Peasant Farm-Tuscany 40’s, 50’s & 60’s

January 6th, 2013

Family Pictures 142This was pretty much the summer uniform for a kid growing up in a Tuscan peasant farm in the 1950’s…barefoot, shorts and undershirt. I was fascinated with kites. No one had money for such things in post WWII Italy so we made our own. The kites of choice were in the shape of a six pointed star with tail streaming from the lower points. My brother, Moreno, made the first one for me. I watched him carefully…bamboos cut precisely and straight, paste made from flour and water, two sheets of colored paper bought from Bresciano’s in Molin Nuovo and careful measuring and fastening so that it would fly right and a couple of spools of string. That was one of the favorite activities in the afternoons when there would be an appropriate wind. Soon I was making kites for my cousins and friends.


Whenever someone would mention her name he would go off in an ‘ad hominem’ typical Tuscan tirade.Lu 034 That was my maternal grandmother whom I never met. I believe that is she in the stylish clothes with my grandfather, Beppe Magrini, and my cousin Aladino in carriage in 1947. Life was basic and tough in post war Italy in the farm areas of Tuscany. Families were large as the labor was needed to work the fields. All work was done by beast of burden and human labor. The wife would be sent to be a wet nurse after each child was born. My mother, for example, went to Torino after my brother was born in 1937. My grandmother whose name I know not was sent to Marseilles after each of the six children. Then she would have to return to the rudimentary farm, with the chickens and the animals and the smells and the no running water, indoor bathroom, no electricity and lots and lots of manual labor. And then she would be pregnant, have the child and soon leave for Marseilles to tend to rich folks’ children while my mother, being the oldest, would act as the surrogate mother on the farm. I surmise that after each trip to Marseilles the return trip to the backwardness of the farm became more and more unbearable. And…probably, being an attractive woman she probably met some gentleman who was her ticket to a better life. The clothes she’s wearing are stylish and not the type that I grew accustomed seeing farm women wear in that area. Although I never saw or met her I’m pretty sure that is my infamous grandmother.

As a little kid of six or seven I remember my grandfather Beppe…whenever someone would mention her….”Dio cane, puttana madonna, bestia, puttana and on”, and on. Of course, he had it tough. Left alone with six children and a farm to work. But…to his credit he did it. Raised the four girls and two boys, saw to it that all got married with nice weddings and we, the grandchildren would gather about his farm in the summers and have a grand time roaming. He was a nice man and I went to his funeral which happened to occurr during one of my visits in 1980.

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The wheat harvest was a family affair. Uncles, aunts, cousins…all would gather and pitch in. Sometime in July there would be the cutting. They would begin at five in the morning for quick coffee and then to the fields. A line of folks with hats and sickles in hand stooped over moving down the field in unison. Wheat stalks would be left on the ground for some time to dry and then bundled. The faggots would be hauled over the shoulder from the fields and spiraled onto the large mound in front of the farm house.The thrasher would be called and that was an exciting day for the kids. Lots of noise, tractor and large machinery, moving leather straps and all the adults moving as a team with excitement and joy. All was ready for the big day.Stacking the wheat and getting ready for the machines in summer of 1947.

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Grandfather, aunts and uncles and my brother, Moreno. My father, Giovanni Pasquinelli, stands atop the stack with cocked hat and proud stature! At center with lite beret hat is Bruno Ercolini, my uncle and adopted father, who brought me to America….the very luckiest stroke in my life!!!

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Feeding the thrasher…my cousin, Osvaldo, looking on. 1956

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My brother, Moreno, and uncle, Beppe, stacking the hay for the animals. 1956

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My father, Giovanni and workers sacking the wheat. When my grandmother was alive, till the early fifties, the wheat would be taken to Molin Nuovo a half mile away to the mill. It was an old style mill powered by a canal from the Pescia River and with large stone wheels grinding and churning, flour dust everywhere and the sound of rushing water from below the floor. It was rustic and basic and with motion and lots of sounds. Then My grandmother would use the flour on a weekly basis and make our bread. She would make the loaves the night before and let them rise overnight in a wooden cupboard and then rise at dawn on her baking day and light a fire for embers to be placed in a brick oven to heat at the proper temperature. Then a long handled shovel with the loaves in and out. She was dressed all in black and would work till about noon. The golden oval loaves were marvellous. Rich, thick crust, golden and with lots of texture. However, it was done on a weekly basis…so, the ones at the end were a bit tough.After she died my father worked out an arrangement with the bakery in Borgo a Buggiano. He bartered the blour for bread for the year. The breadman would deliver fresh, store bought loaves every couple of days. They were good…but not like the ones grandmother Agnese made.

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Doing the laundry by the well. My stepmother, Eda, in 1956, This was it….the washer and dryer. No running water. Electricity came in 1953.

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And…this was the bathroom….no, that’s not correct…the outhouse, right next to the pig stys and indoor stalls. It was basic and had toilet paper to match….usually old newspapers or magazines or such discarded paper. I never saw toilet paper till I went to visit my aunt, Rina in Pescia. On one of my visits after high school my good friend, Michael, came with me and we stayed on the farm for some months. Before he used the outhouse I distinctly remember giving him a good briefing as to what to expect. I’m sure he’s never forgotten it.

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My mother, Ida Magrini Pasquinelli. She died in 1953 of nephritis. I remember the trauma to this day when they all came to talk to me. She’s in front of our well and laundry vat. Note the laundry basket behind and to the back. Picture was in 1951 and the well probably had been in use for over 100 years.

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In the Valdinievole the water tables were readily available…so we were fortunate to have a well with good water and right in front of our house. Workers clean and scour the walls in 1947. Water by bucket would be poured into a copper vessel(brocca) and placed atop a marble sink in the kitchen. The brocca would hold about 2 gallons of water. Bedroom would have bed pans and portable basins. As a little kid I remember those cold winter days getting ready for church in Molin Nuovo…a G.I. wash at the portable basin on cold unheated brick floors. The process was super quick! At night getting into bed was a challenge too! Cold, cold, cold! So, there was a dome like contraption made from curved reticulated slats which would hold suspended a terracotta pot of embers. It would be placed under the covers for a short while to heat the bedding. Lighting was by candle or an oil lamp with wick and glass tube and of course the fireplace which would be the center of the house on cold nights. It was pretty basic stuff and my brother and I later would comment that we were the last generation to have seen a working peasant farm…a system which probably had not changed since the Romans and the Etruscans.

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Getting ready for lunch. No matter how humble the surroundings the table at lunch was always set with clean tablecloth, plates for each course, water, wine and espresso. On Sundays a chicken or rabbit would be cooked and dessert served too. At the well my brother, Moreno and Bruno, fill one of the flasks with water after getting a flask of wine from the cantina. The cantina would have a half dozen large barrels along the walls filled with white and red wine. Usually ten or fifteen flasks would be filled at one time and each flask would be sealed by pouring a small amount of olive oil at the very top. Before serving a wad of flax would be dipped in the neck of the flask to soak up the olive oil and render the wine ready for pouring. To the water there would be a powder added to make it effervescent. It was called ‘acqua di Vichy’. however, non of us knew or cared that it was named after Vichy water of France. Lunch would always be at one pm and would be a joyous affair. Sometimes in summer my father would buy a watermelon and drop it into the well to cool down and then retrieve it by bucket. Other times polenta would be served. My brother, Moreno, absolutely hated it. But it would be stirred in a black pail hanging over the fireplace and when ready it would be poured onto a napkin at the center of the table, left to set for a few minutes and then cut with a thread. It would be served with baccala or some red sauce dish. That was the main meal of the day followed by a nap til about four, chores and then dinner at about soundown. Dinner would be left overs from lunch and much lighter.

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Zucchini plants in the foreground, string bean and tomato vines in the back, grass for the rabbits and animals on right and grape vines all around the field. Every inch of the farm was used. In the late afternoons my father would water these plants via a well and electric pump and would pick the tomatoes, beans and zucchini. He would order them in wooden flats with leaves for presentation. Then at five the next morning he would load all on wracks in front and rear of his bike and ride some five miles to Montecatini where there would be a market for fresh vegetables and fruits. Montecatini was a tourist center for the well to do who were wont to come from all about Europe to take the waters. They were mineral waters, saline waters for their purgative health value. You know…cleanse the system. The prices would be determined by pure market forces and prices would change daily. It was pure competition. This was an important cash inflow for the farm and would last all summer.

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My father, Giovanni, with a sulphur bellows. Several times before the grape harvest grapes would be dusted with sulphur. It was a whole process of course. It began in the winter when the vines would be cut to bare essentials. Grape vines bordered all fields and were strung on wire with bamboos for support. The bamboos were grown on the farm as was a vine with pliable whip like branches which were used to tie the vines to bamboos or wire. In the spring all the grapes were sprayed several times with a copper solution and all the men would be outfitted with pumps harnessed by shoulder straps with a pump lever jutting out by the right arm. In early summer the grape leaves would be thinned out to reveal the grapes to the sun. In late September the harvest…all members of family to include cousins, aunts and uncles would gather for two or three days to cut the grapes and dump them into vats. A manual wine press would be called and we could see the red juice ooze out into vats as the guys worked the lever around. The juice was poured into wooden bins and allowed to ferment. Then…transferred into barrels and allowed to age for one year…the red, that is….the white was drunk next summer. I remember as though it was yesterday….in the early fifties…me, my brother and father around the lunch table. It was the tasting of the new white wine. My father poured a glass for us to taste. There was a silence. My brother who was always rather outspoken said ‘it’s awful’. I remember the taste to this day, the taste was odd. My father tasted it and re tasted and said ‘mi piace'(I like it!). But with a look on his face. Don’t remember whether the wine was ever drunk, but the scene vividly remains. The meals on the Tuscan table always included wine. The children would be given a light water wine solution. And…I remember not liking the wine much…always preferred a lemonade or orange drink or Coca Cola. As of lately I’ve rediscovered the wonderful childhood delight…the long forgotten zesty flavor of Orangina. It’s a link to my childhood on the farm in Molin Nuovo!


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