A Celebration of Women Writers

"The Italian Woman in the Country." by Countess Cora Ann Slocomb Di Brazza Savorgnan (1862-).
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 697-703.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 697] 



The peasant women of Italy. Who of you on hearing those words does not think of the opera chorus gesticulating as gracefully as jointed dolls expressing emotion by clock work, or the swarthy fruit seller at a frequented corner, or of some weary wan family of immigrants such as has more than once crossed your path?

And yet the peasant woman of Italy among her native fields, olive groves and vineyards resembles none of these, and I trust when we part you will be truly acquainted with our humble sisters across the seas and carry away in your heart one grain of the rich harvest of love I bear them.

I will introduce you to those I have known intimately in Fruili, for it is better to have a clear impression of a group than a confused memory of a mass, the more so as the peasants in the north of Italy live in isolated homes, and each household forms a complete miniature government, composed of many generations and ramifications of relatives of many family and submitting to a regularly patriarchal administration of their interests. Some of these peasant homesteads, with their courtyards, barns and out-houses, shelter no less than fifty human beings, scores of quadrupeds and hundreds of feathered bipeds. The father of the oldest branch directs the others, or in case he feels incompetent through age, the son in whose favor he abdicates reigns supreme over the conglomerated existences. No individual feels entitled to sign a contract or undertake any enterprise without consent of his chief or else formally cutting loose from the guidance of his relatives who he knows will show him no pity if once he has broken with the immemorial traditions of co-operative duty among the members of peasant clans. Should the hereditary chief prove himself incapable of guiding the household, he is formally deposed by his relatives and another member of his family, endowed with the necessary ability, is elected, by vote, in his place, in which case the women as well as the men are consulted.

Among the peasants the ancient Biblical appreciation of a numerous offspring flourishes, and to remain childless or be forced to replace the willing toilsome hands of sons and daughters by hired help is felt to be a keen disgrace.

Much is to be learned by visiting this unfrequented province, which lies directly north of Venice, and so I trust you will permit me to lead you in imagination through some of the pleasant experiences which await you there. [Page 698] 

The fast express leaves Venice at 2 o'clock every afternoon and is due in Udine, the capital of Fruili, at 4:20. It first traverses the massive viaduct, which rises above the blue lagoon, which is ever dotted with orange and red lateen-sails. The salt marshes and sluggish waterways we see sleeping tranquilly on our right like a worn-out combatant, the sacred fortress of Margera, so gloriously defended in 1849 by a few brave men in the Italian rebellion against foreign rule, when the Austrians hemmed the volunteers in on every side except that of the city. There another more dreaded foe, the "cholera," wielded the scepter. All had surrendered but this handful of stanch hearts, and still they fought on, single-hand, until in the baptism of their own blood and misery the dross engendered by the ease of centuries was washed from their characters and every Venetian was born again a hero.

The train crosses the hot, rich Venetian plains; then it turns to the East and seems to lose itself on the verdant plain of Fruili, the great Patria or fatherland, from which the Venetians fled a thousand years ago before the devastating hordes of bloody Attila, surnamed "the plague of God." Now all is pretty, prosperous, peaceful; the waving fields of grain, the rippling water-courses, sparkle in the sunshine. The neat roads, leading to well filled barns, are planted in avenues of great shade trees; the peasant houses are large, the meadows are rich, and the gray cattle fat and sleepy. All seems to speak of contentment and repose and one is aroused with a kind of a moral shock at sight of the old Mahin country house, with its memories of turbulence and war. For, by an irony of fate, this beautiful home of the last of the Doges of the Venetian republic, was chosen as a resting place by the modern Cæsar, Napoleon I., when he was studying the peace of Campoformido, which forged the chain of Venetian slavery to Austria. Here on this very spot it was welded upon the neck of the once proud Venetian republic with gold rung from her children by purchasing Austria to furnish the conqueror (alas! a born Italian) with the sinews necessary to carry on to fresh fields of misery his conquering banners and their attendant train of woes.

The train whistles twice. The modern suburbs of a prosperous little city come in sight. The past is lost in the present. The thirty thousand inhabitants of Udine greet you with the clatter of iron foundries, cotton and flour mills and a hundred other great industries–young life, young enterprise, have conquered. United Italy has arisen, strengthened by that long period of suffering. We pass through the turreted city gate and you gaze in wonder upon gushing fountains, electric lights, gas burners, tramways, and telephone wires interlaced curiously among the ancient palaces. A miniature parliament existed on the citadel of Udine centuries before the proud barons of England compelled King John in 1215 to sign the Magna Charta, assuring to their descendants liberty and representation. This little Patria can, therefore, boast of having been one of the oldest countries in Europe to possess a representative assemblage by election and by inheritance, divided into two bodies, called the Peers and Commons. These met yearly in Udine to decide on all that concerned the well being of the country, and this parliament only ceased to exist when Napoleon conquered Italy.

We can not linger. Time is flying, and we must hasten on that you may become acquainted with the people up in the hills around the castle and learn to love them a little before we part.

The carriage spins out of the gate at the other end of the town and away between the Indian corn-fields, called there Turkish grain, and the vineyards. The road is macadamized and very white. It is flanked on either side by deep ditches and mulberry trees which have been cropped into a resemblance to chubby, rotund personalities. There are millions of them, stretching row upon row, as far as the eye can reach. Their leaves serve to feed the silkworms, for you are in Italy, which produces one-fourth of the silk consumed in the world, and in one of the two provinces which yields the most silk in Italy.

The peasant men who pass salute respectfully, but the women here are very proud, reserved and dignified, and never bow unless they are acquainted. The strong soft [Page 699]  homespun in which these people are clothed is composed of the refuse left from the silk culture, which is washed, carded, spun, dyed and woven at home by the women and made by the village tailors into most comfortable and durable costumes. This material is, alas! being supplanted by cheap factory goods also made up by the tailors, for the peasant women consider that none but men can fashion garments worthy of admiration.

The horses climb up and up through picturesque villages, and past flowering walls and verdant vineyards, orchards and copses. On every side bits of most charming landscape attract the eye studded with villages, and you are in Fruili, the third most populous country in the world, China and Belgium alone having more inhabitants to the square mile.

The carriage spins over a long rough causeway flanked by old acacia trees. At the end stands between massive stone columns a wide open iron gate draped in wysteria and roses, forming a graceful frame to a ruined castle that closes the vista. From its highest tower float the Stars and Stripes and the Tricolor of United Italy, sanctified by the White Cross of Savoy.

We have reached home. A hubbub of sweet feminine voices caresses the ear; down the old terrace steps swarm half a hundred girls led by a gary-haired old hunchback. They scramble to kiss our hands, they courtesy and murmur "Servito suo." They are very neat, with their white aprons and sleeves and bonny kerchiefs. They are the children of the Home Lace School, who learn the new patterns and then teach them in their turn to their one hundred and fifty companions in the neighboring villages. Many of the little ones have been to the public school all the morning, and the big ones come from the fields or stables, for as soon as they can get away they hasten to their lace cushions as to an entertainment, fresh and merry as chattering magpies.

We do not wish them to forget what they have learned at school, and so each girl is compelled to write her own name and address on the piece of lace made by her, as well as its price and the date when finished. They sing while they work, street litanies and lovely part songs, as well as the stirring war choruses of young Italy. They are visited twice a week by a chaplain and school-teacher, who recounts to them anecdotes about the helpful lives which members of their class have led for others, and tells them of the great charitable organizations and institutions founded through their self-abnegation. Each morning they begin the day by united prayer, and if the priest is not expected one of the stories learned from him is repeated for the amusement of the others. If you asked Italia, our most lovable and industrious lacemaker, she would repeat to you the following in soft and modest accents:

"One day not so many years ago–alas! I forget the date, but I think it was about 1830–a priest in Sicily entered one of the most squalid houses of his parish just at the hour when the family was about to partake of its mid-day meal. He was politely invited to join, and what was his surprise, after the blessing had been asked, to see each cut off the most delicate part of his portion and place it on a plate in the center of the table. He asked for an explanation of this strange action. The father answered: 'You see we have no money to spare with which to help our neighbors, but we find that if each of us gives away a good big mouthful of his food, though it costs him nothing, it suffices to remind him of those who have no meals, amid the united bits are ample for the nourishment of an old man who comes daily to get what we have saved for him.'" The priest marveled at the example of true Christian charity set by this simple household and went away full of the idea that what had been done by one family could be done by many. And at present, owing to his teachings, each day that the sun rises on Sicily six thousand poor people are fed with the mouthfuls of the poor.

Oh my compatriots, you and I grew up with tales of Mafia Camorra and bloodshed poisoning our hearts against the Sicilians, while their poorest were developing this noblest brotherhood which teaches to take the bread from one's own hungry mouth to feed a poorer neighbor. [Page 700] 

You and I were reading of the Sicilian vespers reeking with blood, while from the scanty dinners of the poor ascended to the Lord a sweeter savor than from our rich and dainty boards.

The lacemakers know scores of such stories. Learning thus daily of the great influence for good which even the lowliest can exert, let us also learn from them never to neglect the smallest opportunities, for they are the stepping-stones set by Providence to bridge the deep chasm of egotistical selfishness which lies between our frail humanity and the great example, Christ. The little seven-year-old lacemakers will join the big ones in showing with pride their lace pillows. Each one is absolute proprietress of all she makes, and can even sell it herself. She must then charge a small percentage above the price paid to her and hand it in to the cashier to assist in defraying the expenses incurred for the lighting, heating and the administration of the lace school by which she has profited gratuitously to learn her art. The simple tools used by the lacemakers are loaned to them, but any wanton loss or destruction of these objects is deducted from their earnings. The accounts are settled monthly, and the price paid for the lace augmented up to a high percentage above the regular rate in proportion to its superiority to the sample, and a percentage is deducted if it falls below or is needlessly spoiled.

The scale of payment is governed by the money we can obtain for the lace. Hence we seek to originate new designs and have objects made which will attract the wealthy. Could we command enough work there are thousands of women in Fruili alone waiting to join our schools or organize into co-operative societies.

The race which inhabits Fruili and speaks its language is robust, handsome, intelligent and patient.

The women do not work as regularly as the men in the fields, but assist them there whenever necessary, and as they have the usual feminine fear of storms, one often sees when the thunder growls a posse of the weaker sex huddled together beneath a projecting bank, praying in abject fear. The women in the high-perched village are the first to spy the thunder-caps scudding along toward the quarter of the heavens which arches their homes, and they hurry to the church-tower and ring the bells to call the laborers from the fields and the old to their orisons. They ring with a will, for they believe that by establishing an aërial commotion through the swinging, reverberating bells the devastator can be warded off. As the storm approaches the prayer of the bells is heard ringing clear and strong between the gusts of wind. It increases to a wild entreaty in the on-rush of the tempest, and the wild clamor breaks in a frenzy of despair when the storm bursts.

Then begins the deep tolling of the great passing bell as the battered flowers and lascerated branches are carried along, tossed and torn by the blast and bruised by the cutting sheets of ice, fit emblems of the dying hopes of the hard-working peasants and the anguish of crushed nature.

The voices of the village bells die away in a quivering sob, which seems wrung from their metal hearts in pity for the devastation around them. At the vesper hour they will rise again clear, despite the past, to praise God. Fit reminders of the Eternal Spring, the sunshine and the fresh budding and blossoming that lie beyond.

Since peasant and proprietor suffer alike from these terrific rain and hail storms, the gentlefolk of Fruili are seeking in every way to render their tenants familiar with all the means for rapidly substituting fresh crops for those destroyed. They also seek to supply them with other means of earning a livelihood in inclement weather so that they may maintain their families and meet their financial obligations with the proceeds of their manual industry.

About twenty-five years ago a gentleman farmer named Pecile died in Tagagna, a village which numbers about two hundred thousand inhabitants. He left an income which consists of five hundred dollars, to be spent yearly on agricultural instruction for the peasants, and in assisting any enterprise or industry started in the place which promised to add to their physical or moral development. Despite its modest propor- [Page 701]  tions this small sum has not only provided for the villagers admirable lectures on agricultural and economic topics and competitive prizes for the best crop of grain, etc., to the acre; it has also established an agricultural intelligence office for the peasants, to which is due a great improvement in the productiveness of the neighborhood. To this influence of Tagagna by means of discreetly placed loans for importing foreign stock is due a much finer race of cattle and pigs.

It has also donated to the village a model vineyard, tended by the peasants, in which experiments are made with every kind of grape vine to discover the one best adapted to the exigencies of the climate. Many co-operative establishments flourish under its guiding influence. All of these were founded by emitting small bonds worth two dollars each, mostly subscribed for by the peasantry.

One of these supplies the province with the seed or eggs for the silk-worm culture, prepared according to the system introduced by the great Pasteur when he lived in the province and studied the disease which was destroying the silk industry of Southern Europe. This establishment, with the exception of the director, is run entirely by about sixty peasant women, who perform the minute microscopic work, as well as all the other delicate branches of the culture, with such exactitude that the eggs from this co-operative establishment have reached the highest standard. The Pecile fund has also assisted the peasants to build the co-operative ice-houses which are filled by the people gratuitously every winter, and from which each has a right to free ice in time of necessity. It instituted the co-operative dairy, to which the villagers bring the surplus milk from their cattle, which is churned by dairy women into butter and cheese according to the most approved Swiss systems, or retailed to other members of the society. By its judicious initiative it rendered possible the opening of a splendidly appointed co-operative slaughter house. It provides lessons in mechanical drawing, and it has founded a school of basket-making frequented by fifty or sixty peasants and children, which is now self-supporting.

See what a colossal work can be accomplished in twenty-five years by a paltry five hundred dollars well administered.

The gentlemen in the province have followed its example, and award prizes to their tenants for the greatest percentage of grapes or grain produced per acre under their cultivation, and for the greatest number of pounds of silk returned for the eggs distributed. But we all found that a greater stimulent and more extended competition was needed.

Many, yes too many, exhibitions for mechanics had been held in the cities of Italy. We knew all that could be known about their work but we were ignorant of our neighbors' in the country. They lived apart, and were reticent, modest, and clung to old worn out customs. They were doing little that was practical in their leisure hours–in the winter evenings–and while listening to legend and story, or joining in tender or merry part songs called "Vilotti," of which they were themselves the authors.

We decided to copy the English Cottage Garden shows in a broad sense. Instead of one village and a few cottages, seven great communes with a score of villages clubbed together. Each poor village can have a cottage garden show each year. Every inhabitant can bring a knit stocking, a neatly made frock, a pumpkin, a basket of peaches, a sheaf of wheat, a boot, a shoe, or a basket. The point is the emulation, the showing to each what others have done with no better opportunities than his own.

We had our machinery hall full of spades, plows, thrashers and simple agricultural implements and furniture made by the peasants. We had our manufactures building full of coarse stuffs and garments woven and fashioned by the peasant women; full of spoons and utensils and ornaments made by the men. We had our horticultural and agricultural display, and going out into the fields we judged the houses and the farms themselves as well as their productions which were brought to the Fair. We had our stock pavilion full of small animals. Besides this we had a [Page 702]  gallery containing the best foreign models for simple objects and a book in which all could inscribe their names and the number of the object they wished to copy. We had a band, a speech from the senator of the district, a distribution of prizes, when each worthy peasant, man or woman, was called by name and the class of his production and reason of his choice announced. He answered and mounted the old stone steps of the castle terrace with a proud heart to receive his two or three dollars award; or the prizes were graded according to the importance of the exhibit, and the man whose farm was in the best agricultural and economic condition received decidedly more than the man who had grown an exceptionally fine cabbage.

Last evening I received a letter announcing that my lace school had just been awarded the gold medal at the National Italian Exhibition of agricultural industries at Cesena.

And whence this amelioration? First, because the seeing what others could do inspired a healthy emulation and a desire to outstrip those of the neighboring villages in the percentage of prizes carried off by the home community. Secondly, because we had judiciously used it to acquaint the peasants with fresh means of emolument. Among others we had taught six girls in a fortnight how to make a simple bobbin lace; and as they worked merrily before their astonished neighbors who stood densely packed before them, they inspired all the girls with a desire to learn the dainty lace art and the children asked us to open schools. When the fathers saw that the girls were wisely directed and never kept from doing their field work, from caring for and leading the cattle to pasture, or from washing with their mothers at the brook, they willingly sent them to the school. When they saw that their little maids became neat, respectful, contented, and brought home pretty stories to enliven the evenings in the stable and the bright silver coins to swell the family hoard–then the whole country side was converted. For the cheapness of the cotton goods has discouraged the women from weaving and they waste their leisure hours in crocheting and tatting and gossip.

The priests and the heads of the households begin to appreciate that while it in no way interferes with their usual laborious tasks, it adds to the financial resources of the family.

Among our lacemakers we have hunched-backs and lame and deformed bodies of every kind, and some that have spent thirty years on rude beds of pain. The lace children, like the sunbeams, have penetrated everywhere and taught them the easy twists and delicate turns by which their unlovely fingers could evolve the soft white lace. Think of the ignorant mind, as dark, as squalid, as miserable as the roof chamber to which this useless member of a busy household was banished, where it was left alone to solitary repinings, filled suddenly with the inspiring thought that in its decrepitude it could earn as much and be as useful to the family as the blooming maidens out in the fields. Think of the room now filled with the pleasant clatter of the bobbins, the pleasant chatter of the children who have come to work beside their aunty and tell her what their dear maestra said of her work when they carried it in on last pay-day. Watch the women and children trudging through ice and snow for many a weary mile to learn the new art. See them yielding to the education of the heart, and spending their modest earnings to help their mothers or some dear invalid to a simple comfort they would not have dreamed of getting for them a few months before. Hearken to the terrific roar of the vast ocean of thirty million Italian voices behind them, asking if I have fulfilled the mission on which I came.

In the silent watches of the night it awakens me to wonder if I am doing my best; to search for what means remains as yet untried to touch your hearts.

Above the roar in machinery hall, above the sharp crack of the fireworks, above the music of the bands, above the applause of the multitude, above the thunder of the storms in this White City, I hear it.

Like Heine, I would snatch the tallest pine from the mountains, and dipping it [Page 703]  in the crater of Etna, would write the name of my beloved (the laborious, patient peasant women) upon the skies, that it might compel the gaze of the whole world.

Can you wonder, with this great opportunity, the Congress of all nations, drawing to its close, each nerve is stretched to snapping, the flesh is forgotten, each heartstring is vibrating in the agonizing desire to make all these voices reach your ears through my one frail organ? They are crying to you for your friendship, for your patronage. It means to them their homes, their children, their all. They are not begging; they offer you their work, the product of honest manual toil which is being driven from the market by machines which can never be weary or hungry or ill, which can never die, but also have no souls to lose through the temptations of misery.

The frail fingers of these women and children are competing with iron rods and steam power, and yet have courage; for the laces, the homespuns into which are entwined their dreams, their prayers, their songs and their tears, are unsurpassed. What I am striving for I can never accomplish. But you can do it if you only will.

The storekeepers tell me if there was a demand for Italian goods they would place them in stock. They say to me: Create the demand, we will do the rest. I entreat you to ask in the shops for Italian laces, Italian silks, Italian homespuns. Fashion will obey your summons, such is your power. I can speak, but yours is the nobler part, you can act. Act, only act; the modest Italian women of the people in their far-off country homes will feel the benefit. Their loving, unforgetting prayers have borne me up in my hours of trial; their dear, blotted letters come to me across the waters full of confiding faith and longing to know what I am doing for them in my fatherland. Poor, ignorant darlings, because they love me they think me omnipotent. To you I confide their future. It is safe if you grant my prayer, though it hangs upon a frail shred of lace.

God grant that you may never again set eyes upon a piece of lace, however mean, without being reminded of what you can do for the hardworking women of the people in Italy.

[Page 697] 

Countess Cora Ann Slocomb Di Brazza Savorgnan is a native of New Orleans, La. She was born January 7, 1862. Her parents were Cuthbert Harrison Slocomb, captain of Washington Artillery, and Abby Sarah Day Slocomb. She was educated, up to the death of her father, at New Orleans; then spent two years in the North with private tutors; at thirteen years of age went abroad, studied German in Germany, French in France, and finished her education on the Isle of Wight. She visited Italy for the first time in 1887, when she met and married Count Detalmo di Brazza Savorgnan. Her special work has been in the interest of poor people living on her estates in Northern Italy or in the City of Rome, her winter residence. She speaks fluently four languages, English, French, German and Italian, and makes all the designs for her own lace school. She came to the World's Fair in charge of the Italian Lace Exhibit and the Queen's laces, with the object of making Italian lace known to the public of the United States and establish a trade with this country. In religious faith she is a Protestant Episcopalian. Her postoflice address is Castello di Brazza, presso Udine, or Palazzo Vaccari Via del Tritore, Rome.

* The title of the address, as delivered in the Congress was "Life of the Italian Woman in the Country."


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom