While doing research into my Italian ancestry for my book, Whatever happened To Ishtar? I read somewhere that if you wanted to know what it was like living in 19th Century Italy, you might wish to read Village Commune by Maria Louise Ramé, otherwise known by her pseudonym, Ouida. It turned out to be very good advice. I searched for the book online and found it in a tiny obscure USA second hand book shop. When I received what is now a prized possession, I discovered it was a First Edition published 1881 by J. B. Lippincott & Co. Philadelphia/
My great grandparents, Aristodemo and Annunziata Frandi experienced similar hardships to those described by Ouida in Village Commune. Many young men from poor families were conscripted into the regular army to fight against the Austrians, as was Aristodemo, who came from a family of farmers. The Frandi family, by then including three young children, emigrated to New Zealand in 1876 and I now fully understand why. Although Aristodemo talked to family about life in Italy, both of his hated time barracked with the regular army in the far north of Italy, and his time fighting in the south of Italy with Garibaldi, I had no real understanding of just how difficult life was at that time.
I had always thought of Italy as a wonderful country, full of poetry, art, fabulous food and generous citizens. I have visited the country often and I have never been disappointed. But of course there was, and is, another side to Italy altogether.
Ouida’s eloquently written and absorbing stories of life in northern Italy are heart-rending. Farmers and agriculturists, whose families had lived on the land for generations, had their land taken at the whim of wealthy, corrupt government officials and were left homeless and hungry. The burgeoning Industrial Revolution needed land for factories, and dwellings for workers moving onto the countryside. Land was also needed to build mansions for wealthy officials, and for railways.
The author connects on an emotional level with the reader, as she relates beautifully crafted, albeit harrowing, life stories. One such story is of a young Florentine farming peasant :
He was a peasant who had been taken by conscription just as a young bullock is picked out for the shambles, and he had never understood why very well. His heart has always been with his fields, his homestead, his vines, his sweetheart. He had hated the barrack life, the dusty aimless marches, the drilling and the bullying, the weight of the knapsack and the roar of the guns; he had been a youth, ere the government had made him a machine…If the enemy had come into his country he would have held his own hamlet against them to the last gasp; but to be drafted off to Milan to wear a fool’s jacket and to eat black bread while the fields were half tilled, and the old people sore driven…no, he was not a patriot, if to be one, he must have been a contented conscript.
Ouida gives a vivid portrayal of the numerous Roman Catholic and other festivals:
Italian merry-making is never pretty. The sense of colour and of harmony is gone out of our people, whose forefathers were models of Leonardo and Raffaelle, and whose own limbs too, have still so often the mould of the Faun and the Discobolus. Italian merry-making has nothing of the grace and brightness of the French fairs, nor even of the picturesqueness and colour of the German feasts and frolics; even in Carnival, although there are gayety [sic] and grotesqueness, there is little grace and little good colouring. But the people enjoy themselves; enjoy themselves for the most part very harmlessly and very merrily when they forget their tax-papers, their empty stomachs, and their bankrupt shops.
Ouida writes extensively and in detail about the corruption and cronyism of government officials, and the cruelty they meted out to hapless villagers. If citizens had wealth, and were well connected, they had plenty of food and their sons escaped conscription! But peasants lived frugally off the land, and life for them was harsh and often brutal.
One of Ouida’s famous quotes “petty laws breed great crimes” highlights her intimate knowledge and understanding of what life was like for the peasant landowner (agrario).
The commune of Vezzaja and Ghiralda, whose centre is the village of Santa Rosalia, is, like all Italian communes, supposed to enjoy an independence that is practically a legislative autonomy. So long as it contributes its quota to the Imperial taxes, the Imperial government is supposed to have nothing to do with it, and it is considered to be as free as air to govern itself. So everybody will tell you; and so inviolate is its freedom that even the prefect of its province dare not infringe upon it – or says so when he wants to get out of any trouble.
Anybody who pays five francs’ worth of taxes has a communal vote in this free government and helps to elect a body of thirty persons who in turn elect a council of seven persons, who in turn elect a a single person called a syndic, or as you would call him in English, a mayor. This distilling and condensing process sounds quite admirable in theory. Whoever has the patience to read the pages of this book will see how this system works in practice.
Now, in Vezzaja and Ghiralda the thirty persons do nothing but elect the seven persons, the seven do nothing but elect the one person, and the one person does nothing but elect his secretary; and the secretary, with two assistants dignified respectively by the titles of chancellor and conciliator, does everything in the way of worry to the public that the ingenuity of the official mind can conceive. The secretary’s duties ought to be the duties of a secretary everywhere, but by a clever individual can be brought to mean almost anything you please in the shape of local tyranny and extortion; the chancellor (cancelliere) has the task of executing every sort of unpleasantness against the public in general, and sends out his fidus Achates, the usher, all kinds of summons and warrants at his will and discretion; as for the conciliator (giudice conciliatore) his office as his name indicates, is supposed to consist in conciliation of all local feuds, disputes and debts, but as he is generally chiefly remarkable for an absolute ignorance of law and human nature, and for a general tendency to accumulate fees anywhere and anyhow, he is not usually of the use intended, [my emphasis] and rather is famous for doing what a homely phrase calls setting everybody together by the ears…Power is sweet and when you are a little clerk you love its sweetness quite as much as if you were an emperor, and maybe you love it a good deal more.
She elaborates further: Tyranny is a very safe amusement in this liberated country. Italian law is based on that blessing to mankind, the Code Napoleon, and the Code Napoleon is perhaps the most ingenious mechanism for human torture that the human mind has ever constructed. In the cities, its use for torment is not quite so easy, because where there are crowds there is always the fear of a riot and besides there are horrid things called newspapers , and citizens wicked enough and daring enough to write in them. But away in the country, the embellished and filtered Code Napoleon can work like a steam plough; there is nobody to appeal and nobody to appeal to. The people are timid and perplexed; they are as defenceless as the sheep in the hand of the shearer; they are frightened at the sight of the printed papers and the carabinier’s [sic} sword. There is nobody to tell them they have rights , and besides, rights are very expensive luxuries anywhere and cost as much to take care of as a carriage horse.
In Village Commune Ouida dissects the family lives of unfortunate peasants in 19th Century Italy. I believe that many of these soul destroying Italian tragedies are on a par with the famous Greek plays left to us by Aeschylus or Sophocles. There is much irony within the pages of Village Commune
There are far too many long sentences, semi-colons and commas in this book, but they take nothing away from the wit, sarcasm and beautiful prose flowing from Ouida’s pen. I highly recommend this wonderful little book… if you can find a copy.
‘Nature she knew by heart: on birds and flowers
She could discourse for hours and hours and hours.
Sententious, sentimental, repetitious, she
Would never choose one word if there were three. Pith was her weakness;
clichés were her strength. And here she lies now, as she wrote, at length.’
– Christopher Stace, from ‘At first seeing Ouida’s tomb in Bagni di Lucca’ as published in The New Yorker
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