CRT, July 2007
Visiting Northern Italy gave me a chance to get a feel of a countryside that has gone through cycles of industrial change since at least the 1600s. The Eastern part, particularly the Marche region is a perfect example of sociologist Charles Tilly's observation that industrialization is not a linear process "…a straight-line model of industrialization is not merely inaccurate in itself; it leads to faulty, costly deductions" he says. It is wrong to assume that "industrialization follows a straight line from agriculture to handicraft to full-scale industry, with handicraft a weak anticipation of full-scale industry". In this region both craft and mass-production seem to have had their glory days and their bleak stretches, with craft production of leather goods and textiles bringing some prosperity after a period of industrial decline in the early 20th century.
I was in Pavia to lecture students of a course on Co-operation and Development at the University of Pavia. Pavia itself, an example of the way in which in Italy the past is part of the present through its lovingly preserved architecture and spaces, is a delight. Pavia is part of the province of Lombardy near the great industrial capital of Milan. Italy had seen the rise and fall of the woollen industry during the seventeenth century. At the beginning of that century, according to Carlo M Cipollo, this region was one of the most industrially advanced in Western Europe, but by its end, Italy had become an 'economically depressed and backward area'. Another industrial cycle began two hundred years later: "Milan's economic success was founded at the end of the 19th century", says an internet site "when the metal factories and the rubber industries moved in, replacing agriculture and mercantile trading as the city's main sources of income".
Before this visit I had been to Italy as a tourist, admired the grandeur of Rome, steeped myself in the 'cinquecento', the sublime 16th century of Italian painting, and in the Tuscan countryside, which is the background for those early paintings. This time, travelling with Alessandra L'Abate, I glimpsed another Italy, of artisans, 'fair trade', the peace movement, and a hospitality network.
At an artisan fair in Florence in the grounds of the beautiful Palazzo Corsini in whose formal gardens the fair is held each year, we find Alessandra's basket maker friend Giotto Scaramelli weaving baskets and holding a class. "I learnt from my father when every farmer used to make his own baskets" he says. Enzo Sottili has dropped by to visit. He heads an artisans' organization demanding the right to sell their own work on the street: "In the 1950s there was a revolution in peoples' heads. Before that every household had a craft. At that time peoples' attitude changed to 'why should I make anything by hand when it is cheaper by machine'. Now crafts are also using machines and real craft has died". It appears to me that the basket makers and a family of bronze bell casters were the only true artisans in the fair, the rest seem more like hobbyists.
Our hostess in Cuneo, Franca, is a member of SERVAS, an international open house network, in which the members welcome fellow members into their homes on a reciprocal basis. With Franca we drive to a village in the Alpes Maritimes, Norat, where her daughter's family, like other city people, has a country retreat. Only two of the original families remain in the village. They had been mostly sheep and cattle farmers, and many had migrated to the plains about 50 years ago finding work there during one of the industrial upturns. The village houses are terraced into the hillside and most of them are abandoned, boarded up or falling down. A few of them have been renovated as second homes for people from the city, the old slate roofs replaced with tiles or, horror, synthetic sheet tiling. The tiny old church has a drinking fountain spouting clear spring water and the meadows are full of wild flowers.
On the way to Torino near Chieri we stop at a tiny hamlet, Borgato Maria Della Rovere, for a night at the Cascina Macondo [www.cascinamacondo.com], a cultural centre run by Alessandra's friends Pietro Tatramella & Anna Maria. He is a storyteller and a writer of Italian haiku, she is a potter, a retired school teacher. Every weekday for 3 months in the summer Pietro entertains groups of schoolchildren with stories of American Indian traditions while Anna Maria gives classes in pottery.
Next stop, Chieri. The textile industry here flourished without interruption from the 17th century to the 1980s. The earliest loom displayed in the textile museum dates from the late 1600s, when the shuttle was not yet known here. Instead, a notched stick carried the weft, a system in use for the next hundred years with the shuttle containing a bobbin introduced only in the 1700s, followed soon after by the fly shuttle. After that innovations were rapid, more healds were added, the structure of the loom changed from wood to iron and then steel, dobby and jacquard were introduced for elaborately woven brocade and tapestry in the 19th century. Electrical power began to drive the looms around 1904, shuttleless and then gripper looms came in the 1950s-60s, and at the end of the 20th century the first computerized models. The Museo del Tessile, housed in the former convent of the Poor Clares, has the earlier models on display in working condition, with warping wheels, spinning and dyeing equipment. There is a vast collection of documents available for research, and sets of early woven samples and trimmings.
The Movimento Nonviolento is the Italian branch of War Resistance International,
and has strong affinities with the teachings of Gandhi. The founder, Aldo Capitini translated Gandhi's writings into Italian and was responsible for the spread of the Gandhian principle of non-violent resistance in Italy. Professor Alberto L'Abate, Alessandra's father, is one of its pillars, he has worked with both Capitini and with Danilo Dolci. Professor L'Abate introduced the degree course in Peace Studies at the University of Florence where he has taught for many years, and is associated with the Studi Domenico Sereno Regis, a centre for research in Peace Studies in Torino, where we are expected that afternoon. Here we stay with Angela, a member of the Movimento Nonviolente; her husband Beppe who she met at a peace demonstration when she was 17, about 30 years ago, [he proposed 2 months later], is a member of the Movimento Internationale della Reconciliazione, which is related to the Church. Beppe grows organic vegetables and makes his own delicious Dolcetta Piemonte wine.
Finally we reach Pescate, a suburb of Lecco, near the Swiss border. Eleanor and her sister look after us here, putting us up in their family home which backs onto the forested mountainside of a national park, Parco Monte Barro. In Lecco we give the last of our talks - earlier ones had been at Cascina Macondo and the Peace Centre at Torino - at a contribution supper to a gathering of about 35 Fair Trade supporters. We tell the story of Indian cotton textiles, relating past history to the present situation, with displays of khadi and malkha. Hardly anyone dozes off and there is a lively discussion to follow.
Here in Italy the craft tradition provides a counter-flow to mass-production: as one declines the other is rejuvenated, an elliptical movement rather than a straight line. History is valued, the future is built on the past rather than by discarding or denying it. The village houses might be in ruins today, but no high-rises are allowed, so when the wheel of industry turns there is every chance of a renewal. Commercialism, the partner of mass-production, has not crept into every life: The members of SERVAS are hospitable through sheer goodwill and friendship, not for money. The movement for peace recognizes the relation between peace and artisan industry, and the Fair Trade organizations are groping their way towards fraternal relations with small producers on the other side of the world. The circles of hospitality, peace and fair trade are rich soils to nurture a renewed flowering of Italian craft.