Agrarian Elites and Italian Fascism: The Province of Bologna, 1901-1926

Agrarian Elites and Italian Fascism: The Province of Bologna, 1901-1926

by Anthony L. Cardoza


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Treating the tumultuous period from 1901 to the late 1920s, this book describes social and political conflict in the cradle of agrarian fascism.

Originally published in 1983.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691613642
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #3218
Pages: 496
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 9.90(h) x 1.10(d)

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Agrarian Elites and Italian Fascism

The Province of Bologna, 1901-1926

By Anthony L. Cardoza


Copyright © 1982 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05360-8



A benign conspiracy of geography, climate, soil, and cultural heritage had elevated the province of Bologna and its major city to the rank of acknowledged, if unofficial, capital of agricultural Italy by the beginning of the twentieth century. Nestling at the foot of the Apennine Mountains in the southeastern zone of the fertile Po Valley, the city of Bologna commanded the main route to Florence and the south, linked the Adriatic with the Mediterranean, and provided a point of convergence for both the railroad lines and highways of northern Italy. The soil and climate of the province, as local boosters never failed to point out, encouraged cultivation of virtually all important crops of Italian agriculture; its university was the first and most famous in Italy and placed Bologna securely in the forefront of the nation's cultural life. All these factors combined to make Bologna a hub of commercial, administrative, and political activity between the regions of northern and central Italy.

Agriculture, Bologna's chief industry, left its imprint on all areas of local life, for as the Chamber of Commerce proudly affirmed, the province drew "its principal riches ... from the cultivation of the fields." Bologna had long been the center of Italian hemp cultivation and, together with four neighboring provinces, accounted for over half the country's production of this important crop. In the years after 1900, she also had the fifth largest wheat harvests in Italy, while her rice production was twice that of any other province in Emilia and ranked fourth nationally. Not surprisingly, most of the local populace earned their livelihood directly or indirectly from agriculture. At the beginning of this century, over two-thirds of the population lived in rural communes of the province, with the remainder concentrated in the urban centers of Bologna and Imola. In 1901 64 percent of the active population worked in agriculture, less than a quarter in manufacturing; two decades later farming still provided jobs for over half the work force. Even these figures do not reveal the full extent to which agriculture influenced the occupational structure in the province Many urban workers depended indirectly on the countryside, since the largest industrial employers were those who processed agricultural products or built farm machines. Moreover, the majority of people classified by the census as "nonprofessionals" were women employed in the fields during certain periods of the year. Similarly, a substantial number of professional people in the city were tied to the agricultural sector that required lawyers to facilitate transfers of land or other property in the countryside and engineers to design and implement the various land reclamation projects which helped make "Bolognese agriculture ... one of the most progressive in the nation."

In comparison with the thriving agricultural sector, manufacturing played only a marginal role in the provincial economy. Several factors militated against industrial growth in the province: the torrential river system could not generate adequate hydroelectric power, the distance of the province from good ports made it difficult to procure raw materials, and mineral resources in the subsoil were not sufficiently abundant. Yet perhaps the most important factor in discouraging the advance of industry was the very strength of the agricultural sector that drew capital away from more risky investments in manufacturing. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Bologna registered a modest rate of industrialization, but even this development was limited to refiners and processors of agricultural products such as hemp and sugar beets and, to a lesser extent, to those mechanical and chemical enterprises that provided farm machinery and fertilizers. Significantly, in 1898 only three Bolognese firms employed more than one hundred fifty workers; one was a hemp mill, the other two were machine manufacturers. Agriculture also stimulated and sustained most of the commercial activity that revolved around the importation of seed, fertilizers, and other farm supplies and the exportation of local crops. As a result of its strategic location in the Po Valley, Bologna became one of the most important wheat markets in the country, while its hemp market assumed "not only a national, but an international prominence" in the years after 1900.

1. The Topography and Structure of Rural Society in Bologna

Much as in other provinces of the Po Valley, the agricultural sector in Bologna during the period between 1900 and 1930 incorporated a range of disparate forms of land tenure and methods of cultivation roughly corresponding to the major topographical divisions of the province. Then as now, the province contained three major topographical zones: mountains, foothills, and plains (Map 2). In the Apennines bordering on Tuscany, the mountainous zone covered an area of approximately 470 square miles of marginal farmland, meadows, and forests. The second zone, that of the foothills, measured some 428 square miles and was itself divided into smaller subzones of high and low foothills. The largest and agriculturally most important zone, the plains extended over an area of 546 square miles with a high plateau around the commune of Anzola and three subzones of low plains to the east and west of the Reno Rivers and the Idice and Sillaro Rivers (Map 3).

Low soil fertility, small crop yields, and general economic backwardness prevailed in the twenty-one mountainous communes of the province. Well over half the land surface consisted of forests and pastures; less than 40 percent of the land was devoted to crop cultivation. Given the rugged terrain and infertility of the soil, sheep, chestnuts, and wood from the forests constituted the traditional economic bases of the local inhabitants. Small peasant property represented the most characteristic form of land tenure. The majority of proprietors in the province who worked their own land — over ten thousand people in 1901 — were concentrated in the mountainous communes. Nearly two-thirds of these peasant cultivators owned only one plot of land; 80 percent of the plots measured less than twenty-five acres. Living close to the margins of subsistence, they tended to cultivate those crops suitable for direct consumption: corn, potatoes, beans, and chickpeas. To supplement the meager earnings from their tiny plots, they often took additional employment for themselves and their families outside the zone, the men finding jobs in public works projects and on the large estates, the women working as domestic servants. As in other mountainous areas that ringed the Po Valley, these peasant cultivators were geographically and culturally isolated from the mainstream of economic and political life in Bologna.

Below this zone of forests and pasture lay the Bolognese foothills with its own distinctive methods of cultivation and forms of land tenure. Unlike in the mountains, forests covered less than 15 percent of the territory so that from 60 to 90 percent of the land was under crop cultivation. Richer soils, larger farms, and more efficient methods of cultivation afforded a much wider range of agricultural products that included wheat, corn, wine grapes, fruit, and livestock. The peasant proprietor, the mainstay of agriculture in the mountains, accounted for a mere tenth of the property. In his place appeared the more substantial property holder who owned two or more farms, the average dimensions of which were slightly larger than those found in the mountainous communes. The dominant form of land tenure in the foothills was the mezzadria, a type of share tenancy in which the peasant had a fixed plot and divided his crop with the landlord on the basis of a predetermined ratio. As a rule, local custom dictated that the mezzadro or sharecropper furnish all the labor, tools, livestock, and half the seed, while the landlord provided the land, housing and stables, and half the seed. Ordinarily, after the harvest the two contracting parties divided the products equally. Traditionally, the tenant was also expected to bring the products to the manor house or market, to pay a specified rent for his housing, and to give the landlord gifts of capons, chickens, and eggs on designated holidays. Agreements between the landowners and sharecroppers were supposed to be renewed annually.

Slightly less than half the sharecroppers, the largest single peasant class in the Bolognese countryside in 1901 (Map 4), lived in the communes of the foothills, where the mezzadria covered four-fifths of the land devoted to agriculture. The family represented the basic productive unit of the sharecropping economy. With seven to nine members on the average, it had a rigid, hierarchical structure. The reggitore or head of the family assigned the work duties and handled all contractual matters, purchasing, and marketing. The female head of the family or reggitrice ruled over domestic matters, distributing the various household tasks among the other women. At harvest, however, all able-bodied men, women, and children went to work in the fields. The more prosperous or fortunate peasant families lived in case coloniche or farm houses, separated from the stables. Typically such houses were two-story edifices with a kitchen, cellar, and two rooms on the ground floor, four rooms and a granary on the second. Yet no less common were smaller, less sanitary dwellings that combined living quarters and stables in the same building. Living in relative isolation on his small but stable farm, the mezzadro represented a central figure in the old rural order of Bologna. Generations of peasant families often worked the same plot of land under the direction of the same family of landlords. Such continuity in tenure, where it continued to exist after 1900, helped to maintain the sharecropper's attachment to certain traditional values and customs: deference to social superiors, a lingering devotion to the church and village priest, and a distrust of change and innovation.

Because of his position in the local agricultural economy, the Bolognese sharecropper incorporated features of both the dependent laborer and the small-scale entrepreneur. Under contract to a specific landlord, he was essentially a laboring employee whose interests did not always coincide with those of his employer. Friction between the peasant tenant and the landlord became especially sharp during the periods of contractual negotiation and over the centuries the two had engaged in bitter conflicts over issues of crop selection, methods of cultivation, rents, and the distribution of shares in the harvest. At the same time, the sharecropper was himself an agricultural employer in the summer months when he had to hire outside laborers for the harvest. As an employer with limited resources, the sharecropper had an obvious interest in keeping wages low and work hours long that diverged from and often clashed with the interests of the laborers. Moreover, unlike the day laborers', the sharecropper's annual income and the survival of his family enterprise depended entirely on the success of the harvest. Consequently, he tended to oppose any disruptive labor actions such as strikes, since as one agricultural expert noted in 1911, they endangered "not only the landlord's share of the product, but also the portion that [he himself] expected as repayment for [his] labor." Both his psychology and his economic position helped to make the sharecropper's relations with other rural classes extremely unstable. For depending on the circumstances, he could be an ally or a tenacious adversary of either the landlords or the day laborers.

With the descent from the foothills to the vast Bolognese plains, the mezzadria became less prevalent. In place of the small peasant plots, there appeared large commercial farms extending over the richest and most fertile lands of the province. Virtually all the farms in this zone measured over fifty hectares; in the thirteen largest communes, farms larger than one hundred hectares comprised two-thirds of the arable land. In the decades after 1890, these farms made extensive use of machines, chemical fertilizers, and high yield seed in order to produce an impressive range of crops: wheat, sugar beets, hemp, forage, potatoes, tobacco, rice, maize, and trefoil. On the plains, there was a certain degree of territorial crop specialization (Map 5). Rice cultivation, for instance, was restricted to some fifty or sixty farms in the low plains of the Idice and Sillaro Rivers and to the east of the Reno River. The same subzone also developed into an increasingly important area of sugar beet cultivation after 1900, its large and efficient farms being particularly well suited to a crop that required substantial capital investments, abundant fertilizers, and careful cultivation. Hemp figured less in the low plains of the Idice and Sillaro and was concentrated instead in the other three subzones of the plains which furnished nearly 90 percent of the total output in the province. Apart from the rice areas, dry crop cultivation prevailed throughout the plains. The most common form of crop rotation followed a four-year cycle. In the first year, the so-called plants of renewal — hemp, sugar beets, tomatoes or tobacco — were grown. The second year farmers would plant wheat with trefoil, the following year, solely trefoil. Finally in the last year of the cycle, the fields would be devoted exclusively to wheat.

Already prior to World War I, many of the biggest farms in the plains had become "factories in the fields." In addition to their carefully tended fields, they contained buildings where the work of cleaning, refining, and selecting of crops took place, enormous warehouses and silos for the storage of agricultural products, spacious stables often housing several hundred farm animals, and big garages where an assortment of motor-powered threshers, harvesters, and seeding machines were kept. Enterprises of these dimensions maintained a full-time staff of several hundred people and had a fairly sophisticated division of labor. At the top of the farm hierarchy stood the landowner. In 1900 a comparatively small group of two or three hundred landowners possessed the bulk of private property in the plains Their ranks included prominent families of the Bolognese, Roman, and more recent Napoleonic aristocracies as well as a significant number of untitled proprietors With few exceptions, they were absentee landlords who lived either in the city of Bologna or else outside the province in Rome, Vienna, and Paris During the first decades of this century, effective management of many large farms shifted increasingly to a group of enterprising leaseholders With longterm leases that ran for nine years or more, these rural entrepreneurs had a relatively free hand in the organization of the farms and were the chief agents in the industrializing of agricultural production in the province Below the leaseholder or the manager appointed by the landowner were a number of technical experts and peasant specialists responsible for superintending the various activities of the farm Some big estates of the lower plains employed an engineer on a full-time basis to direct the work of land reclamation and to regulate the irrigation systems Separate agents, assisted by subagents and labor foremen, cared for the dry and wet crops, while other personnel handled winemaking, threshing, milling, and storage operations At the bottom of the permanent staff were the fixed-salary laborers or salariati who cared for the horses, cattle, oxen, and other farm animals As a rule, they received free housing on the estate and a one-year contract and were paid half in cash and half in shares of the harvest


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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • List of Maps, pg. xi
  • Acknowledgments, pg. xiii
  • Abbreviations, pg. xv
  • IV. THE POLITICS OF CONFRONTATION, 1912-1914, pg. 171
  • References, pg. 455
  • Index, pg. 463

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