Sunday, October 24, 2010

Violence and Great Estates in the South of Italy, Apulia 1900-1922 Frank Snowden

       Two generations ago my maternal grandparents emigrated from the comune of Palo del Colle, located near the city of Bari. Unfortunately, they passed away before I could learn firsthand about their life in Puglia. This book gives the most detailed description of conditions there that I have found so far.
   According to the book , Puglia has always been somewhat of a backwater area even for the South. The interior of the province is  dominated by a vast undulating plain known as the Murge.

The Murge
From the time of Argonese rule this area was kept settlement free in order for it to remain as sheep pasture. The Argonese rulers charged a duty for the right of sheepherders to use it. The Bourbons continued this practice. 

   After the annexation of the Two Sicilies the new "Liberal" government sold off this land. Instead of allowing the contadini to acquire the land, it was sold to the propertied classes. These absentee landlords went into the agricultural business  forming large estates called latifondi.  Prior to this time the contadini were invested in their labors thru tradition and the bonds between the  classes. The new system turned the contadini into agricultural workers. As interchangeable workers they became the one component of the system which could be controlled .The weather and other factors which affect agricultural production are uncontrollable, especially in Puglia, where water was scarce. As day laborers, or giornalisti, they worked for subsistence wages under very harsh conditions in order to provide profits for the owners.

   Mr. Snowden points out that there was an area of Puglia along the Adriatic coast, east of a line drawn from Bitonto to Alberobello, where conditions were better. This area referred to as the marina was intensely cultivated with almonds, grapes, and olives by small peasant landholders known as contadini. This area offered year round work and was more socially and politically stable. The marina did not revolt as the interior area eventually did. The comune of my grandparents was within this area. 
   Puglia had the least number of emigrants of all the Southern provinces. This was because the vast majority of the population were giornalisti  who owned no land. Although the contadini of the marina may have owned only a tiny parcel, it still gave them something to borrow against or sell in order to afford the ticket for emigration. The day laborers were stuck in their predicament. Emigration as a mitigating factor to unrest was not open to them. Living and working together under harsh conditions for tyrannical overseers fostered a sense of solidarity among the giornalisti. This enabled them to form the only mass peasant movement in the South.  The rest of the South was similar to the marina in its economic and social structure and therefore the conditions and opportunity for a mass movement did not come about. 

   Another factor which led to unrest was the disinheritance of the peasantry. Traditionally, and as far back as pre-Roman times, peasants had the right to gather wood, to farm, to fish, and to pasture on the open public lands known as demani.  After annexation by the North the new regime was opposed to and did not recognize these ancient rights of the peasant to make use of collectively held land. Mr.  Snowden:

"   The opportunities for enclosure of the commons were numerous.The legislation of the Liberal  state was unbending in its aversion to any form of agrarian collectivism.... " p.72
   The solidarity of the giornalisti was also not hindered by the power of the Church. The Catholic Church did not have a strong influence or command  much respect here due to the fact that Puglia was not an area where the best the Church had to offer were sent.  After Rome saw that the rise of socialist movements were more of a threat than the Liberal regime it lifted its ban on participation of church members in political life.

"...In Apulia the clergy took advantage of the new dispensation to make common cause with the ruling parties of order, campaigning actively against the early candidates put forward by the [socialist] leagues".... In a demonstration against this opposition by the church a crowd chanted "..Long live Giordano Bruno..." p.85.

   Mr. Snowden says that the movement in Puglia was essentially anarcho-syndicalist, that is it was formed around one type of worker in opposition to the ruling order. The revolt lasted from about 1900 to the beginning of the Fascist era. It took the form of general strikes , political organization, and many times, armed insurrection. The authorities always countered with violence and many killings and assassinations took place . In many places the overseers and landowners had to travel about under armed guard. The movement did achieve minor improvements, which were eventually swept away as the men were drawn away into the First World War. 

   There were attempts made on the national level to quiet the unrest. Giolitti, a prominent politician of this period instituted reforms. 

"....The difficulty with [Giolitti's] liberalization program was that it applied exclusively to the North of Italy .The PSI and the CGL [socialist parties], which entered into a political partnership with Giolitti were almost exclusively northern in their membership .What took place, therefore, was the creation of a privileged labour elite. The cost of the benefits newly extended to northern workers and peasants was borne by the largely unorganized and unrepresented peasants of the rest of the peninsula. In economic terms , public as well as private investment took place almost entirely either in the industrial triangle bounded by Milan ,Genoa, and Turin, or in the reclamation projects of the Po valley. Despite the evident need of the south for investment, government fiscal policy drained the region of capital for the benefit of the wealthier northern provinces .In Nitti's famous phrase, the taxation of the Liberal state was "regionally progressive in reverse" .Capitanata [Puglia], for instance paid more than twice as much in taxes to the state as it received in government expenditure. In the fiscal year1902-03 the province was assessed for 14,000,000 lire, principally through the land tax. In return it received only 6,5000,000 lire in total public spending. Such treatment contrasted sharply with the province of Milan, one of the most prosperous in the country. In the same financial year Milan enjoyed a net excess of state expenditure [180,000,000 lire] over taxation [140,000,000 lire]. The Apulian provinces directly subsidized northern economic development. The benefits of employment, union representation, and high wages did not extend to the whole of Italy." pp.136-7

   Concerning WWI:

"...Nowhere were the results more deeply felt and enduring than in Apulia. As a wholly agricultural region, it bore, to the full, the impact of the holocaust. According to the prefect [of the military command at Bari] Bari province had the highest proportion of front-line troops in Italy [10]. Although the South suffered the highest levels of war casualties, it received the lowest amount of the vast sums spent by the state to finance the war effort.{11]. Here was a military manifestation of the Southern Question in Italian history....." p154

   As stated previously, the hinterland of Apulia is a vast rolling plain called, at the time, the Tavoliere. This area is referred to today as the Murge. At the time of the  annexation of the Two Sicilies this area was unsettled.

    " ... Foggia province in particular came to be known  as the "Italian frontier", the "California of the South" and the Texas of Apulia" as the scramble for land began.[8] A region of shepherds, commented a Bari newspaper, was transformed into a population of farmers.[9]"...By the law of 26 February 1865,the Risorgimento, the Italian bourgeois revolution, abolished the four centuries of regulation and opened the Tavoliere to cultivation and the land to purchase."
The process of deregulation had profound consequences for Apulian history. The Tavoliere provides a perfect illustration of Gramsci's analysis of the Risorgimento as a "passive revolution" imposed "from above" by the agrarian and commercial bourgeoisie of the North and Centre of the peninsula in alliance with landed classes of the South without involving or benefiting the broad mass of the peasant population. Instead of attempting to use the disposal of the tavoliere to create a substantial class of peasant proprietors, Liberal  Italy made its peace with the more backward propertied classes of the South. The Liberal common-land commissioner at Altamura in the 1860's, Vito Orofino, had hoped that the land settlement after unification would establish a democratic social system that would "demonstrate the advantages of the present free institutions to those citizens, now despised and ignorant, who will appreciate the difference between the old regime and the new."[10]. Instead, Liberal Italy followed the course of least resistance by conciliating the powerful and wealthy notables eager to buy." p9

   And finally I would like to quote a passage from the introduction that gives me a different and proud perspective on my Apulian ancestors and fellow Southern Italian countrymen . On the organized Apulian peasant movement:

 "....their resistance was neither an irrational millenarianism nor a blind attempt to preserve antiquated social relationships. They attempted in a highly disciplined manner to experience economic development on their own terms rather than as its passive victims." p.1    
John A Stavola

All quotes from: 

Violence and Great Estates in the South of Italy, Apulia 1900-1922, Frank Snowden,Cambridge University Press, 2004,9171,792189,00.html



  1. Hello,

    I am doing research for my friend whose family came from Santeramo de Colle, about 45 minutes south of Palo. I was wondering if you know of any resources that might be beneficial to me for this particular area? The family had a run in with the law around 1925 or so, and then came to America in 1927. I wish to try and get the court records about the case.
    The family names are Stano and Fiorentino, in case you have any ties.

    Thanks for your information.

  2. thank you for this information which is very interesting my father Francesco giovanniello is from Palo del colle my grandfather onofrio my grand mother madden name is Pace