Sharecropping (mezzadria) was a complex system which can be seen as revolving round three elements: a work contract; a system of distributing land; and a social structure. It was subject to change: it varied from place to place, partly with differences in the terrain being cultivated; and it was prolonged and developed over many centuries, from the 11th to the 20th.
The most typical form of contract was between landowners and tenants. The landowners could be individuals or institutions (for example religious bodies): they laid down the capital and the basic land possessed. The tenants were often represented by a family head who signed on behalf of his whole group, supplying the work force and the necessary skills or know-how. The produce obtained from the land was divided more or less equally (though usually with some weightin in favour of the landlord).
Spatially, sharecropping took specific forms depending on the topography and geo-morphology of the land and its distance from major population centres; but it was also affected by the density and socio-economic makeup of the population.
The countryside, and the towns and villages it contained, were organized spatially around the demands made by the topography. Particularly important were aspects of Tuscan landscape which can still be seen, especially the hilly structure: this explains the individual farmhouses in which the tenant families lived, poised at the top of hills to protect them from erosion caused by the instability of the soil. It explains the relationship between those scattered houses and the areas which they farmed, known as poderi. And it explains the typical landscape of a sharecropping podere, the mixed cultivation which was so picturesque to earlier travellers in the area—a fascinating variety involving areas of tree plantation (olives, and some fruit trees); bushes (vines); cereal-growing fields large and small; areas of pasture and patches of woodland; and intensely managed forestry and irrigation systems especially close to larger towns. Also typical was the network of rural tracks which linked the various poderi.
Mezzadria was also without doubt a type of society, a complex system of human relationships. A world inside which basic needs were located: building links, communicating, entertainment. A world rich in typical social roles, such as the ‘sharecropping family’, and the society around it; the peasant family patriarch (capoccia); the bailiff (fattore); the head housewife (massaia); the community fixer or go-between (troccolone); the landlord …. Rich also in typical social encounters: the evening gathering over the fire (veglia); the collaborative threshing of the grain (battitura); rustic weddings ….
On the linguistic side, this was a world full of its own words, sounds and phrases—all components which originated in Tuscan dialect but tended to be ignored by classical literary Italian, which took little interest in physical and material culture.
Finally it is important to take note of the rapid collapse of that world in the mid-20th century, and to investigate its legacy, both in terms of its effect on the environment and of its more ungraspable cultural inheritance. Sharecropping has left few traces in terms of written documents: we have only a few relatively late diaries, and administrative sources such as surveys and censuses. The vast majority of sharecroppers were illiterate. But in addition there was a tendency to keep facts deliberately out of the record, especially during the crucial concluding phase of the 1950s and 1960s. This was due to socio-cultural attitudes: sharecroppers had lived for centuries in a condition of stigma, shame and diffidence in the face of more powerful social groups, and this gave cultural differences the form of control on the one side and subordination on the other. One of the most important missions and achievements of the Teatro Povero di Monticchiello has been to rediscover and repossess the legacy, the history and the dignity of what we deliberately call ‘peasant civilization’.
[Italian text: Gianpiero Giglioni
Translation: Richard Andrews]