poor grandfather), walked from Greve every year with their nanny goat to have her impregnated by the billy goat at Le Ripe....They walked the 14 kilometres to Le Ripe with the nanny goat, returned home on the bus, came back a week later and walked home again....That was simply how it was done.

billy goat

Before World War II the the owner of the wayside inn, now the Bar Ristoro  in Lucarelli, (still run by the same family), used to walk to Siena and back to buy the supply of cigarettes to sell at his inn. The round trip is roughly 80 kilometres.

We have to think back and remember that until World War II and even into the late 1960s Chianti was very poor, still with a feudalistic system of mezzadria (tenant farming), hardly a car and few proper roads apart from the Chiantigiana. Most people travelled to town, the mill, the olive-press and so forth on foot, by ox-drawn cart, or by donkey. 

Chianina with cart of Chianti flasks

And of course, think of the transhumance, the 'crossing the land' which shepherds and their flocks completed twice-yearly: once in spring to go to the summer pastures and again in autumn to return to the lower, winter pastures. Until the 1960s a shepherd called Quinto (Fifth) used to come to Le Ripe to winter with his flock and his family. Locals still recall him being there, making and selling his cheeses. I used to imagine him driving his sheep on foot from the summer pastures in the Maremma but apparently he actually used a truck: a slightly less romantic image, but interesting nonetheless. Once at Le Ripe he would herd the sheep on horseback.

Maremmano shepherd (dog!) with his flock

Add the pilgrims, the soldiers, the merchants, the students, the preachers, the travelling shows and so forth: the country roads must have been teeming with people marching and riding in all directions....

...with many thanks to Explicit for indirect and direct contributions to this post...


  1. Over a perfect dinner of ribollita and rape, our hosts explained that there was practically no exchange of any kind between the provincia di Siena and Toscana. Since the spices that flavor the Sienese sweets were unavailable in Panzano, the norcino from Siena brought them as a favor to the few Senese married to Panzanese. Everything came directly from the farm, including all the ingredients of ribollita that was a mainstay of their diet. If such ingredients as beans were lacking as they often were, our friends rounded out the soup with wild greens that start to sprout in the fields at this time of year.. Tis the season for wild greens soon.

  2. Thank you for the evocation of a surprisingly crowded countryside!

    The stickler in me wonders whether "mezzadria" should be called a feudal system. By modern standards, certainly, but I believe that it was improvement of the even worse terms, for the laborers, of serfdom, known in Italian as "servitù della gleba" (gleba meaning "zolla" or clod of earth).

    As for "povero nonno": according to this Italian expression everyone who has died is "povero"... A strange way for Catholics to speak! (Of course, I do not presume to know the blacksmith's feelings about the afterlife.)

  3. Was mezzadria really an improvement over servitù della gleba? By all accounts I have heard here, I would suggest that the improvements were negligible. On paper, the mezzadro was entitled to 50% of the crop; in reality, after the church took its share and the fattore bilked them, their share was almost nothing. Many have recounted how they nearly starved and always worried about having enough to eat. The mezzadro did not have any protection or even rights. The padrone, usually aristocracy, could willfully send a mezzadro packing to nowhere as happened to a family with five children in this area who wound up in a forest (considered a death sentence) making poles for a nascent telephone industry. Until 1967, the population here lived in a slave state of "miseria" virtually unchanged since Roman times.

  4. Mezzadria was really part and parcel of the feudal system, if a slight technical improvement within the system, since it allowed farmers to work the land (partially) for themselves and although it ultimately penalised ambition, it did not forbid it. So much depended on the goodness of the landowner, making the mezzadri extremely vulnerable and open to the abuses outlined by Explicit. However a good, well-organised farmer with many family members to help, could make a go of it. I was told that a family called Cai at Le Ripe was one such success story. A book called 'Death in the Mountains' by Lisa Clifford is a fascinating rendering of true stories about the hardships of the mezzadro's life in the Casentino (northeastern Tuscany)in the early 20th century. Upupa Epops will probably write a post on this some time in the future...Whatever the definition of the system, it was certainly back-breakingly tough.


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