In a family business, different members of the family each play their own part. While his brother Pietro was keen on books and culture (he had a great sense of history and kept everything – books, documents, manuscripts from the 16th century, even bills of lading), it was Nonno Vincenzo who worked to ensure the success of the Battifarano farm.
On 3rd December 1935, he received a letter regarding the award of a large sum of money. Skipping the ‘We are glad to inform you…’ part, various pleasantries and bureaucratic information, Nonno Vincenzo went straight to the sum: it was a truly substantial amount! He raised his eyebrows for a second and almost cracked a smile: after thirty years of military service and the Great War, smiling was no longer easy. He was a well-read man but sadly the only topics he had occasion to talk about were soil, harvest, cattle, and dairy products.
The letter announced the award of 1,300 lire from the Cattedre Ambulanti dell’Agricoltura (the Italian Institute for Agricultural Education) as a contribution towards the introduction of modern farming and production techniques. With that local award and for that year, Nonno Vincenzo managed to make the Battifarano farm one of the most respected agricultural businesses in the region.
He would have stopped reading the letter at this point if he hadn’t noticed that that it was longer than usual, the text filling almost the entire page. He noticed this as he had the habit of writing notes in the margins and was looking to see where he could add some comments in pencil for his brother.
When Nonno Vincenzo found an interesting article in the newspaper, he would write notes alongside it that everybody in the family, both men and women, would read; there were also his personal notes, like the one expressing his silent grief for the loss of his third daughter. This was how the Battifarano family members exchanged opinions and funny remarks, but in the letter he was reading, the text covered the whole page leaving no space for comments.
What did the institution have to say in those extra lines of writing? ‘Many of the farmers who have received this award donated part of it to the E.O.A. (a welfare organization) as a way of showing their full support for the Fascist Party in its defence of national dignity.’ Nonno Vincenzo smiled. This time he just couldn’t help it. Then, he sighed in dismay and shook his head. The Party never changed. When he was young, educated by priests and inspired by the family’s liberal tradition, he had maintained a ‘non-belligerent’ stance towards the Party. But now he was seeing violence and deaths. His fellow Italians were killing each other even though, in previous years, they had been part of what had seemed like one large family. His brother-in-law, who had raised a family, had been one of the victims. Nonno Vincenzo realised it was not worth sticking to his ideals if it meant more deaths and more orphans, so he dedicated himself, body-and-soul, to the land and to raising the dowries for his sisters. This was his silent resistance to the regime.
When he had refused once again to work at the Magazzini Comunali dei Cereali (the Municipal Cereal Warehouse), the Party sent their guards to intimidate him. But a few years later, after having appointed him administrator of the Reclamation Consortium, the Party made him chief magistrate as he was one of the few upright and educated men available. This was the Party: on the one hand they could be quite generous with you, but on the other hand they threatened you, both physically and morally. Nonno Vincenzo didn’t get angry about that anymore. He wanted to leave a funny comment for his brother in the margin of the letter, but in the end, he just wrote that he was going to send him the money orders, and then went out to the boulevard entrance of the estate to pick some carob pods that had fallen. Here the lines of centuries-old carob trees, with their strong and knotty trunks, recall the colonnades of the temples the Ancient Greeks had built (probably in honour of 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 his daily walk through the pear orchards. Horses were Nonno Vincenzo’s favourite company for Nonno Vincenzo as he walked across the fields.
Francesco Paolo, the only surviving son of the four he had had by his beloved, late wife Rosina, wanted to manage the farm, and was a possible successor; however, Francesco’s only close contact with the land was when he went hunting. He would never have worked with the same passion as his son, the next Don Vincenzo, who would soon accompany his grandfather on long, lively rounds of the estate.
On a June morning in 1980, Vincenzo Battifarano was driving to school to work as an examiner for the school leaving exams, when the song Non sono una signora (I am not a lady) by Loredana Bertè came on the radio. As Bertè is from the neighbouring region of Calabria, he felt the words of the song could be about all the women of the area. The lyrics were so convincing that Don Vincenzo realised in that moment that, by using new automatic pruning scissors, he could begin to hire women to work on the farm. Women worked faster and more carefully than men and cost less. But employing women to work in the fields was frowned upon; farming tools were too heavy for female hands and there was the risk of injury. With the new scissors, however, the work was easier. Loredana Bertè sang the chorus again and, if music had meant more to him, Don Vincenzo would have turned the volume up. Instead, he just drummed a finger on the steering wheel while proudly thinking of the strong and determined women of the Battifarano family. Although they were educated and affluent ladies, they had dedicated themselves to work and, through their sewing and embroidering, had saved the family.
Of the stories that Nonno Vincenzo used to tell him, it was the one about his great-grandmother Domenica that he liked the most as a child. Her husband, the pharmacist Francesco Battifarano, was known as ‘the duke’ because of his expensive taste for the good life and beautiful women. Domenica was smart: she had praised and flattered him so that he was convinced that he was the head of the family. But in fact this was her way of excluding him from all financial responsibilities relating to the farm which were gradually transferred to their son, Nonno Vincenzo. Domenica’s cunning approach, ability to plan, and intelligence were qualities that Don Vincenzo recognized as essential for life and for business, which is why, when he had to learn things by heart at school, he considered it a waste of time. However, there was no escape for him because he did not go to school – the school came to him! His family valued education highly and had paid for the relocation of the only rural school with separate classes for the different age groups. After finishing elementary school, he was sent to boarding school in Naples and later to the agricultural school in Cesena where he discovered his passion for cultivating fruit, and where he would have gladly stayed to live. But this was ‘un volo a planare’, a ‘gliding flight’, as the gritty-voiced singer from Calabria sang. Being the only male child of the family, he was destined to manage the estate, so he returned to study at the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences in Bari. Despite never liking school as a pupil, Don Vincenzo went on to become a teacher and considered himself fortunate. He had found the right compromise between his ambitions and his destiny. He continued to make decisions for the farm, the family and himself.
Don Vincenzo’s first move was against the tyranny of nature. It was impossible to harvest fruits beyond their natural season, so he studied the land and used his university knowledge to plant 19 varieties of peach tree whose fruit ripened at different times of the year, guaranteeing a continuous production from May to October. He was among the first to understand that the fruit and vegetable market would favour sellers rather than producers, so he established a small distribution centre that was simple, efficient, and equipped with a modern cold storage system. This allowed him to serve the markets and the wholesalers in the area directly. After that, it was time to act against long-held preconceptions and bias. Don Vincenzo was one of the first in the area to hire women to work in the fields; before long, they were paid the same as the men.
But in that morning in June on his arrival at school, he shared a laugh with his colleagues who 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.
I will tell the last part of this story because I think that something unusual and important is happening right now. The strangest thing is that Grandpa is not sitting at the head of the table. In his place there’s a lady who is obviously 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 learnt just a few things, but some of them are undeniable facts:
- Mummy, Daddy and Grandma Carmelita can read my mind: they can always tell when I’m hungry, sleepy or when I need my nappy changing;
- although Uncle Ciro says he’s fonder of my English cousins than he is of me, I know it’s not true;
- on Sundays we all eat together, either here or at our grandparents’.
Anyway, it must be Sunday because everyone’s here. Although there is something strange going on today, whatever happens I won’t cry – mainly because I can’t see anything when my eyes are full of tears but also because I need to see and understand what’s happening. The word I hear spoken most often is ‘wine’, that’s to say, that red, pink, or yellow stuff that grown-ups drink instead of milk as an alternative to water. I like milk but if I must stop drinking it when I’m grown up and have wine instead, then I’d better listen carefully.
Uncle Ciro is talking about ‘thousands of bottles’, ‘thousands of euros’, and so on; the lady is using English words that I can’t understand such as ‘marketing’, ‘brand’, ‘logo’… The easiest person to understand is Daddy, but today he’s not talking much. So far, he’s just said things like ‘grapes’, ‘barrel’, ‘quality’, ‘scent’, things that I can understand.
I stare at him while he’s checking a bottle of red wine. It’s the same bottle we always use. Why is he staring at it like this today? Now he’s poured some wine in the glass but he’s not drinking it. He keeps staring at it, quite focused. Uncle Ciro and the lady keep going on about ‘next year’, ‘in the next five years’ and something about ‘per cent’.
‘Very good Vincenzino, you ate all your food!’ says Grandma. When? Wow! I hadn’t even noticed. What about the fruit? Oh, there it is, the skin of the grated apples. It means I’ve eaten them too! I must have been distracted by Daddy who is now saying something I don’t like, ‘Our future lies in our wine; we have always produced it without realising that it is a really sought-after product, as much as fruit. Now is 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 gives me pears 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 managed the farm following market trends and this has always worked: 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 prefer milk and then… I want fruit, not wine! But no one will listen to me here! Everybody is happy and Daddy is talking about sulphites (it seems we don’t have many of them, whatever they are). Uncle Ciro is talking numbers again. This time it’s the money spent on the wine cellar. No one is defending the fruit and I only have one possibility… I have no other choice: I’ll have to start crying! Now everybody’s looking at me and stressing out. ‘Vincenzino… what’s the matter?’ Telepathic contact with Mum and there she goes: ‘You’d like some more fruit, wouldn’t you?’ Yes, Mum, that’s exactly the point: fruit, not wine. The only person who is not moving is Grandpa, who is busy fiddling with something very small. He calls Grandma and says: ‘take this, let him taste it to see if he likes it’. She doesn’t want to because ‘he’s too little for grapes.’ But he insists: ‘Just let him lick it, it’s one of ours.’ Grandma puts the grape near my mouth. It’s one of the grapes they use to make the wine they keep talking about. Everybody stares at me in silence. It smells good. Mummy is getting worried, and Daddy is looking at me in the same way he does when he kneels in front of me with his arms open while I try walking. Okay, okay, I’ll taste it just so that everyone can see that I don’t like… wait… this is… sugar? I’ll try a bit more, just a bit more. Grandma sees this and is about to say something… There she goes: ‘You little rascal, you like grapes, don’t you?’
She’s read my mind again. Amazing!
This short story describes the development of the Battifarano Farm Winery, established by Nonno Vincenzo. The farm has belonged to the family since the beginning of the 16th century. Prior to the 20th century farms in Southern Italy were small, enclosed worlds, whose main purpose was to provide food for the famers and their workers.
Despite its narrative style and a few imagined scenes, the story describes the true history of the Battifarano family, recounted by Don Vincenzo and put together with the results of my research in the Battifarano Archive.
Created and organised by Uncle Pietro, the Battifarano Archive provides valuable resources testifying to both the family history and the agricultural history of the area around Metaponto. Today, it can be easily accessed thanks to the work of the staff at the Basilicata Archives Authority who reorganised and classified the documents, from which many more fascinating stories can be discovered.
Writing this piece has been a real pleasure for me.