Saturday 30 July 2016

Cabinet of Curiosities by Katherine Webb

My first ever offering to the Cabinet of Curiosities are these very plain, rather dented pewter jugs:

The largest stands at 10cm tall, the smallest at a mere 6cm; or, more importantly, stamped onto the handles are the volumes they hold: 1 deciliter, 1/2 deciliter and 2 centiliter. Any guesses as to what they were for?

I bought these jugs in Italy while I was there researching The Night Falling a few years ago, from an old lady in the town of Gioia del Colle in the far south of the country. I had just been to look around a wonderful private museum called the Museo Della Civilta' Contadina - or Museum of Rural Life. This vast, private collection has been put together and is run by a man called Vito Santoiemma, and fills several huge warehouses in what used to be the family's sawmill in the town. It holds an astonishing array of objects related to every aspect of rural life in that part of Italy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and I got lost in it for hours.

Inside the museum. The jars on the floor with the wooden lids are called prisor, and are what most families would have had as their only toilet. It had to be carried out and emptied daily, into a slops barrel which was then dragged out of town and used to fertilise the fields. Disease, unsurprisingly, was rife.

At the end of my visit, I asked if there was any small thing I could buy to take back with me, and was told that an old lady (I never did get her name!) might have something to sell. These jugs appeared, and I was asked how much I was willing to pay for them - always a tricky question when you have absolutely no idea of an item's worth - both materially and to the person selling it! She seemed both delighted and bemused by my offer of Euro20, and so I had a piece of history to bring home with me.

The smallest jug, with 2 centiliter stamped onto the handle.

I've written before about the shocking living conditions experienced by the vast majority of people in Southern Italy in the first half of the twentieth century. A few wealthy, often absent, landlords owned all the land and all the housing, and the peasants - some 80% of the rest of the population - had no means to live but to pay for the rent on tiny, inadequate apartments by selling their labour in the fields for a daily rate. They were exhausted, hungry, angry, and powerless, and when they rose up in 1921 and 1922, in a broadly socialist movement, they were crushed again by the rise of fascism.

The milkman's bicycle in Vito Santoiemma's museum, and other dairy-related items.

My jugs date from the years immediately after this, after Mussolini came to power in 1922. These jugs were given out as part of a new system of rationing intended to alleviate the problem of the poor simply starving to death in years of drought and bad harvest - and also to conserve produce that was desperately scarce all over Italy after the First World War. It seems impossible to imagine Italy being short of olive oil, but that is what the jugs were for - the rationing of olive oil. How many calories does the 2 centiliter jug represent? I estimate maybe about 100. I don't know how many people that was supposed to feed, but I do know that this was a weekly ration, not a daily one. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of women selling their bodies to corrupt officials for an increase in the ration for their family.

So perhaps my piece of portable history is a bit dark in nature, and links directly back to dire times for one particular family. But there is always something so emotive and powerful about actually holding an object from a time that has now passed out of reach, and I kept the jugs on the shelf by my desk as I wrote my novel.


Joan Lennon said...

Powerful - thank you!

Leslie Wilson said...

They do have a slightly 'military' look to them - but how fascinating! I'd love to visit that museum.