Life In My Tuscan Village – Chapter 6: The People of the Village

The village of San Romano has roots to a Feudal castle named “Castello di Puliziano”.

As I understand the story told to me by my father Arturo, during the medieval times of the plague, Castello di Puliziano was hit very hard and the Feudal lords and subjects were all dying.

Many escaped to the lower valley and joined the peasants in San Romano. From here, the village grew and the castle remained in ruins. As a young boy, I visited the spot where the castle stood, only to find some foundation rubble among the thick vegetation surrounding the area.

San Romano derived the name from a saint as I explained before; “San Romano”.

San Romano was a Roman guard in charge of guarding Christian prisoners. During one of the many abhorring tortures the Romans imposed on the Christians, San Romano was executed.

A Christian name Lorenzo (now San Lorenzo), was placed on a grill to be roasted alive. While enduring this unimaginable torture, San Romano said to him: “Be strong Lorenzo, I am a Christian too.” The other guards heard San Romano and executed him on the spot. Lorenzo lived until the next morning. Thus on August 9th, we celebrate San Romano and on August 10th, the nearby town of “Pian Di Coreglia” celebrates San Lorenzo with a big feast.

My memories of the people of the village are probably the most enduring. During late 50’s and early 60’s there were probably around 300 to 325 people in the village.

The village was and still is cemented into the Catholic religion. With this, many traditions and rituals were simply handed down from generation to generation and followed to the letter.

The Catholic rituals involved absolute rules that needed to be followed. Men had a preference over women; they sat in pews separately and closer to the front near the main altar. A marble division separated the pews for the women located toward the back of the church. Men had a front door entrance and exit; women could only come in and out from the main back door of the church. At the time as a child, I saw this perfectly normal and I felt special sitting next to my father closer to the altar. My goal was to become an altar boy and learn Latin; but I loved the job of incense holder because it was considered the top position of an altar boy.

The social rituals of the village were also to be followed as tradition had long established.

Men worked the fields and women helped when needed especially during time of harvest. Women took care of the children, cooked and managed the household chores. Some of the women had additional jobs in order to help with the family needs. My mom had a job as a seamstress sowing pajamas for a sewing company in Borgo a Mozzano. My father and I would many times travel down to catch a bus to Borgo a Mozzano to pick up the packages of material needed for the pajamas. Once off the bus, we carried the boxes on our back all the way home.

To carry pretty much anything, men used a device called: “Bardella” meaning “yoke”. The Bardella was made from a burlap bag. Bardellas would be measured for each men or boy according to their size. The bag would be filled with fine straw to about half and then a small rope would be used to tie the bag very tight and securely. The rest of the burlap bag would then be carefully folded evenly, and the top of the bag would be securely tied to the middle section together with the other previously secured spot. The now curved folded section would be placed around the forehead with the filled straw section properly landing on the back of the man or boy doing the carrying.

So, my father and I would place our Bardellas on our backs and secure the curved folded section to our foreheads. The boxes would then be placed on top of the straw section of the Bardella and easily carried up the long winding roadway to San Romano.

My father carried everything this way; especially lumber. He used to call the Bardella is required penance for a better life. Today he attributes 90% of all his pain from old age to the famous “Bardella”, the rest he attributes to the German concentration camps during the war.

Of course only men or boys would use a Bardella, women used a towel which would be folded, made into a circle and place on their head. Women could then carry, baskets, water buckets, without spilling, and other items this way. It was an art passed down only to women and girls and it always intrigued me on how they could do this, carry on conversation and gossip, walk without holding the load and never drop it or spill the water.

My vivid memories of the people, remind me of the laughter, fun and simple life that existed, and how much each and every one care about each other. Money was never the object, quality of life was. No matter what task or project each family had, you could count on each and every able body helping out in time of needs. I remember projects and gatherings in the village to be a fun experience accompanied with food and wine. As a young boy, I was never denied wine, all wine came from our village and each and every person would proudly contribute from their vintage.

Playing at the village fountain was always fun. Here I would see the women of the village engaged in cleaning their laundry pack, but really much more engaged in gossip. Here we could gather all of the juicy details on the latest happenings. Women were mostly interested in gossiping about things going on with other women or social juicy situations.

Men behaved completely different. They would gather at “il Crociale”, the main village piazza, and discuss usually only two subjects, “calcio”, i.e. European soccer, and politics. Here the discussion would most always take on heated conversation with passion and hand gestures.

Then men would also socialize in the only village “bottega/ bar”. Here they would play card games and drink wine or “aperitivi”. My father loved to play cards and he was very good at it. It would be a rare thing for my father to lose a game; as a result, he always enjoyed free drinks.

Children would play marbles or other simple games; we were always within an ear shot of all the conversations and this is how we learned.

Each family in the village was well known by everyone else and vice versa.

The village had a full time priest, Carlo Santini, Carlo was in his early forties and managed all of the churches affairs. San Romano has two churches, the main church of San Romano and San Rocco, the church I described at the bottom of the village where we made the “strugiorella”.

Our priest was a very jovial man, good looking with a set of black hair and a medium size built, maybe a bit less than six feet tall. He was not fat or out of shape, but he always wore his black tunic with the traditional white priest collar. I was one of the altar boys and never saw him without his uniform.

He lived in a nice home attached to the back of the church with direct access to the church from the inside.

He would tend to all the religious functions and would celebrate his daily mass very early. I dreaded each week that it would be my turn to serve as the altar boy since I would have to get up before dawn. The function was always attended by the same people; six to maybe ten older women. Sometimes an entire family would attend if the mass was dedicated to one of their deceased relative. On Sunday of course he would celebrate the cursory mass and the entire village would be in attendance.  Mass would start right after the third ringing of the church smaller bell. Usually the priest would ring the bell by walking into the church tower ground floor. Here a rope would be hanging to the side; this rope was directly attached to the smaller church bell at the top of the “campanile” (tower) and the priest would pull it with a specific rhythmic in order to ring the bell in a way that was very familiar to the people of the village. Sometimes my father would make a comment or two when noticing a small change in the sound. He would say: “the priest is upset today; he’s rushing the bell”. I was always perplexed on how he could tell. There would be a second ringing approximately 10 to 15 minutes after the first time and then the final ring would be done two or three minutes before approaching the altar to start the service. Since the priest by now would be in his full mass attire, he would send one of the altar boys to pull the rope and ring the final calling to announce the imminent start of the service.

Since the entrance to the church for the men of the village was up to the front via the base of the tower, I would see all of the men stroll in to take their seats. Until the third ring, most of the men stood outside and chatted with each other’s, then they all rushed in to take their seats in the pews strictly set up for the men of the village. Most of the men sat in the same spot each Sunday. The mass was always in Latin and I had to memorize all of the specific phrases required to respond during the service.

The priest was also in charge of conducting special events such as weddings and funerals.

Weddings were always a fun time; the best part for me was the grand exit into the back of the church piazza. Here “confetti”, solid white candy with almonds inside, would be thrown by the guests quickly picked up by children including myself.

Funerals I hated.

 First, when someone from the village died, the priest would have one of the bell ringer ring the main large bell. Bell ringers were usually young men from the village in their mid- twenties and thirties. It required talent and muscles to ring the large bells at the top of the tower; this was not a job for the priest.

The sound of the large bell announcing the death of someone in the village was unmistakable and unnerving to me. The bell could be heard throughout the valley and neighboring villages. While working in the fields, I can still remember my father stopping, bowing his head then telling me who most likely had died.

Carlo Santini loved life and has a priest he took full advantage of his status.

Women would take turn in cleaning his house, men would visit him to play cards since he would never go to the village bar to play, and families would invite him to dinner on a regular basis.

Carlo loved to drink wine and smoke cigarettes, but it was always in moderation; he was always smiling, always jovial and never upset at anything or anybody. He loved soccer and listens or watched the matches when possible and he kept up with the village gossip.

Our village priest was the only person with a television, I remember when he purchased the TV and set it up in the lower room of his house. Here we would watch our favorites shows, but always controlled by Carlo. If he didn’t like a show not suited for families or children, then no one would see it. I remember we would have to take our own chair to sit and watch; and there would also be a collection plate for anyone that was generous.

My favorite shows were “I Love Lucy” and “Rin Tin Tin”. These were dubbed in Italian, of course.

The men of the village were the working force keeping up with farming and small businesses.

Working men included me at around 11 years old and my grandfather at around 87 years old. What I saw amongst men was no real age divide. Working the fields was our way of life and all participated. If you as a man were home and not working, the reason was not age, but sickness.

Socially it was very different; children up to early teens would hang together and play games, young men from late teens to say early twenties were always trying to get rid of us younger kids; I never actually knew what they were up to except talk about girls.

The rest of the men were the core workers and basically ran the village. My father worked our fields, but was also in charge of a small lumber business. He would buy chestnut trees as they stood on the owner’s property, then cut them and transport the lumber to a mill and sell it for a profit. This elaborate process will be discussed in another chapter.

The lumber business only used able working men since it required back breaking labor, but the farming of the fields was done by each and every man regardless of age. I know that my grandfather Cristoforo worked the fields until the night before he died at 96. This was the way of life in the Village, the village work kept men young regardless of age.

Women of the village were divided socially in two groups; the young women including very young teens up to mid-twenties, and the rest of the women.

The young women would listen to the radio, do the basic house chores, laundry, and help the older women. Many of the women would also work for the Borgo a Mozzano company that my mom also worked for. They would get pay by the piece completed, so a sense of rush always exited around it. Many would work with my mom to get experience and I remember the chatter was always about music or some famous movie star of the time.

The rest of the women from late twenties to 100 would tend the family house and be in charge of food preparation. The women would also help during harvest of the grapes, chestnuts, grain or any other type of work requiring a concentration of labor.

When I lived in San Romano, the people of the village were simple people with very little formal education, yet they possessed an incredible amount of ingenuity and wisdom. I learned from these people, the value of life and the respect for each and every human being regardless of their status in society.

chapter 6

This is “Il Lavatoio” at the fountain. This was the women source of gossip as here they came to wash. The large pond was for main washing and beating the clothes on the stone and the small pond for rinsing.

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