Letter to a Teacher, 1967, Barbiana School Pupils and Don Lorenzo Milani
The peasant families however, were at the mercy of the Padrone’s whims. The mezzadria pact expired annually, and was tacitly renewed, unless the Padrone decided otherwise. If, for example, a family member died or a daughter was married off, the Padrone could decide not to renew the contract on the grounds of loss of manpower. Often, rich landowners employed ruthless administrators to run their properties and these would wield a lot of power over peasant families. They could easily blackmail peasants into giving them a cut of produce from their share and there was little the poor farmers could do if they wanted retain the farms. Being cast out meant the loss of the farm, hasty selling of beasts at a loss, and the uncertainty of finding another Padrone who was willing to lease one of his poderi.
During the fascist rule, landowners supported Mussolini, and this led to unfavourable laws for peasants. Thus, many peasants gave their allegiance to the Communist Party and fought as partisans against the fascists and the German occupiers during the war. Tuscany remains to this day a solid support base of Italy’s left wing parties. The tension between the farmers and landowners remained high throughout the post war years, and it was only in 1964 that a law was passed granting 58% of the produce to the farmers. However, it was already too late to stop the exodus of farmers. At the time, there was a deep class divide in Italian society. Peasants, especially those coming from mountainous areas were considered inferiors by city dwellers. The schooling system replicated the common perception that peasants were inherently ignorant. Children coming from poor families were failed repeatedly in exams until they left school humiliated and illiterate as soon as they reached working age.
During the recent decades, Tuscany has experienced a steady return of permanent dwellers to its countryside. The new farmer-entrepreneurs are often unashamedly determined to reroute their lifestyles towards the essentials of pastoral life, equipped with a good education and an optimistic view of their future, just as Don Milani wanted his pupils to be in order to stand a fair chance in an unfair world. Tuscany’s worldwide popularity as a holiday destination has fuelled the revival of its old-time rural traditions. Its poor peasant dishes today feature in culinary TV programmes around the world – an example of creative and sustainable use of available resources. The popular agriturismo establishments enable visitors to immerse in a Tuscan living experience. Thus, the poor farmers’ legacy of hard work and unflinching dedication to the land has today proved to be a solid bulwark against the ravages of a country hit hard by economic crises. Whereas Italian industries are struggling for survival, the traditional products of rural Tuscany are still in very high demand, creating opportunities for export. In addition, the allure of a simple, hearty lifestyle, inspired by the poor peasants of old, ensures a steady inflow of visitors that helps fuel the region’s dynamic economy.