I was captivated by a great article Enzo Bianchi, prior of monastery of Bose in Pidmont, northern Italy, wrote for La Stampa in August 2003 in which he referred to some folk maxims from his native Monferrato disatrict. The words still express a simple but profound wisdom which seems all but extinct, along with the rural Piedmontese communities which next October will be preparing to welcome the five thousand delegates to “Terra Madre – World Meeting of Food-Producing Communities”. “Fa ‘l to duvèr, cherpa ma va’ avanti!”, “Do your duty, whatever it takes”; “Esageruma nenta!”, “Let’s not overdo it”; “L’è question ‘d nen piesla,”, “Don’t let things get you down” and “Mes’ciuma nenta el robi”, “Don’t mix things up”. Does the old peasant culture really have nothing to teach us?
Enzo, you’re from the Monferrato, I’m from the Langhe: we’re from neighboring parts of Piedmont that share a common history. Our two areas have witnessed profound changes over the last fifty years. A mainly small-farming culture has been so dramatically weakened that long-established traditions, lifestyles and ties between people and the land have become little more than a memory. How do you now see and feel about your native Monferrato?
I would first of all say that our two areas are much the same. The geographical boundaries between the Langa and the Monferrato are not that distinct, suggesting that there’s a wider unity in the area enclosed by the Bormida, Belbo and Tanaro rivers. It is an unusual area, with its rural culture always strongly linked to wine, and this makes it very different to the country areas of Lombardy or around Vercelli. What’s more, the Langhe and Monferrato are made up of lots of small towns and villages and no large cities. This means that accents and dialects can vary considerably even between neighboring villages. The great common feature typical of this area can be found when you look at people’s humanitarian values. While other rural areas tended to focus on religious values, the Langa and Monferrato are more secular, but not in the way secular moral values were expressed by Turin thinkers such as Galante Garrone or Bobbio. For us,what matters is primarily the human being rather than someone who espouses Christian values; someone who is fair, honest and hard-working, a person leading an honorable life which is worth living.
Secular human values which can be traced back to France and the French Revolution but still respect religious belief. I would say that things have changed enormously in our part of the world, a bit like in all Italian rural cultures; lifestyles, social relations and people themselves are different.
In the 1950s there was significant immigration, particularly of people from Calabria. The fact that they could integrate into small rural centers without the negative effects seen in large cities is in itself a sign that it was a different world, able to accept people and recognize the human being. What upset everything came immediately afterwards in the early 1960s: uniformity and standardization brought by television, consumerism and an abrupt change in working activity. People weren’t prepared for it and the art of living in rural areas – which had suffered hard and harsh times in the past – collapsed. Alas, this way of living disappeared together with the workforce, which moved en masse to the cities; together with the wooden furniture thrown out to make way for laminated plastic. People weren’t aware what was happening, they were so intoxicated with the new that they accepted the impoverishment of values without realizing it. A society that was rooted in human values suddenly disappeared: I remember the tradition of the vegé, celebrating winter, when people talked, exchanged gossip, ate chestnuts and drank wine in an atmosphere of solidarity and mutual acquaintance. There was a sense of common interest and community which no longer exists.
We called it the nvié. Together with other social occasions, it was a response to the solitude which people find in nature. A response mainly involving beliefs and traditions but with irreplaceable importance for its setting. Unrestrained modernization and the rush to embrace other values have swept away all those beliefs and traditions which kept alive the feeling of belonging to a community. For example, the fact that the key events of our life such as birth and death have become “medicalized” makes us realize how much the feeling of sharing a common destiny has disappeared. I don’t mean to say that hospitals aren’t useful, far from it, but the fact is, in making these changes, we have thrown away our beliefs, and I feel we have thrown away the baby with the bathwater. We are lonelier and no longer have ways of responding. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good deal after all.
Birth and death were experienced as a collective event. Death, for example, was not something repressed like it is today, it was a natural occurrence. The church bell would toll as the sick person lay on their deathbed and the priest came to give the final sacraments. The priest informed the person they were dying, the whole community knew. Children saw the dead, it was something natural because it was within its natural context. This helped to build the wisdom you can only gain with experience: acceptance of death was normal, it formed part of life. By confining these events to a hospital we have unfortunately introduced something unnatural. We have repressed a crucial part of our existence and are left more alone in our grief and suffering. We can say that the old way of dying was more human, as was the old way of living together. I think of the mat, people suffering from psychiatric disorders who once lived as part of the community. Beggars would be invited to lunch when they knocked at the door and were placed at the head of the table: this was a sincere form of humanism, which seems incredible to us today but was nothing unusual then. It was normal and helped to create a social fabric which held together perfectly, even though plagued by countless privations and hardships. The true degradation came afterwards and completely destroyed this natural social network.
I think that the values built into that way of life, which today is impossible to recreate, in fact have a lot to give and teach our urbanized society. Perhaps we can revive some of the beliefs and traditions in an updated form. A simple example would be the non-religious collection carried out in the evening during Lent around farms in the Langa and Monferrato by groups of young people. They certainly have a great time and are rebuilding a fresh sense of community among themselves and the area.
What we have to do is somehow recover a form of social life that is typical of our old towns and villages. Providing this sense of community and belonging means recreating a social fabric and generating benefits from living together. It isn’t enough to live in these villages using them as dormitories or returning to splendid houses separated from each other. We have to think how we can reinject life into these communities, looking back to the past and providing a means for communicating with each other, understanding what living together really means.
To be continued …
First published in La Stampa on March 2 2004