Nonno Vincenzo is the one who made things work. His brother Pietro was the one keen on books and culture. He had a sense of history and used to keep everything: books, documents, manuscripts from the 16th century as well as bills of lading. One day, on 3rd December 1935, Nonno Vincenzo received a letter. He looked straight at the sum by skipping the part with “we are glad to inform you…” and all the other bureaucratic information. The sum was high, very high. Nonno Vincenzo raised his eyebrows for a second and cracked a smile. But that wasn’t really a smile, because he was no longer used to smiling after thirty years of military service and the Great War. He also didn’t like any pleasantries, since he was a well-read man, who, unfortunately, had almost only talked about land, harvest, cattle and dairy products since he was 13. This time he got 1,300 lire, that’s to say, a quite important reward from the Cattedre Ambulanti dell’Agricoltura (the Italian institution for agricultural education) to support intensive farming and the new production techniques. Although it was a provincial reward, with that sum and for that year, Nonno Vincenzo managed to make the Battifarano company one of the best in Italy. Nonno Vincenzo would have stopped reading at the sum if he hadn’t noticed that that letter was longer than usual. It was almost as long as the whole paper. He wondered where he could write some pencil notes for his brother on the margins. Writing notes on the margins was quite important to him. There were the notes he usually wrote to comment on the newspapers that everybody in the family, both men and women, used to read. There were also the personal notes, like the one with which Nonno Vincenzo had expressed his silent affliction for the loss of his third daughter. The margin notes were the means for the Battifarano family members to exchange opinions and funny comments. Therefore, that whole page letter was a misfortune.
What did the institution claim with those extra lines? “Many of the awarded farmers, in order to show their full support to help the Party defend the national dignity, offered a part of their reward to the E.O.A.” (a relief organization). Nonno Vincenzo smiled. This time he just couldn’t help it. Then, he sighed in dismay and slightly shaked his head. The Party never changed. When he was young, educated by priests and inspired by the family liberal tradition, he had maintained a non-belligerent position towards the Party. However, he then saw people die, compatriots kill each other despite having almost felt like a big family through thick and thin in the previous years. His brother-in-law, who had some children, also died. Therefore, he realised that ideals were not worth innocent orphans and decided to dedicate himself, body and soul, to the land and the trousseau for his sisters. This was his silent resistance to the regime.
When he refused once again to serve at the Magazzini Comunali dei Cereali (the Municipal Cereal Warehouse), the Party sent him their guards to intimidate him. A few years later, instead, after having appointed him administrator of the Reclamation Consortium, which was being set up, the Party made him chief magistrate since they needed upright and educated men and there were not many like him. This was the Party: on the one hand they were quite generous with you, but on the other hand they threatened you, both physically and morally. Nonno Vincenzo didn’t get angry about that any more. He wanted to leave a funny comment for his brother on the margin, but then he no longer felt like it any more. He only wrote that he was going to send him the two money orders and then went out to pick some pods that had fallen down on the entrance boulevard of the estate, where the centuries-old carob trees, with their strong and knotty trunks, seen in perspective, reminded (and still remind) of the colonnades of the temples that the Ancient Greeks had probably built for Dionisus in this region. Nonno Vincenzo picked a dozen pods. He put them in his pocket with the idea of giving them to the horses during the daily ride through the pear fields – the most productive ones. Horses were the best company for Nonno Vincenzo when he went through the fields. Francesco Paolo, the only surviving child of the four he had with his beloved and departed Rosina, wanted to administrate the properties and he would have done it just fine, but he actually almost only got close to the fields for his loved hunts. He would have never inspected them with such a passion as the next Don Vincenzo, his son, would have done. Indeed, he soon started to go with his grandfather on long and loud rides on the cart.
Don Vincenzo thought of the women “with the tail up” on that June morning in 1980, while the radio was playing “Non sono una signora” (“I am not a lady”) by Loredana Bertè. With the car windows completely open, Professor Vincenzo Battifarano was driving to school where he had to work as an examiner for the school leaving exams. The singer of that song came from Calabria and since Calabria was quite near he thought that the words of that song applied to all the women of the area. Loredana Bertè was so convincing that Don Vincenzo realised in that moment that, with the new automatic pruning scissors, he could also hire women to work in the fields. Women who worked in the fields were faster and more precise than men and cost less, but nobody hired them because it was frowned upon. Don Vincenzo had never hired any women because farming tools were too heavy for female hands. They often ended up with injuries and this was unacceptable. With the new scissors, however, the work was easier. Loredana Bertè sang the refrain again and if only had songs been more important for Don Vincenzo, maybe in that moment he would have turned the volume up. Instead, he just drummed a finger on the wheel while proudly thinking of the Battifarano women with the tails up. Although they were educated and wealthy ladies, they had dedicated themselves to working and, by sewing and embroidering, they had saved the family from failure.
Among the stories that Nonno Vincenzo used to tell him, the one about great-grandmother Domenica was the one that he liked the most as a child. Her husband, the pharmacist Francesco Battifarano, was also called “the duke” because of his expensive passion for beautiful women and good life. Domenica was smart: she had praised and pleased him so that he convinced himself that he was the perfect head of the family. Actually, in this way, she slowly excluded him from all the financial issues gradually transfered to the son, that’s to say, Nonno Vincenzo. Positive slyness, ability to plan, intelligence: these were the skills that seemed necessary in life to the little Don Vincenzo. For this reason, when he had to learn things by heart at school, he did not like it because he thought that it was a waste of time. But there was no escape for him, since it was not him who went to school but the other way round. Indeed, his family valued education highly and had therefore paid for the location of the only rural school with classes made up of different age groups. After finishing elementary school, he was first sent to boarding school in Naples and then to the agricultural school in Cesena, where he discovered his passion for fruit growing and where he would have gladly lived. But this was “un volo a planare”, a “gliding flight”, as the gritty singer from Calabria sang. He was the only male child and was destined to the management of the estate. Unfortunately, he had to go back home and study at the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences in Bari. He then became a teacher despite having hated school much. Don Vincenzo knew that his destiny was unavoidable but lucky, so he found the right compromise between his ambitions and his destiny: having the right to make decisions for the farm, the family and himself.
His first move was against the tyranny of nature: it was not possible to have fruit beyond the natural season, so, he extended it. Don Vincenzo studied the land and used his university knowledge to plant 19 different types of peach that guaranteed a continuous production from May to October. He also prematurely understood that the fruit and vegetable market was going to be more and more in favour of retailers and not of producers: he therefore organised a small fruit and vegetable distribution centre, which was simple, efficient and with modern cold stores. In this way he was able to directly serve the markets and the wholesalers in the area. After that, it was time to act against preconceptions and bias: Don Vincenzo was one of the first in the area to hire women to work in the fields, who soon obtained an equal pay. In the meantime, one morning in June, he went to school and laughed a lot when his colleagues complimented him for coming to school by car and not with his truck, as he usually did on his way back from the long nights at the General Markets in Taranto.
The last part of this story will be told by me, because I think that something different and important is happening just right now. The strangest thing is that grandpa is not sitting at the head of the table. In his place there is a lady who is not part of the family because she refers to him as “Don Vincenzo”. Today it’s Sunday, I’m sure about that. In the first 10 months of my life I have acquired a few strong certainties:
- mommy, daddy and grandma Carmelita can read my mind and always tell by themselves when I am hungry, sleepy or when I need a new nappy;
- uncle Ciro loves the English cousins more, but it’s not true;
- on Sundays we eat all together either here or at our grandparents’. Therefore, today it’s Sunday because everybody is here. But today there is something different and no matter what happens I will not cry, because I cannot see anything with my eyes wet and I need to see and understand what happens. The word I hear most often is “wine”, that’s to say, that red, pink or yellow thing that adults drink instead of milk as an alternative to water. I like milk and if I have to stop drinking it and have wine instead when I am grown up, then I’d better listen carefully.
Uncle Ciro is saying nonsense: “thousand” bottles, “thousand” euros, etc; the lady is talking double Dutch and saying things like “marketing”, “brand”, “logo”, I don’t understand. The easiest to understand is daddy, but today he is not talking much. Up until now he has just said things like “grapes”, “barrel”, “quality”, “scent”, all things that I can understand. I stare at him while he is inspecting the red wine bottle. It’s the same bottle we have always been using. Why is he staring at it like this today? Now he has poured some wine in the glass but he is not drinking it. He keeps staring at it quite focused. Uncle Ciro and the lady keep repeating “next year”, “in the next 5 years” and then “per cent” numbers. One hundred must be a very high number. “Very good Vincenzino, you ate all your food!” said grandma. When? Wow! I haven’t noticed. What about the fruit? Oh, there it is, the skin of the grated apples. It means I have eaten it too, very good. I was distracted by daddy, who is saying something I don’t like: “our future lies in our wine; we have always produced it for us and we have never realised that it is a really sought-after product, as much as fruit. It is now the moment for wine, not for fruit”. What? No, no, no! I don’t agree! Fruit is sweet, apart from lemons, but grandma knows that. She makes me bite pears and not lemons because I tried them once and I didn’t like them. The lady at the head of the table says that every generation of the Battifarano family has lead the farm following the needs of the market and has been successful in this way: Nonno Vincenzo with pears, Don Vincenzo with peaches and for little Vincenzino (that’s me) the future might lie in the production of wine. Listen lady, mind your own business! First of all I like drinking milk and then, I want fruit, not wine! But no one will listen to me here! Everybody is happy and daddy is talking about something, sulfites, and apparently we have very few of them. Uncle Ciro is saying numbers again. This time it’s the money spent on the cellar. No one is defending the fruit and I only have one possibility, I have no other choice: I have to cry out loud! Now everybody is looking at me and stressing out. “Nooo, honey,… what’s wrong?” Telepathic contact with mom and there she goes: “Do you want more fruit, honey?” Yes, mom, that’s the point, very good: fruit, not wine. The only person who is not moving is grandpa, who is busy with something very small. He then calls grandma and says to her: “take this, make him taste it to see if he likes it”. Grandma doesn’t want to because “he is too little for grapes”. But he insists: “Just make him lick it, it’s our grapes”. So, grandma put a grape near my mouth. It’s the grapes from which they make the famous wine. Everybody stares at me in silence. The scent is good. Mommy is worried and daddy is looking at me in the same way he does when he waits for me with his arms open while I try walking. Ok, ok, I’ll try it so that everybody can see that I don’t… wait… this is… sugar? I’ll try a little more, just a little more. Grandma sees it and is about to say it, there she goes: “You rascal, you like grapes, don’t you?”. Sure. Her ability to read my mind is sometimes quite shocking.
The novel style and some imaginary elements do not add or take anything away from the real story of the Battifarano family. This tale is the result of the nice stories told by Don Vincenzo and the analysis of the documents kept in the family archive. The Battifarano Archive, originally created and well preserved by uncle Pietro, is a precious evidence of both the family history and the agricultural history of the area around Metaponto. It is easily accessible today thanks to the work of the archivists of the Archives Authority of the Region Basilicata, who reorganised and classified the documents, where further fascinating stories are hidden.
This short story represents the growth and development of the Battifarano farm winery, started by Nonno Vincenzo. It has belonged to the family since the beginning of the 16th century. However, as the history of agriculture tells us, up until the 20th century, farms in Southern Italy used to be small autarchical worlds, mainly aimed at the self-sufficiency for the owners and their workers.
It was a great pleasure for me to write this story,