Il Cantastoria (part one)

My husband, who was born just four months before me, grew up in a different century.

Bernalda, or Vernall’  in dialect, in the  late 1960s.   The post-war economic boom is roaring in the north of Italy, and while  this small Lucanian town is seeing the arrival of new technologies,  new products and ideas,  its main participation in the “boom” consists of packing family members off to work in the factories of Torino and Milano, Bergamo  and Verona.  In previous generations families gave up their most intrepid to the Americas.   So while a  trickle of  letters containing  wages earned up north has begun to change the outlook slightly, traditions still  persist, resolutely, and the town is unaware of the changes to come.

The Amazing Flying Millers, oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches, 2012

The streets of the town are unpaved, with the notable exception of the main Corso, newly asphalted and a focal point of town pride.  Most secondary streets are covered with embedded round river stones, or gravel, or a muddy mix of these.  Most people get around on foot, for after all the town is not large, with a population of about ten thousand.    An occasional small car can be seen, and bicycles, or  small  carts drawn by a mule or a horse.

My future husband, as a boy,  may have  the pleasure of  drinking something cold,  not from the refrigerator, but thanks to ice which has been purchased  fresh daily for the “ice box.”  ( My own father, in the late twenties,  followed the ice wagon and carried a chunk of ice home in a cloth bag, and so did my husband.)     His mother utilizes  a tin wash bucket filled with rags, and cuddles some bottles and jars around the ice.  There will be  cool wine with lunch, slices of watermelon, or fresh milk to drink for breakfast the next day.  Refrigerators will come later, in the seventies.

Milk arrives on wheels as well.  A bicyclist will pass each day with a couple of tin jugs balanced across the handlebars, and housewives hurry down with glass jars to buy a few ladles of fresh milk to replenish their supply.  No pasteurisation here, and the milk is often still warm when it arrives, as you can be sure the cows are not very far away.

Farmers breaking in a new field, builders excavating for the foundations of a house, will invariably find antiquities.  These are everywhere, and the cause of much consternation, as the authorities “must be informed” and work is immediately halted indefinitely.  Practicality advises one to keep it to oneself.   There are children in Bernalda, today’s adults, who pass their time after school at target practice, lining up small votive cups and vases to be knocked to pieces with slingshots.   Cups and vases from 2500 years ago!

People still live with their precious animals, and some still literally “live with” their mule in the second room, the one which houses the huge bed where often an entire family sleeps.  Chickens will come and go, and cats.  (Even today houses in the older sections of towns have a tiny, low door which served to allow the hens in or out of their nesting area.  I laugh when I think of  urban hipsters in US cities, discovering the pleasure of keeping a few chickens for eggs, and think how these “trendsetters” are  only now beginning to catch up!  Will they soon be keeping their chickens under the bed as well?)   These houses will be restructured in later decades, and the mule in the bedroom will disappear, although many will still keep a mule or horse in a converted stall, a few doors away.  Later still the “stalls”  (ex-family dwellings)  will be used for the family automobile, and organizations will be formed to “save” mules and donkeys typical of the region, once plentiful.

Near my husband’s house, in the town center, one homeowner is the proud keeper of serial pigs.  And as such, every so often he needs to make room for the new “pet.”  (That good sausage and prosciutto doesn’t just magically appear, after all.)  The spectacle of a murder victim screaming and then being dismembered is a recurring neighborhood trauma which the children won’t soon forget.  Salzizz!*

“Chorus Line” oil on canvas, 12 x 12 inches, 2002

Most families have washing machines.  But soap is not often purchased at the store.  Another passing truck offers a bartered exchange;   used household oil, such as from frying, or old oil no longer suitable for consumption.  He gives these customers the bars of soap he makes with this oil.  Of course not everyone has old oil to offer, and he makes a good living this way from selling his homemade soap.  (You can still buy soap here which has the same appearance as the old bars, although of course it is industrially-produced.  Many women swear by it.)

Every so often, a visitor will appear in town driving a small truck sporting a collapsible set of panels.  The vehicle chooses a strategic point where  a crowd can gather, and set up shop.  The panels, usually four or six, are mounted on top of the truck so that everyone can see them.  They appear  almost as giant tarot cards, colorful and filled with dynamic figures in various exaggerated poses.  This is  the “cantastoria.”**  When a suitable number of folks have gathered, he starts  to tell a story in song.  Indicating the pertinent panel, he weaves an intricate tale involving (inevitably) love and hope, tragedy and  betrayal.  Cuckoldry and murder are ever-popular subjects, and the helper working the crowd  will  find his basket filling faster in accordance with the passionality of the tale.    All of this sung loudly over about half an hour, acapella.  It is a distillation of  Opera down to its essential elements.  Kids and adults anticipate  the arrival of the cantastoria, and when he arrives it is always a treat.

(end of part one)

“Time Line” oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches, 2009

*salzizz‘,  meaning literally salsicca, or sausage, “known as “sal-cheech” in dialect.  When pronounced “Sal-zeets!”  it can also be used as a snide greeting.  It can be substituted for the acceptable “Salve!” and is invariably muttered under one’s breath.  It is obviously a reference to the  body part it resembles.

** Literally, the “Story-Singer.”

5 thoughts on “Il Cantastoria (part one)

  1. So very interesting! I love the fact that living in Southern Italy still feels like going back a generation. How magical the cantastoria must have seemed to kids in those days. I LOVE all the paintings here–the Chorus Line made me giggle. Brava.

  2. That is true, if I am feeling poetic I love the fact that things seem slower and more deliberate, as in the imaginary “old days.” However, if I need to get anything done…that’s another story! I suppose the cantastoria has been replaced by Grande Fratello and music videos, rather sad.

  3. While we were in England we bought milk from a mechanical cow. A local dairy has a dispenser at a local pub. (When they told us about the mechanical cow, I was really expecting a cow shaped machine. It actually looked like an old Dr Pepper machine.). It will dispense a new empty glass bottle for £1. We brought our own container, which we put under the spigot. £2 gets one liter of non-homogenized, gently pasteurized Guernsey milk. It was so rich it was yellow. They told us the cow’s name, but of course I’ve forgotten it

  4. I love the past to present images present in this post! I had to smile at the thought of your husband carrying a piece of ice wrapped in cloth home. The paintings are charming! “Time Line” is beautiful! I love how the crows are lined up on the electrical wire. I think part of Italy’s charm lies in its retro vibe that is still so present in many parts.

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