Oftentimes at night, when I first get into bed, I think about ghosts.
Not the creepy ghosts of an overactive imagination, but the ghosts – the spirits – of those who were born and lived and died within these walls. Maybe a lot of people who live in Italy’s old farmhouses do the same, because those who came before us rarely left evidence about their lives, so we’re left with only our thoughts about them.
Italy’s farmhouses certainly don’t hold the stories of the rich and famous – those who could afford to document their lives in writing, portraits or photos (the picture below was taken by a journalist). These were the homes of Italy’s contadini who worked the land under a crushing mezzadria system (similar to share cropping) that lasted for centuries, leaving an illiterate peasant at the mercy of a rich landowner – and nearly always hungry.
Their stories are certainly laden with unimaginable hardship and poverty, yet their perseverance is indisputable. Today’s Italy is built upon their hard work, unshakeable spirit and incredible passion for life. In the face of unthinkable poverty, they shared what little they had within close-knit communities and they celebrated life together, from births and weddings to saints’ days and harvests – a tradition that continues on into today.
After World War II, as Italy began to industrialize, thousands of contadini walked away (oftentimes literally) from the farms of the countryside to the factories of the cities, leaving centuries-old farmhouses sitting empty with no one to work the land.
These empty farmhouses dot the hills and valleys of rural Italy, their crumbling walls and vacant windows beckon to those like me who yearn to know more about their history, about the generations of families that once lived within their walls.
Although the stories of so many lives are lost, consumed by the passing years, the houses themselves still have something to say.
Patterns of stone and brick tell of expert masons, charred fireplaces tell how families cooked and kept warm, and stalls (some with hay still in the loft) tell how animals were kept and cared for. Crosses fixed on walls, inside niches or on the tops of roofs tell about faith, and fading paint on walls or window frames tells of someone’s desire for color or simple decoration.
For me, photographing farmhouses is a way to notice details – how each house is unique, with its own particular design, atmosphere and surroundings. Each has its own personality of sorts with its own special history. Oh, if only those stone walls could talk.
For many of us, simply driving past Italy’s crumbling farmhouses isn’t enough, and exploring them isn’t enough either, so we choose to live in one, knowing full well that our own stories will likely fade into the past like those who lived here before us.
There’s something very humbling about that – and at the same time comforting – to know that you are a small part of the long history of a very old house.
And I like to imagine that someone in the future, maybe when they get into bed at night, will spend at least a moment thinking about ghosts.
Pamela Haack is the founder of Off the Beaten Strada, where she creates and hosts small group tours that are a combination of the very best of Italy: the exciting and the peaceful, the popular and the secret, the talked about and the never-heard-of-before. From art experts and operettas to authentic cooking classes and ancient Etruscans, Pamela helps visitors experience the spectacularly beautiful, endlessly interesting cities and countryside of Italy in an up-close and personal way.
She is also the author of Top 10 Favorite Etruscan Sites, as well as her popular blog, Off the Beaten Strada in Italy.
Pamela lives with her husband, Lou, in Umbria, Italy.