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Funeral Out in the Sticks 27/03/2011

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Aug 7 1885 Poor old Beppa, handsome Domenico’s mother, has been for many months passing slowly into the realms of death. A winter cough and spring weakness have, by the time that the summer heats arrived, changed into utter prostration. When we arrived at The Nook we found her sinking, and all the beef-tea and wine we could supply only restored her for a little time. Even the doctor whom I insisted on sending for declared his inability to do anything at this late stage. Sometimes the weak heart caused a species of fainting, and this her family invariably mistook for death. Then her youngest daughter, Emilia, was despatched post haste to the neighbouring village for the priest, for a good mountaineer does not think a doctor at all indispensable in severe illness, but the idea of dying without the priest would be dreadful to him. So the priest came sometimes before daybreak, sometimes at nightfall, when he generally had to stay all night in the comfortless cottage; but though he duly said prayers for her and laid his stole on the bed as a sign that she died in the arms of the Church, yet time after time Beppa came back to life again. For days the good priest scarcely dared to leave home lest a call to The Nook might come; but after several fruitless alarms he decided not to neglect any more the outlying districts of his parish, and so he departed for Riobujo.

Scarcely had he gone than Emilia came flying across the valley to fetch the priest, for ‘mother was really dying!’ The consternation in The Nook was dreadful when she rushed back with the news that the prete was away for the day! What was to be done? She could not be allowed to die without prayers and candles! So all the hamlet was roused. Giulio Bettoni as the greater scholar and nearer to the priesthood, on the strength of having been an acolyte in his boyhood brought his mass-book, and, with his Sunday coat on, walked solemnly down the village to Beppa’s house. All the women donned there festa dresses and hunted out the ends of wax candles they had saved from funeral processions, and assembled round the bed of the old woman. Giulio read the prayers for a passing soul with a high monotonous voice, and the women stood with their lighted tapers all round the bed of the darkened room.

The married daughter from Mammiano, who had only arrived this morning, was weeping at the head of the bed, and with trembling hands held a crucifix before her gasping mother. The two younger ones were weeping in the next room. Her husband, the bearded Pietro, had hidden himself out of the house, with the usual Italian instinct of avoiding any disagreeable emotion. The good son, who had been the best and most tender nurse of all, still kept his place on her left, and, now wiping the dews off her forehead, then waving a fan to keep the flies away, gave his whole heart to easing the pains of his mother.

Such was the scene that the ‘Signora’, as the villagers call the English lady, came upon one morning. She knelt down solemnly with the rest; but when, as usual, she put her hand on the dying woman’s pulse, she found that death was not so near after all the faintness was passing. ‘You can wait for the priest, after all’, she said ‘Beppa has quite a strong pulse’. ‘But look at her face, Signora; she is dying’, said Giulio, half closing his book. ‘She has one of her heart attacks, but it is passing’; and the Signora, putting a spoonful of her broth to the lips of the patient, found it swallowed, and repeated it, till she said faintly, ‘Grazie, Signora, I am better again now’.

Domenico pressed the hand of the visitor, and went softly away to get over the revulsion of feeling. Giulio shut his book, the women blew out their candles, and went one by one away, to put on their working garments and go to the fields.

At last there came a day when she recovered nomore from the faintness; but the priest was there, and the faithful old soul was led by him to the brink of the dark river.

August 8th 1886. Interment follows death very quickly in Italy, and this evening the corpse, which has been surrounded by lighted tapers and watched by faithful friends all night, is now ready for burial. It lies on the table of the cottage room, dressed in its best print gown and brightest kerchief, and a crucifix clasped in its hands. Domenico and his sisters are weeping around, and neighbour after neighbour comes in to look seriously on the still, worn old face at rest. Outside on the ajcty. the poor old bent ‘Atropos’ sits on the low wall and shakes her palsied head, murmuring that ‘it was her turn before Beppa’s, and that she ought to have been called first’. Then she sighs, ‘Ah! why does not God want me too?’ ‘The children of the villa have spent all their morning in making a cross of flowers, which looks quite important when finished, and the two elder girls find some black veils and white frocks, and depart tojoin the procession.

We go to the old church of the Pieve, and from the outside pulpit are able to watch the procession the whole way across the valley. The Pieve which lies half way between The Nook and Piteglio, its mother parish is a rendezvous for others besides ourselves. From our exalted situation up the pulpit steps we see a little knot of people assembling beneath the spreading chestnut just below us. There are a number of men in their fustian working clothes, and of boys with jackets or without, and every one carries a little white bundle under his arm. One very old man carefully puts his white bundle as a cushion on a large stone, and sinks down tired out. ‘Oi! Oi!’ he exclaims, ‘my poor old legs won’t carry me any more. It will be my turn to be carried to the Campo Santo next’. ‘Here they come!’ cries a boy, pointing to a string of white figures coming down the woodland path from Piteglio, on the other side of the little valley. Then ensues a general stir and flutter, all the white bundles are shaken out, and lo! they turn into ephods, with which every man girds himself, and instead of a knot of shabby-looking peasants, they seem transformed into mediaeval saints. A very dirty old man forthwith becomes a venerable pilgrim the ragged little children are cherubs clad in celestial white. There is a large assembly of women and children, and the mothers are very busy putting white shirts over the tiny breeches of the baby boys in lieu of the girded ephod. Then comes the priest with the black banner grimly decorated with skull and cross-bones, and a long file of white-robed men following. All the assembly beneath us falls into rank, and the whole company march, like the white penitents of days gone by, amidst the corn, and are lost in the shadow of the trees round The Nook, where they are gone to fetch Beppa.

After a time, a distant sound of chanting and a glimmer of lights tell us that the procession is coming back. As it draws near, the women in the path and on the green in front of the disused church sink on their knees, with their babes in their arms and little girls clinging to their aprons, and we do the same. In front come 130 white-robed men and boys in couples, in diminishing file, till they end in tiny toddles hand-in-hand. Then the priest and his acolytes chanting; next the two girls from the villa, with a little child between them carrying the floral cross uplifted; then the bier carried by men in white ephods, and accompanied by eight women in black veils carrying candles; then more women with tapers.

Nothing can be more lovely or poetical than this long procession of simple peasants through the winding paths of the cornfield, down the valley where the evening sun tints their white robes rosy red, and next across the bridge into the deep shadows of the dark wood on the other side, and then toiling withlaboured steps up the steep street to the church. It is like an acted allegory of the soul’s passage through life and death. The bells ring ‘a doppio’ a stormy pealing all together; the church is reached, and the black cloth cover being removed from the bier, the assembled crowd take their last look at the quiet old face, while the priest reads the prayers and sprinkles her with holy water.

Then the tapers are extinguished, and the last journey is made to the Campo Santo, where a coffin awaits. She is tenderly lifted in and nailed down, and deposited in the newly-dug grave. Two friends of the family, who followed behind the procession with mysterious little baskets on their arms, according to custom, now go about among the crowd giving pennies to each white-robed person, and to the holders of candles. All this is Domenico’s generosity, for he will not stint his last expense for his mother.

Many of the intimate friends return the money afterwards, but most of them keep it. Domenico and his friends keep vigil in the empty house, the daughters fly to their neighbours for comfort and consolation and so poor old Beppa has passed out of our lives.

Vallombrosa by Funicular Railway 02/03/2011

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Vallombrosa is now very easy of access: an hour about from Florence to Sant’ Ellero; about another hour in the Funicular from Sant’ Ellero to the Saltino station, and there we are, three thousand feet and more above the level of the Tuscan sea, gazing over all the beauties of the Val d’Arno Superiore, and only twenty minutes’ walk from the world-famed Abbey.

The Funicular railway was made in 1892 by the exertions of Count Joseph Telfener, since deceased. The system is cogwheel and infallible; no accident has ever occurred, for no accident could occur.

We are pushed up the mountain side in open carriages, and freely enjoy a glorious view, passing first through vineyards and olive orchards, then constantly through mountain shrubberies and woods of juniper, arbutus, ilex, beech, and chestnut (how beneficently the air changes with the first appearance of the chestnut), until we land on a level with the pine-forests.

Outside the station is the Grand Hotel Saltino, finely placed to catch all the breezes from the four quarters of the globe; opposite is a Hotel Milton, as one might have expected after all those countless references to a certain quotation which nothing shall induce me to quote.

Here, too, are the few shops and most of the villini and chalets. On the road to the abbey we pass on the right the Grand Hotel Croce di Savoia; on the left the noble Hotel Castello di Acquabella. I may call it noble (though they would fain have it ‘grand’ also) for it is really a fine chateau in mediaeval style, built for himself twenty-five years ago by Count Pio Resse, with no thought of the accommodation of pleasure-seekers.

Soon we are in the first of the pine-forests with its ‘insuperable height of loftiest shade’, and the communal road takes on that billiard-table-like smoothness peculiar to roads that are sheltered by pines. We pause for a moment to drink in the strong, exhilarating, aromatic odour of the forest, and my companion would fain have broken away for a sylvan ramble. But I am in haste to be at the abbey, and drag him reluctant along with me. In a brief space the towers and campanile of that vast historic building come in sight, and in a few minutes more we have passed through the courtyard and found cool shelter in the dark Abbey Church.

A drive in the country 09/02/2011

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c. 1910

We did not at once desert the precincts of Santa Maria Novella, as we joined a party of friends at the delightful Hotel Minerva, and had our colazione at a table whence we got an enchanting glimpse of Giotto’s tower, and could watch the coming and going in the Piazza below us. With the help of these same kind friends we had concocted a very pleasant plan for the afternoon and evening, as they had ordered their car to take us to the Certosa di Val d’Ema and on to the Impruneta, whence we were to return to their delightful villino not far from Poggio Imperiale.

Motor cars in old Italian towns are atrociously out of place, that is obvious to any one with an aesthetic conscience; but they are also extremely useful, and a great luxury to tired folk who ramble much on foot amid the stony streets of those same cities. We started on our expedition, only regretting the thoughtless speed of the car, which whirled us through so much we ought to have looked at and identified, even on the short way to Porta Romana.

As I remarked this, L. rejoined that for his part he did not think it mattered, as our heads were reeling with all we had seen, tried to see, or had left unseen during our morning at Santa Maria Novella. We had clearly earned the right to look at nothing, and to waste our time, if we chose. The car rushed disrespectfully round by the Porta Romana and stopped first by the Cantagalli pottery works, which we had determined to visit while we had the chance. The Conscientious Objector said we had seen most of the pottery already in England, and that any we bought would assuredly arrive home in fragments, all of which was uncomfortably true. Still, certain packages did accompany us on our journey, as we fled into a charming country road, among the budding vineyards and the springing corn, and came before long to the village of Galluzzo, and thence to the bridge over the brook Ema, where Cacciaguida would fain have had Buondelmorite die ere Florence was cleft in twain by internecine strife.

Funghi Hunting in the Apennines 02/02/2011

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c. 1890

The dampness of the rains coming in the warm season, has produced a most prolific crop of mushrooms. The people of the Nook and of Piteglio are making fortunes, according to the mountain idea of riches. I was told that at Piteglio the joint profits of this year have been several thousand francs. The mushroom season just comes in between the wheat harvest and the chestnut gathering, and if the season be good, it is nearly as profitable as the other crops. Whilst the men are threshing corn on the aias, or digging up the ground with the huge adze which does duty for a plough, the women, girls, and boys get up at sunrise, and wander about the chestnut woods in search of funghi.

If you wonder at the strangeness of their garments, know that it is considered lucky to wear one’s clothes inside out on a mushroom excursion. The contents of their baskets on their return would also astonish you considerably, for the Italian edible mushrooms are many, and brilliantly coloured; they, however, reject our English edible species as a toadstool, and we were threatened with dire disasters when we persisted in cooking some fine specimens. The favourite kind here is the Ceppattello, a large brown fungus, with a greenish white spongy substance beneath. The largest specimens are cut up (stalk and all) by housewives, and after being dried in the sun for some days, are put into paper bags and preserved dry for winter use; the little button-shaped ones, called sometimes ‘porcini’, are chosen as the best to preserve under oil, after having been put into boiling vinegar and then dried. They make a very good condiment to eat with the lesso (bouilli), or with cold meat.

Another very savoury mushroom is the ovolo, a large handsome fungus, orange red above, prim rose yellow beneath. It is called ovolo, or eggshaped, because it comes up in an oval form covered with a thick white film, through which the yellow part rises and expands, the white film being transformed into a frill round the stalk. Then there are certain carmine red flat-topped funghi, with yellow rays beneath, called by the mountaineers famiglioli, and the claviari, which look like branches of coralline; the grifole, a mass of fan- shaped fungus, of a dark or grey colour; this is so hard that it is not eatable unless it is first boiled and then baked. But the species which most suggests poison to our English minds, are large yellow masses of soft substance, called also grifole, or more correctly poliporo, some of which are yellow of the most brilliant colour, and others which the peasants call lingua di castagno (chestnut tongues), of a bright carmine. All the last four species grow on chestnut or oak trees, springing from the bark.

The mushroom merchants are doing a brisk business this year. They come round to all the villages and hamlets every morning, and buy up all they can get, piling them on a large cart in flat baskets one on the other, to sell to the wholesale dealers. When only one merchant arrives he makes his own price, and it is a hard bargain for the villagers, who only get about four or five centesimi (less than a halfpenny) per lb. This morning an impromptu market is established on the aia of Pietro, and a most amusing scene it is. About twenty women from neighbouring hamlets stand about, each guarding her baskets of funghi, and oh! good luck! two rival merchants. There is the usual keen-eyed man from San Marcello, and a care-for-nought style of youth who has come down from Prunetta to do a little business. This fellow has black eyes and a mass of ugly black hair, which requires much shaking and thrusting back under his hat. He wears a pink shirt and blue tie, and smokes a meerschaum pipe which does not at all interfere with the freedom of his speech, for he talks incessantly.

There is fierce bidding between them, the young purchaser recklessly promising more than his rival, till he had raised the offers from four centesimi a lb to six-and-a-half. Here the elder man prudently retired from the contest, saying that he could not get that back for them in Florence. Accordingly all the women flocked eagerly to the youth from Prunetta, who began weighing their baskets very willingly on his steel-yard, which these itinerant buyers carry about with them. He would willingly cheat them in the payment, but is kept to his bargain by his rival, who, having no purchases, stands by to see fair play.

A brisk trade continues till the elder man shoulders his scale and departs, when lo! what a Babel ensues. ‘Now hark ye, donne’ cries the buyer, ‘these are not real prices, you know. I only paid high to keep him out of it,’ pointing to the departing rival, ‘but the market price is five centesimi, and not one more cent will I pay.’

Great excitement ensues. All the women lift up their voices shrilly, and the appellations they bestow on him are not remarkable for politeness; they surround him in a crowd, shaking their fists in his face, till he retreats to the wall, where he takes off his hat, and, pushing back his curls, awaits the lulling of the storm.

‘It is not fair; you cannot bargain for one price and pay another; you paid Enrichetta six-and-a-half a lb and you shall pay me the same,’ exclaimed a stout angry woman. ‘I shall go to Piteglio with mine, and you shan’t have an ounce of them. I would rather give them to an honest man than sell them to you.’

And up goes a large basket on the frizzled head of a red-haired girl, but it comes down again on her friends reminding her that she will only get four-and-a-half centesimi there, and have all the trouble of carrying them a mile. ‘Then I’ll sell them to the other man, he offered five-and-a-half.’

She rushes off, followed by two or three others calling, ‘O Giorgio, come back! Come back!’

Giorgio, who had not really gone away, strolls back in an unconcerned manner, and coolly inquires, ‘What is up?’

‘That birbone won’t give more than five centesimi now, so we will let you have them at five-and-a-half.’

‘Ah!’ says he, ‘but I am not going to give more than five either.’ Sig. Giorgio was a student of human nature, and seeing that the women were too angry with his rival to deal at any price, he knew he might make his own tariff now.

‘Oh! That’s too bad, you offered five-and-a-half just now,’ cried our nice little Matilde. ‘Just so, but you would not deal; now he has changed his mind, and so have I,’ and the mushroom merchant laughs sardonically.

In despair the women consult together. ‘Shall we go to Piteglio? perhaps the man from Pistoia is there,’ asks one.

‘No, he isn’t; there is only Luigi il Pazzo buying there to-day.’

‘Besides,’ adds a third, ‘he only pays five centesimi, and we should have all the walk besides’.

‘My basket is heavy, I shall lighten it here,’ laughs the red-haired girl, showing all her white teeth. The others follow her example, and the remaining stock is weighed and haggled over to the very last ounce of yellow ovoli, but the merchant is very much at a loss for small change to pay his many clients. So little accustomed is he to any but the very dirtiest of paper money, that when I changed a five-franc note into bright new silver half-francs, he looked quite incredulous, and asked whether they were good!

We were told by one of the women that the people of Piteglio a village in which there is neither butcher nor baker have this year gained several thousand francs by their mushrooms, the joint gathering of thevillage being nearly 3,000 lbs a day.

It is a blessed provision of Providence that in these regions, where, by reason of the mountainous nature of the land, agriculture is both difficult and unproductive, that the chief means of sustenance are drawn from nature alone, and man only has to gather. The chestnuts supply him with food for the whole winter, the woods and hedges give into his hands mushrooms, bilberries, and raspberries enough to make up the fewfrancs which are necessary for his clothing.

The country at Badia a Settimo 19/01/2011

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c. 1900

Leaving Florence by the Porta S. Frediano we drove about four miles to the ancient Badia a Settimo, famous in the political as well as the religious annals of Tuscany. The peasants were as busy as bees, preparing casks and vats for the vintage, and the universal hammering was quite deafening, mingled with the beating out of the sagina – a kind of millet much grown for making brooms, which are sent by shiploads to England and America. Most beautiful are the fields of the tall sagina; the light green leaves bend gracefully to the breeze, and the loose head of seed falls like a cascade of chestnut-coloured rain from the tops of the slender stems. To English eyes the wealth of grapes appeared incredible, and the colours marvellous. From maple to maple hung long garlands of vines in fantastic shapes, Buon Amico, or ‘good friend’, with large loose bunches of purple-black grapes, Trebbiano, brilliant yellow, with the sunny side stained a deep brown, Uva Grassa, a dull yellow-green, and the lovely Occhio di Pernice, or ‘partridge’s eye’, of a light pink with ruby lines meandering about in every grape, the flavour of which was quite equal to its beauty.

The contadini were much amused at our admiration, and insisted on our tasting the various kinds of grapes. Immense golden pumpkins, melons, water-melons, and scarlet tomatoes were being picked, and on some of the farms the women and children were busily employed in making round cakes of the latter fruit, and drying them in the sun for winter consumption. Outside the windows hung branches of the Acacia horrida, of which the crown of thorns is said to have been made; each long thorn bore a crop of skinned figs, the gelatinous, sweet drops of juice oozing out and congealing in the sun’s rays. On the low walls surrounding the threshing-floors were flat baskets, boards, and plates, covered with split peaches and figs drying in the sun, for the children to eat in winter with their bread.

Looking for Pinoli 12/01/2011

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c. 1900

Each contadino has a piece of the wood allotted to him, and when the vintage is over, and the sowing of the grain and pressing of the olives not yet begun, the pinecones are gathered and stored. This raccolta is no easy matter, as the cones do not fall of themselves, but must be forcibly detached. One of the men mounts the tall bare trunk, on which the succession of knots and lopped branches forms a rude ladder, and at last sits perched, like some fantastic bird, high among the boughs. Then a perilous process to any but an agile and skilful climber he cuts the cones with a sharp knife attached to a long pole, and they fall to the ground, to be gathered by the rest of the family into heaps. Care must be taken, however, to keep at a safe distance while the actual rain of cones continues, as they fall with all the force of heavy stones, and a blow on the head would be enough to severely injure, if not kill, a man.

The Tuscan folk are wonderfully attractive, with their dark eyes, sunny smiles, and warm-hearted, winning ways, and our arrival was greeted by the whole group with a cheery ‘Buon giorno alla Signoria!’ Dario’s wife was there, the little Madonna face looking sweeter than ever under a gay yellow handkerchief. Close by, gathering more diligently than anyone, was a deaf and dumb woman who has an immense reputation for fieldwork, and general utility, since, being denied the gift of speech, she cannot, as the men-folk say approvingly, waste the time in chattering like the rest of her sex, and must, perforce, remain ‘as still as oil’. Another of the party was Giocondo, who, however, belies his name of the ‘jocund’, being a pensive soul, ‘sad and civil’, and inclined to take a mournful view of life. Perhaps this is because he has proved the fallacy of the Psalmist’s unqualified statement that he who getteth a wife, getteth a good thing. ‘La Gioconda’ is not a treasure in domestic life, being sickly in mind and body, manifesting a feeble incapacity both for work in the fields and work in the house. Moreover, she brought as her only dowry an elderly and unamiable father, who has encamped by poor Giocondo’s fireside, and will neither lend a helping hand in work, nor withdraw the shadow of his presence from his unfortunate son-in-law’s house. Therefore, perhaps it is hardly to be wondered at if Giocondo sighs windily as he kneads the bread and performs his other duties about the Fattoria.

Half a dozen young girls, picturesque in their faded clothes, and with the lovely hair which knows the touch of sun and wind and rain alike, were busy together, chattering over their work like mill-wheels; and I saw more than one pair of eyes turned towards the fascinating Fiore, who is undoubtedly the best-looking ‘Giovanotto’ on the place, and will, it is safe to prophesy, have little trouble  in finding a ‘sposina’ when he turns his mind towards such things. At present he could hardly marry even if he wished to do so, as his eldest sister is only sixteen, and until she is of an age to be carried off to a home of her own, and leave a vacant place, there is no room in the family circle for any daughter-in-law.

The patriarchal fashion in which the contadini live, each family under its own capoccia or head, and the habit of taking the wives of sons into the house to share the work and submit to the domestic ruler, makes this arrangement of a double wedding necessary in most cases, as the sister’s departure makes room for the brother’s wife. Mafalda, arrived at the scene of action, set to work with praiseworthy energy, gathering pine-cones in her pinafore and depositing them on the heap which Dario and Giocondo and Fiore were dexterously transferring from the ground to the cart.

The small rustics, in their overalls and clumping, wooden-soled shoes, eyed her with consuming interest mingled with admiration; and as she returned from one of her journeys with an empty pinafore, the gallant Morino, Giocondo’s five-year old boy, shyly held out a branch of arbutus, bright with its scarlet and golden fruit. Mafalda received it silently, but with a smile as gracious as a princess, and came hastening to me, full of excitement over the pretty shrub, which she had never before seen. ‘Have you seen, you, that he gave it me, quel bimbo, that little boy there?’ she asked eagerly. ‘I like him: he is molto gentile; his clothes is ugly, but the little face it is very nice.’ Then, as a sudden desire for knowledge awoke in her,

‘What they do with them, these pinecones, when they get them to house?’ ‘They put them in the fire, or in hot water,’ I explained, always glad to see Mafalda’s mind opening to instruction, ‘and the heat makes these little scales unfold, do you see, my sweet one? And below every scale lies a nut, warm and snug. Then the nuts are taken out and cracked, and are good to eat, and to cook, and for, oh! ever so many things, and the empty cones are sold for fuel, to make fires when the winter comes.’

Mafalda was deeply impressed by this information. Her eyes opened to their widest extent; the mystery of the hidden nuts sleeping at the fragrant heart of the pine seemed to appeal to her, for she remained silent and nodded her head thoughtfully several times. ‘I take a cone to house, also I,’ she finally announced with determination; ‘and tonight we put her in the fire and take out her nuts, non e vero?’

Certainly we might do many things less amusing, so Mafalda selected a particularly noble and symmetrical specimen from among the piles before her, for the revels which we were to enjoy in that delightful hour which begins with the clearing away of the tea-cups, and is bounded so sadly and so soon for small people by the summons to bed.

By this time the short November afternoon was drawing to a close; the day’s work was over, the last load was ready, and the cones piled so near to the level of the high waggon-sides, that it seemed as if no place would remain for us. Mafalda was much distressed. ‘Must we go on feet?’ she asked anxiously, using a form which, when one comes to think of it, is really more reasonable than our usual idiom, since no one person, much less two, could possibly return to the house on a single foot. However, her mind was set at rest by the courteous Dario, who scooped out a nest in the middle, lining it with sacks that we might not suffer too much from the hard and knobbly cones. We scrambled up, helped by the contadini, all of them loud in their injunctions to Fiore, who was to lead the oxen, to star’ attento and not jolt the signorine; then, with much pomp and circumstance, we set off, a proud procession, on the precipitous descent.

The woods were dim and mysterious, grave with the quiet of evening, haunted by shadows and evasive presences which lurked among the trees; and it was pleasant in the misty grey of the twilight to picture the fire of blazing logs awaiting us, the welcome tea, and, beyond that agreeable horizon, the burning of the pinecones as a fitting conclusion to the day.

Mafalda could scarcely eat her bread-and-jam in her impatience to begin operations, and no sooner was tea over than she committed her pine-cone to the flames. ‘May I sit upon it, the knee?’ she asked with her accustomed courtesy, after this important business was accomplished; and so we sat bunched up together in a great chair in the chimney-corner, and possessed our souls in patience while the glowing tongues of fire did their work. It was a real story-book scene: the warm glow from the logs flickered upon the tapestry and old portraits, and up to the vaulted roof of the salotto; the dogs lay basking in the warmth; the splash of the fountain in the garden, and the wail of the rising wind as it tossed a handful of dead leaves against the window-panes, only emphasised the cosiness within. It was a magical hour, made for musing and dreams; but Mafalda was in a garrulous mood, and too deeply concerned over the well-being of her precious pine-cone to watch it quietly on its glowing bed.

‘The pine-cone, she feel very hot,’ she pleaded presently. ‘If she not cool she burn me the hand!’ And as the cone really did seem to have opened its ‘petals’, I acceded to this request and removed it with the tongs to a corner of the stone hearth. From time to time, as we waited for this cooling process, the slipping of a charred log sent a cloud of red sparks up the chimney, and Mafalda, of course, wanted a tale about these ‘sons of the burning coal’,  as the old Hebrews called them. I might have expected as much! Had she ever heard the sensational story of the army of fire fairies who lived in the heart of the wood? No? Well, the pine-log was the mother of all the fire fairies, and some of her children were good and some were naughty, and when she told them to do no harm to anyone, but to fly right away up the chimney into the sky, some said, ‘Yes, mother,’ and others said, ‘I don’t care’, and jumped out on the rug, and made holes in it, and sat down on the dogs and made them cry, and were just as disobedient as… some little girls could be!

Mafalda gazed pensively at the ceiling. Her air of detachment said plainly that though such little girls might exist perhaps on the dark side of the planet she had no dealings with or knowledge of them, and considered the allusion uncalled for and ill-timed. ‘Was there no good ones?’ she asked. ‘Yes; there was one who was as good as good could be! And he didn’t make holes in people’s pinafores, nor sit down on the rug to make it burn, nor on the dogs to make them cry, like the bad fairies; but he just flew up the chimney when his mother told him, ever so high. Yes, right in the air!’ as Mafalda’s face expressed the liveliest interest in the ascent of the virtuous spark. ‘And then, what is happened?’ ‘The angels caught him and blew on him, as Santina blows the fire, till he grew big and very bright and yellow; and then they made a little hole in the sky and planted him in, and he has been a star, a beautiful shining star, ever since, because he was good, and did what his mother the pine-log told him, and went up in the air instead of sitting down to make a blaze; and he looks in through the window every night at good children when they are in bed.’ Mafalda drew a long sigh of satisfaction. ‘Will he look at me to-night?’ she asked eagerly. ‘Of course, unless a cloud gets in his way. But the cone must be cool now, so we had better begin to take out our nuts.’

The extraction of pinoli is one of the dirtiest occupations imaginable, the cones being sticky with resin, and blackened by flame; but Mafalda and I have no objection to ‘clean dirt’ in a good cause, and, as the former sapiently observed, ‘With the soap we can wash us the hands’; so by bedtime that is to say, the bedtime of well-regulated young people of six quite a large heap had been got out and cracked. Mafalda was charmed by the whole proceedings; but her pleasure reached its height when, very carefully, I opened one of the pinoli and showed her, in the safe sheath, trebly protected by nutshell and cone, the tiny waxen hand, with its slender fingers, which the countrypeople call the ‘Manina di Gesu’. She went into ecstasies over “this little hand white’ and was not content until she had opened one for herself, a delicate operation, not easy for impatient, childish fingers to perform. At last Mafalda was led off’, reluctant, to bed; and ten minutes later I was leaning over her, and, obedient to her instruction, ‘more tuck’, straining the bedclothes to that unwrinkled smoothness which this exacting little person requires. Sitting up, she herself smooths away every crease from the tightly drawn sheet and counterpane, and then slides cautiously into a recumbent position, fearful of disturbing in the least degree the perfect neatness of her bed.

Wine-making in 1874 29/12/2010

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In this pleasant and picturesque old mansion were assembled a joyous company, mixed Italian and English, for the vintage of 1874. To the advent of the forestieri was ascribed by the courteous contadini the splendid yield of grapes, better than they had seen for twenty-six years. [Note here in the text: That is to say, since the outbreak of the iodium. To give some idea of the virulence of the disease, the farms on this estate, though two less in number, used to produce at least two thousand barile of wine ; and in this, an exceptional year, the yield was only one thousand one hundred. One year, when the disease was at its height, they had five barile of stuff resembling mud! A barile holds fifty litres.]

On a fine September morning we started, Italian and English, men and women, masters and mistresses, and servants laden with innumerable baskets, big and little, each armed with a rough pair of scissors, and our padrona leading the way, with her guitar, pouring out as she went an endless flow of stornelli, rispetti, and canzoni, in which Tuscany is as rich as in any of the country products, maize or figs, pumpkins or tomatoes, oil or wine, or grain, the Italians amongst us improvising words to the well-known airs.

The vintage is always a happy time; everyone works with a will, and is contented and light-hearted. As Modesto, one of our men, said, ‘Buon vino fa buon sangue’ (Good wine makes good blood).

The old fattore (bailiff), who had retired from all active work on the estate, except the management of his especial pets, the vineyards alla francese (vines cut low in the French fashion, and not allowed to straggle from tree to tree as is the Tuscan usage), was very great on this occasion. He pointed out trees he had planted, and works he had done, fifty years ago, before the padrone was born. The dear old man was now seventy-eight, and as brisk and alert as any of us; with an eye still bright, and his keen, humorous face as full of vivacity as the youngest. He was full of old proverbs and wise sayings, like all peasants of the Casentino, his native region, about twenty miles south-west of Florence; and looked sharply after all our workmen to see that each duly did the picking of his row of vines. He was struck with great admiration at the way in which Englishmen, and women too, worked, and quite concerned for the repeated drenchings in perspiration of a strenuous old gentleman of the party, remarking gravely, ‘Questo povero Signor Antonio! ma suda troppo!’ (‘This poor Mr. Tom, he sweats too much’). He chuckled when we got hot and red under the burning sun, gracefully putting it to the ladies, ‘Il sole di Italia vi ha baciato’ (‘the sun of Italy has kissed you’).

By eleven we were thoroughly tired, and went to rest under the scanty shade of the olives and fig trees with our guitar. One of the young peasants had lost his grandfather in Russia with Napoleon I, and we called him up, and told him to sing about the great general. He sung to a favourite stornello air:

‘Guarda, Napoleon, quello che fai ;

La meglio giovcntu tutta la vuoi,

E le ragazze te le friggerai.’

‘Napoleon, fa le cose giuste,

Falla la coscrizion delle ragazze,

Piglia le belle, e lasciar star le brutte.’

‘Napoleon, te ne pentirai!

La meglio gioventu tutta la vuoi;

Della vecchiaia, che te ne farai.’

‘Napoleon, non ti stimar guerriero

A Mosca lo troveresti l’osso duro,

All’ isola dell’ Elba prigioniero.’

(‘While you go our youths collecting, All our pretty girls neglecting, Pause, Napoleon, and beware. Deal more justly with all classes, Make conscription of the lasses, Leave the plain and choose the fair. Napoleon, if with ruthless hand, Of its flower you mow the land: In old age you’ll pay it dear. Boast not, tyrant, of your glory, Moscow’s plains were grim and gory, Elba was a prison drear.’)

Twelve o’clock brought a welcome arrival – lunch from the villa. Grape-picking is a capital sharpener of the appetite. We were soon reclining – sub tegmine fagi – round a steaming dish of risotto con funghi, and a knightly sirloin of roast beef, which would have done honour to old England. A big fiasco (a large bottle bound round with reeds or straw, and holding three ordinary bottles) of last year’s red wine was soon emptied, well tempered, I should say, with water from the neighbouring well. At a little distance the labourers in the vineyard were enjoying the unwonted luxury of a big wooden bowl full of white beans crowned with polpette, little sausages of minced meat and rice.

We first gathered all the white grapes. These were transferred from our small baskets to big ones, placed at the end of each row of vines. These bigger baskets were then carried on men’s backs to the villa, where the grapes were laid out to dry in one of the towers, on stoie, great trays made of canes. Here they are exposed to sun and air for some weeks, when they are used for making the vin’ santo. After the white grapes were gathered, we fell to on the black, of the choice kinds, the San Giovese, the Aleatico, the Colorino, and the Occhio di Pernice.

These also were destined to be exposed on stoie in the same manner. They are used as governo, that is to say, when the new wine is racked for the first time these choice black grapes are put in, so as to cause another fermentation, they at once deepen the colour of the wine and make it clear.

How melancholy the vines looked stripped of their grapes! The glorious white and golden, and pink and deep red bunches had given a beauty to the landscape which one did not realise until they were gone, and the poor vines stood bare.

In our discussions about the progress of our work, the time of day often came in question. The old fattore was very anxious to know how we in England knew the hour, as he had heard that our churches did not ring the Ave Maria at midday or in the evening. He had, doubtless, a settled conviction that we were little better than heathens, but was too polite to say so. We explained that we had abundance of both big clocks and little watches; but he answered, ‘Ma che’  (with a horizontal wave of the hand), ‘I have a watch too. I set it by the Ave Maria and hardly ever use it. At midday, when the Ave Maria rings, we know we are to eat; and when we hear it at sundown, twenty-four o’clock, as we say here, we leave off work; and at one o’clock of night (an hour after sunset) it rings again so that we may remember our dead and say an Ave for them.’ All our arguments to prove that clocks and watches might be good substitutes for the Ave Maria were useless, and he remained stanch to his idea that England must be a wretched place without the Ave Maria ‘Si deve star male in Inghilterra senza Ave Maria.’

At last the beautiful great white oxen, with their large, soft, black eyes, tassels of red and yellow worsted dangling about the roots of their horns and over their cool moist noses, came to the edge of the vineyard drawing a large vat (tino) fixed on the cart. Into this all the remaining grapes were thrown. A handsome lad of sixteen, after tucking up his trousers and washing his feet in a bucket of water drawn from the well close by, jumped atop of the vat and lustily stamped down the contents, singing as he plied his purple-stained feet: ‘Bella bellina, chi vi ha fatto gli occhi? Che ve gli ha fatti tanto innamorati? Da letto levereste gli ammalati, Di sotto terra levereste i morti. Tanto valore e tanta valoranza! Vostri begli occhi son la mia speranza.’ (‘My lovely charmer, who hath made thine eyes, That fill our bosoms with such ecstasies? Their glance would draw the sick man from his bed, Or haply pierce the tomb and raise the dead. Oh! my sweet love, thy beauty and thy worth, Are all my hope and all my joy on earth.’)

Of such tender sentiment and musical sound are the songs of the Tuscan ‘roughs’. These songs are most of them the composition, both words and airs, of the peasants and artisans who sing them. The hills round Pistoia and the streets of Florence ring with an ever-renewed outpour of such sweet and simple song.

The padrone prides himself much on his fine breed of oxen, and told us the old Tuscan proverb, ‘Chi ha carro e buoi,fa bene i fatti suoi’ (‘Whoso has cart and oxen does good business’).

When the last load of grapes was carted off we returned to the villa, where we found all hands busy in the great courtyard of the fattoria on one side of the villa, emptying the grapes and must out of the vats with wooden bigoncie, high wooden pails without handles. These are carried on men’s shoulders, and their contents poured into immense vats (tino) ranged all round the courtyard under covered arcades. In our wine-shed (tinaia) there are about fifty of these, containing from five to fifty butts each, besides three large square reservoirs of stone each holding three hundred barrels. The bubbling and boiling of the fermenting wine fills the air, and the smell is almost strong enough to get drunk upon. The men often do get tipsy, if they remain too long treading the grapes, or drawing off the new wine.

But here it is an article of faith that the perfume of the must is the best medicine, and people bring weakly children to tread the grapes and remain in the tinaia to breathe the fume-laden air and eat of the fresh fruit; for at vintage-time no peasant or padrone refuses grapes to anyone who asks. They say that il buon Dio has given them plenty, and why should they in their turn not give to those who have nothing?

I suppose this universal readiness to give is one reason why there is so little stealing here. You see vines full of fruit close to the roads, and quite unprotected by any sort of fence, and yet no one of the country-side ever takes them. There are, it is true, certain malfamati villages, whose inhabitants have the reputation of thieves, and against these, and pilferers from the large towns, the vineyards are guarded by men armed with guns, with which they keep popping the night through. At times you see twenty or thirty poor people standing quietly looking on, until called up to receive their dole of grapes, with which they go away happy, with their graceful ‘Dio ve ne renda merito’. At home they will mix water with the must they squeeze out of their basket or apronful of such ungrudged gifts, and make mezzo vino, or acquavello (water and wine fermented together), for the winter.

The same thing is done on a large scale at many fattorie. This mixture of wine and water is distributed to the poor in winter, and is the common drink of the workmen about the villa. After the first good wine is drawn off from the vats, the vinaccia (skins, grape-stones, and stalks) is put into the press, and the second wine pressed out. This is good, but considerably rougher, from the larger amount of tannin, due to the skins and stalks, than that which is drawn off from the vats after fermentation without any agency of the press. After passing through the press, the clots of vinaccia are again put into the vats, and water is poured upon them. In eight or ten days a fresh fermentation takes place, and the vinaccia is once more pressed in the wine-press. This gives mezzo vino, or acquarello (half-wine), not at all bad, but of course of insufficient body to keep through the summer. For this there is no want of demand at the villa. Besides the rations of the workpeople, there are the poveri del buon Dio.

In Tuscany there are no almshouses or poorhouses, save in the chief towns. Most villas have one or two days in the week when alms are distributed to all who come and ask. Here the gathering of poor occurs every Monday and Thursday, at ten in the morning. A hunch of bread, a glass of half-wine, and five centimes are doled out to every applicant, and on Christmas Day anyone who brings a fiasco has it filled with mezzo-vino, and gets half a loaf of bread and a half a pound of uncooked meat. Such has been the custom, I am told, for many hundred years.

Our happy holiday vintaging lasted for five days, and then we went to help the vintaging of one of the contadini of the padrone, a family that had been on the estate for two hundred and eighty years. All their vines were trained Tuscan fashion on maples, and we had the help of ladders and steps to gather the grapes. Half the grapes, and indeed half of all the produce of the land – grain, pumpkins, flax, fruit, or wine – belongs to the padrone, who pays all the taxes and buys the cattle. The contadino pays no rent for his house, which the padrone keeps in repair. The peasant gives the labour, and the master finds the capital. This is, in rough outline, the system of mezzeria, or half-and-half tenure, still universal in Tuscany. Like all human things, it has two sides, and may be condemned as the most backward, or defended as the most patriarchal and wholesome of systems, binding landlord and tenant in the bond of an obviously common interest, and encouraging the closest and most familiar relations between the two. When the landlord is intelligent, active, and judicious, he may become a centre of enlightenment and improvement to his tenantry; but all his attempts must be made with the most cautious discretion, or he will infallibly frighten, and perhaps alienate, his tenantry, who are thorough Conservatives, and love stare super antiques vias. Thus the best commentary on the Georgics is still agriculture in action in Tuscany, a passing peep into one of whose most pleasing chapters has been attempted in this paper.

Oil-making among the Tuscan contadini 22/12/2010

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c. 1910

The oil-making is very picturesque, and usually carried on in a primitive, unhurried way, like all rural affairs in Italy. The Italian peasant, if he works hard, yet works deliberately; and there is something very soothing in this placid hand-labour as compared with the mechanical methods which rule our English fields. The olives are carried from the podere to the frantoio (oil-pressing room); the bruised ones, picked up from the ground, are set apart for later use, and the perfect ones pressed for the best quahty of oil. When, for the first time, I passed in beneath the old doorway, I found myself in a large dim room, crossed at angles by several broad low archways of stone. The atmosphere was warm after the sharp frosty air outside, and the men were working in their shirt-sleeves, with bright woollen scarves twisted about their waists. In the middle of the room stood an immense stone basin, into which olives were poured continally, being crushed to pulp, stone and all, by a millwheel which turned within the trough. This wheel was attached to a wooden column rising to the ceiling, and was worked by a patient ox, which, tied to a stout wooden pole projecting from the pillar, trod round and round the basin in a track of dead leaves and fern. The pulp was then taken out with wooden shovels, and emptied into round shallow baskets made of twisted cord, with a hole top and bottom which can be closed with a draw-string when the basket is full. These were carried to a press in another corner of the room and piled top on top beneath it. The machine was primitive in form, as the screw by means of which the baskets were pressed was turned by a projecting beam of wood against which the men threw their whole weight, toiling round and round until not a drop more oil could be extracted.

From the hot, red faces of Orlando and Pietro and the rest of them, this was evidently quite the hardest part of the work. The press was then unscrewed, the contents of the basket emptied back into the mill, reground, and then pressed again, to obtain a second quality of oil. The remaining pulp, dark and gritty, Orlando explained to me, was called ‘salsa’, and generally sold to factories to be made into machine oil, with a mixture of sulphuric acid, or to serve in the manufacture of soap. The finest quality of the oil was of a pure, limpid gold, and, the water which the olives naturally contain having been skimmed oif the top, it was carried away in small wooden barrels and emptied into conche (huge terra-cotta pots, glazed inside). The chiaratoio (oil-clearing room), where these are stored, must be kept always at an even temperature, as the oil thickens if frozen, and this, though not affecting the flavour, spoils the appearance. Italians boast much of their oil – which they generally use for cooking instead of butter – declaring that what reaches England is hardly fit to be called olive oil at all; and this is easy to be believed, as it is hard to get it pure even in Florence, so soon does the work of adulteration begin. It used to be the curious and characteristic custom in Florence, on the Octave of Easter Sunday, known as the ‘Domenica in Albis’, to make a solemn offering of oil in the Church of the Santissima Annunziata, as a thankoffering for the crop. A representative church or brotherhood made the offering and went in procession, with two half-barrels of oil slung across a mule covered with a bright cloth, on which, dressed as an angel, sat a little boy of three or four years old.

Visit to a Contadino Family 15/12/2010

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c. 1900

Dario and his father-in-law, old Sorbi, were mending a wagon on the Aia, the former chanting lustily one of those untranslatable stornelli which are the growth of the Italian soil. Song is the habit of Tuscan peasants and servants, who sing alike at work and play for gladness of spirit; and Dario, especially, inherits this gift from his grandfather, who was one of the old minstrels who used to roam the country from fair to wedding, improvising rhymes and songs.

Both he and Sorbi at once dropped their tools and hastened forward with brilliant smiles of welcome, and quite a pleasant bustle of excitement pervaded the little homestead as we arrived on the doorstep with half a dozen dogs. No courtier could have done the honours of his house more simply or more graciously than did these peasants. With frank and charming courtesy they offered us their best, both of accommodation and refreshment. Dario, hastening to and fro on bare brown feet, brought rushbottomed chairs from the house and ranged them under  the loggia; then, responding to our tentative suggestion of fruit with a cheery ‘Eh, altro!’ seized a basket and disappeared into the podere, to return in a few minutes with the freshest of green and purple figs. ‘La Sorba’, an old woman whose wide straw hat framed a face like a ruddy, wrinkled apple, fetched glasses and a great straw-covered fiasco of wine; while the sposina, Dario’s wife, and daughter of the house, smiled shyly at us from the doorstep, where she sat with three black-eyed children clinging to her, and the last baby in her arms.

It must be owned that both she and La Sorba were, like most peasant women on six days of the week, very slatternly, with old petticoats, loose, coloured bodices and uncombed hair, but none the less were they very picturesque. The quaint costumes of the contadini have, alas!, disappeared; but whatever the Tuscan peasant dons as a working dress seems to acquire a certain intangible charm. While the clothes they proudly put on for Sunday the loud stripes and plaids, the bright printed calicoes, the yellow boots are hideous, the weather-worn garments of every day, faded and mellowed by the weather, make patches of warm colour, purple, red and orange, among the olives and vines.

The scene on that autumn morning was a quaint and pretty one, essentially Italian in all its details, as was the old farm with its thick walls of rough stone, and its loggia with rounded arches one of the characteristic features of a contadino’s house. A stone stair up the side of the house, opening at the top on to a balcony, led into the large dim kitchen, where a faint oil-lamp flickered before a picture of Our Lady. A small iron-barred window beyond gave a glimpse of far blue hills. There was a hooded stone fireplace, over which was fastened a bough of olive blessed at the church last Palm Sunday; a rough wooden table, an old cupboard, and a few stools. A bundle of hemp hung in one corner; from the beams were suspended strings of onions and bunches of dried herbs. Clean it was not, certainly, indeed, I doubt if the peasants ever wash their houses, and the stone walls and rafters were blackened by wood smoke; but it must be remembered that water, especially in summer, is scarce in Tuscany, so that cleanliness requires an effort greater perhaps than the people have any inclination to make.

Outside, under the loggia, stood a scarlet ox-waggon, and some huge earthenware vessels, coloured an exquisite blue from having contained the sulphate of copper with which olives are syringed as a protection against blight a blue with which the peasants sometimes dye their old straw hats. Against the wall hung a sickle and other tools, and several flasks made from dried and emptied gourds.

Beyond lay the Aia, a large yard irregularly paved with grey stone, where fowls were pecking; on the low, broad wall which surrounded it were spread trays of figs, split peaches, scarlet tomatoes and orange-tinted pumpkins, drying in the sun for winter use.

In the thickness of the house-wall a little shrine had been hollowed to hold a figure of Madonna with the Gesulino in her arms, and before it stood a handful of wildflowers in a china cup. Beyond the Aia lay the podere, a serene world of grey and green; the olives varied in tint, now green, now silver, as the breeze swept over them; the vines burned bronze and crimson; and shutting in this peaceful nook were the pine-woods, and range after range of purple hills.

Certainly, seen on a sunny day in such surroundings, the peasant’s seems an enviable lot, spent in the pure air, in the midst of lovely scenery, his labour to till the soil from which he was taken and to which he must, by and by, return. Sunshine around him, songs on his lips, gaiety in his heart, these are the first impressions made by a Tuscan peasant. But in reality it is a hard life of incessant toil, alike for men and women. The contadino, from dawn to sunset, must dig and plant and sow and reap: his wife must nurse, cook, clean, feed the beasts, cut grass and fodder, help in the work of the fields. Even the children must work as soon as they are big enough to weed or pick out stones.

The peasants live poorly, the most prosperous having three meals a day, but eating little save polenta made of maize flour; beans, mixed with salt and oil; bread, and occasional additions of vegetables, maccaroni and cheese. Few of them keep cows, and so have no milk, though a goat sometimes supplies a little for the children. They use oil for cooking; and butter is almost unknown to them, as even those who have cows do not make it, but sell the milk direct to the padrone or to some large dairy in the town.

It was a gay little meal which we had there on the old Aia, the fruit of the land, offered and received with the simplicity of Arcadia, and eaten on the soil where it was grown, in sight of sky and hills. The red country wine, the round amber-coloured loaf of dark bread which Dario sliced with a sickle-shaped knife, the fresh figs and clusters of white and purple grapes, were all simple things, yet surely, in their fresh perfection, food fit for the gods. Wine for the children is usually a forbidden luxury, but on this day of days they were allowed it as a treat and considered Dario the most amiable of men when, far from pouring out a grudging finger-breadth, he filled their glasses with an unsparing hand and a cheery ‘Non faccia complimenti! fa bene! fa bene!’

Old Sorbi, a short, sturdy man in a soft felt hat, stood by, entertaining us with his views on the weather, the crops, and the coming fair at the Impruneta; while Dario enlivened us from time to time with a burst of vivacious talk.

No, in answer to Mafalda’s shy question, he had no sheep. There was no one to mind them: but the padrone had promised that when the bimbo there, with a jerk of his head towards his eldest grandchild, a round-eyed, barefooted boy of seven, should be big enough to mind them, he should have a flock. Meantime, he had oxen, and a pig, if the signorina wished to see the pig? The signorina did, and the creature dear to St. Anthony’s heart was accordingly ushered on to the Aia, grunting cheerfully, and eager to accept fig-skins and crusts of bread.

Old Sorbi is the capoccia or head of his family, a dignity strictly observed in every contadino household. It is an office which usually, though not necessarily, descends from father to son, and gives the person who fills it full authority in all family affairs. It is he who manages everything, keeps the money, rules despotically younger brothers, sons, and daughters-in-law. It is he who represents the family legally to the padrone, and is responsible in all things for the land, utensils, and beasts. The other members of the household may offer advice, may join him in consultation, but it is emphatically he who acts.

The head of the women, or house-mother, is called the massaia, and is usually an elderly person, who may be mother, wife, or sister of the capoccia. It is she who controls the feminine branch of the establishment subject always to the Capoccia’s approval; she who apportions work to the daughters and daughters-in-law, oversees the cooking, the sewing, the straw-plaiting, and all such woman’s work.

Family affections are usually very strong among the peasants, as well as affection for the land on which they were born. They live together in patriarchal fashion; the old father, with possibly a younger brother or two, three or four stalwart sons, and their wives, who come to settle in their father-in-law’s house and share the work in-doors and out, mere farm servants without a servant’s wage. To these may be added a tribe of children; and yet, wonderful to relate, considering how trying such an arrangement must be to the temper, and what friction must at times ensue, they live, as a rule, in good-fellowship and peace.

Occasionally, when a clan becomes too numerous to be accommodated by the house, or supported by the crops, a branch settles on another farm on the same estate, or, where that is impossible, as near the old home as they can. The ambition of a contadino is to have many sons to work the land, as otherwise labour must be hired, and where that cannot be afforded the peasant’s lot is indeed a hard one. When a contadino possesses, like Sorbi, one daughter, it is usual to marry her ‘in the house’; that is, to take her husband into her father’s house to help her father in the work, and some day to succeed himself to the proud position of capoccia and see his own sons grow up as heirs to the goodly acres and the old stone farm. Dario might well have good hopes of this happy consummation, being already the father of three chubby boys and a mimina; and he surveyed the little group on the doorstep proudly, as a man who had well fulfilled his mission, for where could old Sorbi have found a worthier son-in-law than he?

Mafalda, having heard rumours of a new-born calf, grew restless with excitement, and a visit to the byre was accordingly suggested, where, by its creamy mother’s side, lay the tiny, wistful-eyed creature, a red string tied round its neck to keep off the evil eye, for the contadini, though they do not care to admit it, are full of superstitions, and cherish many an old legend about ghosts, witches, fays and elves. Woe to the unfortunate person who acquires the reputation for having the evil eye! He may be the gentlest of creatures, overflowing with the milk of human kindness, and blameless of any ill-will towards his neighbours or their goods. To have been present two or three times when misfortunes have occurred; to have, in a careless moment, suggested the possibility of some evil happening which afterwards came to pass, these things are quite enough to start the rumour which will grow faster than Jack’s magic beanstalk, and, wherever he passes, ‘horns’ will be surreptitiously made to ward off the mischief which his presence would otherwise bring.

Old Sorbi gazed proudly at the calf and its mother, and with even more affection at the pair of great white oxen in the neighbouring stall; one of whom, lying on his bed of dry fern, rose indolently at the sound of his master’s voice, first kneeling, and then straightening his hind legs with deliberation, until at last he stood erect. The contadini have usually a passion for their oxen, treat them with the utmost kindness, and talk to them as if they were human, for, as Sorbi told us, with a sounding slap by way of caress on the shoulder of the nearest, ‘It is they, signorina, who earn the bread’. ‘Chi ha carro e buoi, fa bene i fatti suoi’; and Dario nodded approvingly as, with a handful of straw, he occupied the shining moment in grooming their glossy sides.

Dario is a tall, able-bodied fellow, but his head was much below the level of the oxen, who looked, as the peasants say, like mountains, so enormous was their height and bulk.

The last words of old Bacchiche, one of the contadini, to the sorrowing sons gathered round his bed when he was cut off untimely by pneumonia at the age of seventy-seven, were, ‘Ragazzi, rispettate sempre il bestiame e i padroni’, words entirely typical of the attitude to life of a peasant of the old school.

The sons to whom this exhortation was addressed, grown men of forty or fifty, had been in subjection to their father all their lives as completely as children. In obedience to him they had trudged week by week to a distant and lonely church, because he believed that the village church, which stood several miles nearer, was a place of temptation; since a village meant a wine-shop, and evil companions who might tempt these blameless youths from the paths of sobriety and virtue. In vain their comrades twitted them with their submission; they had been trained to respect their father’s will implicitly, even in the matter of the wives he chose for them, and were so well accustomed to order themselves lowly and reverently to all their betters, first of whom stood the padrone, that there was hardly need of their father’s dying words.

On our return to the Aia, La Sorba peasant women being generally referred to with the utmost simplicity by the feminine form of their husband’s name invited me, in response to some comment on the size of the house, to visit the upper storey and see for myself what a Tuscan farm was like. Mounting the flight of stone stairs, we passed from the kitchen through several rooms, all comfortless and bare. The old people’s room contained only a bed, a chair, and a chest on which stood, under a glass case, a plaster Bambino Gesu; the next was as scantily furnished; in the remaining rooms were tools and piles of grain.

I asked La Sorba if she had any of the jewellery which the contadini used to hand down from one generation to another; for the Sorbi, being a prosperous family, were likely to own such things. ‘Eh, altro!’ she responded, with a proud nod of the head, ‘the signorina shall see’; and leading the way to the chest of drawers, she drew out a necklace and earrings of garnets and pearls, a string of corals, and two silver daggers for the hair. They were typical peasant ornaments of the ancient days, quaint and charming, of no little value, and I should have liked to possess them for myself! ‘There was Pietro, my brother’, she told me as she laid them back in the boxes; ‘he took a wife of a rich family, her father was a fattore, and she had more things in her dote than I. But when she died, and the child, Pietro sold them. For, said he, who is to wear them now? A pity, was it not, signorina? And the dealers gave him very little, though they say the signori in the city pay dear to have such things.’ They do indeed, and the dealers must make good bargains, buying as they do from the contadini, who generally only under stress of debt or illness part with these family heirlooms, and selling to the rich English and American travellers in search of curios.

At last the height of the sun in heaven warned me, even without an appeal to Dario, that it was close upon midday, so, calling the children, who were examining the baby with interest, we said our farewells, with much exchange of complimenti, good wishes, and promises of a speedy return. The rural feast had been a charming little episode, a pleasure to those who received, a pride to those who gave; and as, at the turn of the cart-track into the woods, I looked back at the farmhouse, I saw the whole family still grouped on the Aia, to watch us and smile a last good-bye.

Ah, the dear Tuscan peasants, how I love them! There may be much to criticise in them, but there always is in children; and what are they, after all, but children of a larger growth? Of course they are very ignorant, very pig-headed. They will keep a child sick of diphtheria shut in a close room where no fresh air may penetrate, refusing to let it go to the hospital, because they have heard that in hospitals the windows are opened and the children die of cold. When the poor mite dies of suffocation, they do not think it owing to negligence on their part. No, the buon Dio wanted the Angiolino and has taken him, and blessed be all the saints that he died in his own bed with his own family at home!

Dirty they are, certainly, and superstitious; very passionate; subject to swift rages and violent jealousies; rough and untaught: yet, in spite of all these defects, I love them; partly, perhaps, because they are the survival of an order of things which in our own country, with its progress and higher education, is passing fast away. They live their simple lives, their daily round of rhythmic toil, between three points the home, the Church, the Campo Santo. Born on the soil, they are contented to live by the soil, seldom desiring to strike out a new line as servant or artisan. Their primitive souls are free from all touch of modernity; they cling to their ancient traditions and customs, and to the old home among the olives, where often generations of a family are born and die.

They find joy in their simple work; they love the ground they cultivate; the only excitements which break the monotony of their lives are the weekly messa, a vintage or marriage dance, or a country fair. They are usually, at least when young, sunny-tempered, debonair, vivacious, pleased with little, gay on almost nothing. They are warm-hearted, and, to their padroni at all events, manifest a charming cordiality of manner, a rough but sincere courtesy which prompts them to offer their best.

They are generally very poor, though the term is, after all, relative, and to a Calabrian or Sicilian peasant the possessions of a Tuscan would be wealth, but, if poor, they are seldom discontented. They are industrious, and, as a rule, sober; drunkenness for which the Tuscan euphemism is ‘raising the elbow’! being not a common vice. They are both proud and respectful, perhaps respectful to others because proud themselves. They are unstudied in manner, graceful in gesture and attitude, as may be seen by a glance at any Tuscan taking his siesta in the shade. They always retain a touch of natural dignity well becoming those whose ancestry runs back to old Etruscan races, and who have the blood of Caesar’s armies in their veins. They are devout in their primitive way, desire the blessing of the Church on their crops and cattle, and cherish a profound belief in the protection of Mary V irgin and the saints. Ah yes, with all their faults which I do not deny they are lovable. They charm by their very simplicity and spontaneousness in an age so little simple as our own. And, for all their failings, is there not ever in their ready smiles something of their southern sunshine? are they not the true sons of that dear soil which once mothered all Europe, and of which, for many of us, are born the loveliest and most precious of our dreams?

A Visit to the Mercury Mines of Monte Amiata 01/12/2010

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c. 1910

Half-reluctant I felt on a day so radiant to leave the surface of the earth for its dark interior, yet it had been planned for us to explore the mercury mine, so to the mine we meant to go. On coming downstairs at ten o’clock, I found Bianca Maria had already made friends with the engineer who was to escort us, and since there chanced to be no one else present to perform the necessary ceremonial, she, at my prompting, introduced us briefly, as who should say, ‘Alice, Mutton; Mutton, Alice’! The rest of the party soon gathered, and we set off for the sheds, to which Giovanni had already been despatched with waterproofs and cloaks.

Now, that Bianca Maria should dream of herself descending the shaft had never occurred to me. I had foolishly assumed her realisation of the fact that the part of a person of her size was to wish us good speed as we embarked on our downward journey, and to welcome us back when, like Persephone, we returned from the lower world. It was therefore an unpleasant awakening when she selected from the pile of wraps the largest of waterproof capes, and desired me to button it for her, ‘Because Giovanni he tell me that in the miniera it rain always.’ ‘But, my sweet one, it is impossible; you are too little, you would be afraid!’ I protested, much perturbed, and hardly knowing what arguments were best to employ. ‘You will stay here and wait for us; you will enjoy that ever so much more,’ I added in tones which should have carried conviction to a very Didimus. Bianca Maria’s face became mutinous. ‘To stay here I want not. I go, I, too. You go, and why not also I?’ Vainly I explained that I was quite three times Bianca Maria’s age, so that my doings were no standard by which to measure those of a person of seven, and that decidedly an underground excursion was not, to use the Tuscan saying, bread for Bianca Maria’s teeth. In vain I reasoned. If I was resolute, Bianca Maria was more so. ‘I go, I go, I go!’ she cried vehemently; then, stooping to entreaty, ‘Why you make me this displeasure? Why you not want that I amuse myself also, I?’ and with the tip of one finger she removed a great tear which was coursing down her cheek.

It is one of Bianca Maria’s peculiarities that she never cries aloud like other children, but weeps in silence, large dreadful tears rolling slowly down one by one. It is a sight to melt even a heart of stone, and it evidently melted the engineer’s, for he interposed hastily, thereby winning Bianca Maria’s undying gratitude. It was really quite safe; I need have no fear whatever; the little girl should be his special care if she were allowed to go; and when to his assurances were added Bianca Maria’s entreaties, her caresses, what could I do but relent? Instantly Bianca Maria’s face cleared as the sky in April; she was the blithest of the blithe: she overwhelmed me with blandishments as I buttoned her waterproof, and declared that the engineer was a man simpaticissimo, of a gentilezza rarely to be met with. Indeed, she stuck to his side like a shadow – fearful, I believe, lest, even at the last, I should change my mind.

At length we were embarked, all enfolded like monks in hooded waterproofs, and carrying lanterns in our hands. As the small iron platform of the lift would hold but four at a time, the engineer, a workman, Bianca Maria, and I made up one party; the machinery was set in motion, and down we sank from the light of day, leaving behind us the splendour, warmth, and colour of the upper world for the silence, chill, and darkness of the mine. Bianca Maria was undoubtedly scared in the first moments of an experience so tremendous, and clung closely to my hand, but the light of the lamps, the calm steady movement, and the familiar faces reassured her, and she was delighted to trace a parallel between herself and Alice falling down the rabbit-hole; though the shaft, she pointed out, was defective in that there were no marmalade jars ranged against the walls. For three minutes, which seemed never ending, we descended, the lamps throwing a pale yellow glow upon the wet walls, through which, in places, black and awful-looking tunnels led away to the various galleries of the mine. But we were bound for the lowest level, so paused for none of these; and the journey seemed very long before we finally stepped out at the bottom, and, while the lift went up to fetch the next detachment of the party, sat down to wait their arrival.

It was a strange sensation. Somewhere far above our heads the sun was shining and the birds singing, but down in the mine there was darkness and silence, profound and absolute, save for the trickle of a little stream of water and the dim yellow light of the lamps. The place where we sat, too, was a little ghostly, haunted as it was by a tragic memory; for near it, in the recess where the lift came down, a miner, heedless or ignorant of its descent, had once stepped forward to pick up a dropped penknife, and in an instant the whole weight was upon him, crushing him to death. It was horrible to think of in a place so gloomy; for, unless to stifle in a fog, what could be more terrible than to die in the dark, far from the fresh air, and the sunlight, or the friendly eyes of the stars?

The mercury mines of Monte Amiata are among the largest and most important in the world…

The procession of waterproofed and cloaked figures walking in single file along the narrow winding passages must have been a funny one, as we tramped on, swinging our oil-lamps, and with our feet sometimes on dry earth, sometimes in deep mud. At times the passages were so low that we had to stoop, and here and there in a recess or at a sudden turning was heard the tapping of a pick, and there, in the midst of the solitude, was a miner at work, alone in the depths of the earth, his lamp hung above his head. In places, produced by the damp and dark, grew quantities of pure white mold, long and soft like cotton-wool; while in the rocky walls the cinnabar deposits, which, extracted and smelted, form the mercury, showed in veins and patches of red. Along the galleries were laid rails on which ran little trucks carrying the ore to the shaft, whence it was raised to the surface; and the process, which we saw later, was no less interesting than the mines themselves. The ore extracted from the mine is broken into small pieces and spread in the sun to dry. After this it is sent to the roasting furnaces, where the mercury, under pressure of heat, is extracted, and, after various processes beyond the clear comprehension of the unscientific, remains as pure quicksilver or mercury, the latter name having, according to a Sienese writer of the fifteenth century, been given to it by the alchemists, who named the seven principal metals by the names of the seven planets known to them.

Bianca Maria, on our return to the light of day, was delighted with the great bowls of quicksilver which the engineer showed us, and which, after one of the men had, with a sponge, removed the surface-dirt, shone like magical mirrors ; but we were amazed that, though in appearance like silver water, and liquid as water, the resistance was such that we could hardly, with all our force, thrust in our hands. Workmen were busy pouring the mercury into iron bombs, most of which were destined for London, and which, though small, were of enormous weight. The majority of the miners were fine, stronglooking men, who did not seem to suffer from their underground life, the mine being wellaired and the work-hours not excessive ; but it must be a strange life to spend almost all one’s years in darkness – the darkness of the secret places of the earth, or the darkness of sleep until the final darkness of the grave. Night and day, summer and winter, the work is carried on by fresh relays of workmen; for in the mines darkness and light, the rise and set of the sun, the waxing or waning of the moon, are all alike.