Growing up under Mussolini’s Fascist regime on a farm near Florence, Pietro Pinti and his family lived under conditions of extreme poverty, as sharecroppers to generally unscrupulous landowners. But during World War II, when millions in towns and cities suffered untold hardships, the hardy Tuscan peasants were well equipped to face the rigors of the era: war or no war, work on the land went on, and Pietro describes month by month a typical year in their lives: how they made wine and olive oil, planted and harvested the wheat by hand, made baskets and ladders from chestnut wood-skills now lost.
With sly wit and salty wisdom, Pietro—a natural storyteller who played the trumpet, wrote poetry, and grew famous for his tales of peasants, knights, and brigands—recreates in colorful detail a world and peasant culture that is fast disappearing. Jenny Bawtree, an Englishwoman long settled in Tuscany, was so fascinated by Pietro's stories that she helped shape them into this autobiography, full of color and humor, hardship and nostalgia.
“This small, cherishable book is as close to living history as one gets . . . The heart of the book, though, is Pinti’s month-by-month description of how it was to live . . . The stories are full of humanity and sly wisdom.” —Booklist
“Black and white photos, maps and illustrations, plus a glossary of Italian terms that were relevant to the life of a peasant render a more thorough understanding of a compelling life that is neither glamorous nor romanticized.” —Publishers Weekly
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The Pinti Family
My parents were born in Nusenna. They say the Etruscans once settled there. This small village is situated on the eastern slopes of the Chianti hills and looks down on to the Arno valley. To reach it you go to Mercatale Valdarno and then take a little road that follows the stream called Tricesimo. After a couple of miles the road ascends among dense woods of oak and chestnut. Following a number of steep bends you reach Nusenna. The village lies halfway between Mercatale and Monteluco, the highest point of this area of the Chianti hills, where the ruins of a castle of the same name lie hidden in the undergrowth. On top of the mountain there is now a tall television transmitter, visible for miles around; but it used to be a wild place covered with impenetrable forest, where only fifty years earlier you ran the risk of running into bandits.
Now the road to Nusenna is asphalted, but it was only a dirt track when I was a boy. At the beginning of the 1930s the village was much the same as it had been for several centuries: a group of nondescript houses huddled round a square, where a church of no particular architectural interest barely stands out from the other buildings. The village was surrounded by fields and farmland, and wooded hills stretched as far as the horizon.
My family left Nusenna in 1908 and went to live on a farm near Mercatale. But many of our relations still lived in Nusenna and I often went to visit them, so I remember the village well.
The square at Nusenna was roughly circular, and to enter the village there were two gates which were so narrow that a cart could barely scrape through. During the Second World War the gates were blown up by the Germans, in order to block the road. They did the same thing in other villages, too. But the gates were still standing when I was a small boy. Most of the houses were within the village walls, but a few were scattered here and there in the surrounding countryside.
Almost everyone at Nusenna owned their own small piece of land. No big landowners lived there, perhaps because it was in such an isolated position they would not have wanted to. There were only two families of mezzadri, those living in a farmhouse that belonged to the priest of Galatrona, and my parents, who worked for the priest of Nusenna. At that time all the priests had mezzadri to work for them, otherwise how would they have got enough to eat? They didn't work themselves! I must add, however, that they didn't have a stipend as they do now, and that some of them were very poor.
The other farmers all had their own land - they grew corn and cultivated vines and olive trees. They also had a number of sheep, as the grass grew well all the year round. It wasn't too hot in the summer like down in the valley. But most of the time they worked in the woods. They used to make charcoal, which they then sold to the carters, Giusto, Mario and Pancana. Giusto was my cousin, because his mother was my father's sister. The carters used to take the charcoal down to Montevarchi and sell it to the families there. Charcoal was more practical than wood because it took up less space: ten quintals of wood made a quintal of charcoal. And charcoal makes less smoke when you burn it. The inhabitants of Nusenna used to make bundles of tree heather and they sold these also to the carters, who took them down to the brick kiln at Montevarchi. There bricks and various kinds of roof tile were made. Tree heather burns very quickly, so goodness knows how many bundles went into the oven every day.
Then there were the marroni chestnuts which were sold for boiling or toasting over the fire. Every farmer had his own parcel of woodland and picked the marroni in October or November, according to the weather. The carter bought these too and took them down to Montevarchi. Poor things, they had nothing down in the town and had to buy everything, not like us farmers who didn't have to buy anything at all.
The carters loaded as much as possible on to their carts in order to make fewer journeys, so the horses had a hard time of it, but at least the road between Nusenna and Mercatale went downhill all the way. The only problem was the steep hill you had to come up when you left Mercatale. If the cart was heavily loaded the horse couldn't pull it up, in which case the carters would travel in pairs. When they reached the steep hill they unharnessed one of the horses and attached it to the other cart so that the horses could pull side by side. When they reached the top they would unharness both horses, lead them back down and harness them both to the other cart. It all took a lot of time, but people weren't in a hurry in those days.
On the return journey the carters had money in their pockets and they would stop at the botteghe to have a drink. There was one at Pestello, just outside Montevarchi, and another at Mercatale. They usually got a bit tipsy so it was a good thing that their horses knew the way home. They were a rough lot - it's not surprising that we say to someone who is behaving badly, 'You're worse than a carter.'
The story goes that Muschio, a carter from La Torre, was returning from Montevarchi but didn't stop at the bottega at Pestello. Pancana of Nusenna was driving the cart behind him and asked, 'Aren't we drinking this evening?' 'I haven't even a centesimo!' 'I'll pay!' said Pancana, so Muschio shouted to his horse: 'Well, then, whoooooaaa!" and pulled the reins. After that, 'Well, then, whoooaaa' became a local saying.
The life people led at Nusenna seems hard to us now. But they thought themselves well off, with all those woods round them. And except for the mezzadri of the priest, they had no master to tell them what to do and that was a fine thing indeed.
I don't know when the Pintis came to Nusenna. I believe they came originally from the Chianti, because we still have relations there. In my grandfather's time they were in the Maremma in the south of Tuscany, I know this because my father used to tell us how my grandfather took food to Stoppa, the famous Maremman bandit. It's possible that the Pintis were Florentines once, because there is a street called Borgo Pinti behind the cathedral. Who knows, perhaps the Pintis were nobles once if a street was named after them? Then they lost all their money and had to go into the country and become peasants. But that's just an idea of mine, maybe they've always been peasants after all.
My family came down from Nusenna in 1908. There was my father, my mother and my father's brothers, Domenico and Pietro, both with their wives, and then there were all the children. I don't remember much about my uncles, they died when I was small. I know that Pietro and my father fought in the First World War. They were in the Engineers, making trenches. Farmers, after all, were used to digging. My father returned safe and sound, but Pietro got tuberculosis and died at home not long afterwards. His name is on a monument to the fallen down at Montevarchi. It gives me a strange feeling to see my name written there in the marble. Domenico had a stroke and then he died too.
My family came down from Nusenna because the farm was too small, while Casino del Monte, their new farm, had ten hectares or more, with land stretching down to the main road along the River Tricesimo. Mostly vines and olives grew there, but there was also plenty of land for sowing grain, and an area of woodland too. More than enough to support three families!
We often returned to Nusenna to visit my grandmother. We went along the same road as we do now. However, I remember taking a lot of short cuts from bend to bend, too steep for the carts but easy on foot, it was an hour and a half's journey, but we were used to walking. My uncle and aunt lived with my grandmother, together with their three children, Vasco, Varo and Fedora. We all ate lunch together and then we went to fetch the water. There was no water in Nusenna. Everyone went to get their water from a spring called Leccio near Reggioli, a farm nearly half a mile from the village. We filled up our flasks and copper pitchers and then lugged them back to Nusenna, wondering why they had not built the village closer to the only source of water.
My grandmother lived at the bottom end of the square. You had to climb some stairs to her house. The baker had his oven on the ground floor, which must have helped to keep her rooms warm when it was lit. She had a bottega at the top end of the square where she sold a bit of everything: tobacco, sugar, sweets and pasta. In those days pasta was sold loose, not in packets like now. People would also buy cigarettes one or two at a time. They could not have afforded a whole packet. The shop was also a kind of bar and meeting place with a few tables, where the villagers could go to have a glass of wine and play cards. They did not drink coffee, it was not the custom then. Sometimes my grandmother sold a kind of coffee made of barley: it was called estratto di vecchina, old lady's extract, on the packet there was a picture of an old lady holding a distaff. You put a lump of this into boiling water and the water turned black, making it look like real coffee. It was supposed to be good for you, which was probably why they had an old lady on the packet. Even she could drink it! It was popular at that time we didn't have coffee made from coffee beans till after the war.
I didn't know my cousins very well They were much older than I was. Fedora married and went to live in Siena, Vasco played the mandolin and became a customs officer in Florence. Only Varo remained in Nusenna to run the shop. I also had a second cousin called Bibo. I remember a story about him. When I was eight I went to be confirmed at Nusenna so that my grandmother could be present at the ceremony. In those days when you were confirmed they put a ribbon round your head, tied in a knot at the back. It was white and had a cross on the front made of sequins. You had to wear it for three or four days. In some places you had to wear it for a month, in which case you had one ribbon for weekdays and one for Sundays, so that you would always go to church with a clean ribbon. The story went round that you wore a ribbon because the bishop put a nail into your forehead. I thought this couldn't be true, but I had my doubts. I thought to myself: what kind of nail is he going to use? If it was one of those tintacks people use when they are making baskets, that wouldn't be too bad. But if it was the one you put into the seeder to block the wings, that was a foot long, it would come out of the other side of your head! But basically I knew that the story couldn't be true. My second cousin Bibo believed it, though. He was a stocky chap who was always hungry and that winter he had eaten all the dried figs that his mother had prepared for Christmas. So his family said to him, 'You wait, young rascal, the bishop'll fix you when he puts that nail through your head!'
On Confirmation Day Bibo didn't want to go into the church. His father and his uncle had to run after him all round the square. In the end they trapped him behind my cousin's cart and dragged him towards the church. But he still put up a struggle, bracing his hands and feet against the doorway. They almost snapped off his arms trying to get him in! But things turned out well for Bibo. The bishop didn't put a nail through his head, he just tied a white ribbon round it as he did with the rest of us.
The priests tried to explain religion to us, but we were a bit slow and we didn't always understand what they were getting at. I remember a boy who went to the priest to be tested before his confirmation, and the priest asked him, 'How many commandments are there?' The boy didn't know the answer, but he thought, well, God says we can't do all sorts of things, so he answered, 'A hundred!' And the priest gave him a cuff. As the boy ran out of the church he met a friend of his who was coming in. He asked him: 'How many commandments are there, actually?'
'There are ten,' replied his friend. 'Don't you tell him there are ten,' said the first boy. 'I said a hundred and he gave me a cuff. If you say ten he'll give you a thrashing!' I didn't understand much about religion either. When I took Communion for the first time I believed the holy wafer was soaked in vinsanto, a kind of sweet wine, and I longed for my turn. But when the priest put the wafer on my tongue it stuck to my palate. I couldn't get it unstuck, and it didn't taste of vinsanto at all! What a disappointment. And then I saw it was the priest who drank the vinsanto, lucky devil. I hadn't understood at all what Communion meant - all the prayers were in Latin and I was too shy to ask the priest to explain the words.
When my parents came down from Nusenna they already had two children, Bruna and Azeglio. Then my mother gave birth another ten times, but four of the babies died. Whether they were stillborn or died later I was never told. We didn't talk about such things. The babies were buried in the cemetery but there was no funeral because they hadn't been baptized. Having children was a woman's lot and she had to rear them all. It was considered to be God's will if one of them died, people would say, 'Thank goodness, otherwise how could she have managed, poor woman?' If a family couldn't afford to keep all their children they would send one of the boys to be a garzone in another family. They would not be paid for their work, but at least they would be fed and clothed. Daughters were sent to more wealthy families to be maidservants, even at twelve years of age.
After Bruna and Azeglio came Marsiglia, Nunzia, Vittoria, Silvia and Azeglia. They were all born at home, as was the custom, and the midwife supervised the birth. The doctor only came if it was a difficult delivery, but then the mother usually died anyway. Next came Natalia, whom my parents took from the Ospedale degli Innocenti, an orphanage in Florence. The orphans were certainly innocent, poor little things, their parents less so. The children were almost all abandoned because they were illegitimate. Many peasants adopted these innocentini because the hospital gave them a subsidy and this helped to feed the other children as well.
As soon as the children were born their father had to register them at the town hall. A man from Mercatale once gave the same name, Assunta, to two of his daughters. He had so many children, I suppose he couldn't remember all their names. Then there was another fellow who had a vineyard near the wood at Gretole, under the fattoria of Sinciano, and he lived in a hut with his wife and children. Later on he moved to a proper house on the road to Montevarchi. When there was the census, officials from the town hall went round all the houses to get information about the families living there. But when they went to this family they found a son who hadn't been registered at all. The boy certainly didn't know when he was born, and they all sat there scratching their heads when the father suddenly had an inspiration. "I remember the day now,' he said, 'People were coming down from Sinciano on their way to Montevarchi market, so it must have been a Thursday!'
I was the last child to be born. It was in 1927, when my mother was forty-four years old. She probably didn't expect to give birth again after so many children. She must have been glad to have had another son after all those daughters. Years later I wrote an ottava rima about the event:
Males were stronger than females and they could do the heavy work on the farm, though of course the women had to play their part too. Goodness me, they all worked like slaves, not like young people nowadays who study till they are twenty years old and even after that they often don't go to work. In my day if my mother saw you doing nothing she would send you to cut the wood or draw water from the fountain.
One member of our family died when he was only twenty years old. That was my cousin Dionigi, Domenico's son. He used to drive the oxen, and one day he had to take a load of firewood to the padrone. Oxen move very slowly and there was a tramontana, a strong cold wind blowing from the north. He had a touch of flu already so he got pneumonia. Poor people didn't usually call the doctor because you had to pay him and there was little money to spare, but this time they called him because the boy was very ill, even though they had put a mustard poultice on his chest. The doctor lived in Bucine, which was three miles away, and he came on his bicycle. But he couldn't do much because there were no antibiotics then, and the boy died. I was four years old at the time, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. I was the one who had to chase away the flies from his face.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Pietro's Book"
Copyright © 2011 Pietro Pinti and Jenny Bawtree.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
1 The Pinti Family,
2 At Work,
3 Fascism and the War,
4 After the Armistice,
5 A Year in the Life of a Contadino,
6 Pastimes and Feast Days,
7 After the War,