Disaster for the People, Bonanza for the State

The Riforma Fondiaria in Postwar Italy

Riforma houses
Riforma Fondiaria 4, Irsina, Italy, 2017. [All photographs by Steven Seidenberg]

During reconstruction of the Italian economy following World War II, the newly established Italian republic and its American allies implemented a program of land reform, the Riforma Fondiaria, which ran from 1950 to 1972. With funding from the Marshall Plan, the Italian state attempted to inhibit the popularity of the communist party and other leftwing movements by appropriating some of their policies. Two extensive reform laws initiated a redistribution of land that had profound effects across Italy, albeit predominantly in the south. Nearly 50 years later, what became a spectacular disaster for the people and a bonanza for the state has left its physical evidence scattered across the countryside. In 2017, we (Myles McCallum, Steven Seidenberg, and Carolyn White) began an interdisciplinary project to document the contemporary remains of the Riforma.

Following World War II, the newly established Italian republic and its American allies attempted to inhibit the popularity of leftwing movements by appropriating some of their policies.

The legislation had two purposes: to subdivide large estates, and to consolidate holdings for farmers who otherwise had to travel long distances in order to manage far-flung properties. 1 Beginning in 1950, regional Reform Authority boards (Enti di Riforma) empowered provincial authorities to expropriate land from baronial estates. The targeted landholdings were determined by variable measures of acreage and value, tabulated differently across various provinces. But all proprietors with taxable land income above 30,000 lire were subject to expropriation. 2 In Basilicata and Puglia, the focus-area for our project, expropriations were based on per-hectare taxable income. Exemptions were made for land that was highly efficient or intensively used, as indicated by housing stock, crop yields, and labor relationships with sharecroppers — although after expropriation, even these landholders were forbidden to purchase additional parcels in excess of 750 hectares (1850 acres). 3 Essentially, properties with the lowest yields were subject to the largest percentages of expropriation.

Provinces prioritized allocation recipients as follows: first, landless peasants in the towns;  second, sharecroppers with active contracts in the towns; third, landless peasants or agricultural workers; and finally, peasants whose plots were insufficient to support their families, either because their acreage was limited or because the holdings were too widely scattered. 4 The relocated farmers could not obtain title to their new fields until they had worked them for two years, but neither did they make payments until the end of the third year. Assignees were forbidden to sell, rent, lease, or divide their properties for 30 years.

Riforma house
Riforma Fondiaria 6, Irsina, Italy, 2017.

By the end of 1956, more than half-a-million hectares had been distributed across Italy, and by 1972, 133,066 families had received allocations. 5 These varied in size, but in Basilicata and Puglia, the grant was approximately 3 hectares per family (7.4 acres). 6 The Reform Authority was supposed to have made basic improvements before assignees moved in, including the construction of roads, houses, and outbuildings; provision of basic systems for irrigation, drainage, and potable wells; and the planting of trees. The Authority developed programs to teach modern farming methods, built schools, and in some locations erected whole new villages designed to give the relocated smallholders a wider support network. These towns fared a bit better than the individual farms, but they too are now largely abandoned. 7

By 1972, 133,066 families had received allocations. But irrigation was insufficient and farms were too small. The Riforma ran counter to lives southern Italians had known for centuries.

Problems with the scheme were many, and they arose nearly immediately. Most significantly, the farms were too small. Because so many landless people qualified for the program, expropriated holdings were subdivided into parcels at subsistence level rather than family-commercial level. Irrigation was insufficient. The lots’ small size required the government to spend disproportionately on buildings, since every parcel required a farmhouse and associated outbuildings. The limited acreage meant that multiple crops could not be planted simultaneously, which would have allowed family labor to shift from field to field in an efficient cycle; instead, additional laborers had to be hired to accommodate bursts of activity as single crops matured. 8

Several additional factors coincided to doom the program — some cultural, others administrative or structural. Culturally, the centrally administered settlement patterns of the Riforma ran counter to the lives southern Italians had known for centuries. Authorities wildly underestimated grant recipients’ resistance to the semi-isolated farms, far from the close-knit villages and towns they had left behind. Credit, a financial lifeline to farming communities, was scarce. 9 Worse still, the land itself was poor. 10 Riforma laws allowed the original landowners to retain the most productive segments of their pre-war holdings, with the result that acreage available to relocated farmers was of marginal quality, often suitable only for cereal crops — like wheat, the price of which was depressed in postwar Italy. 11 The average farmer could produce 20 quintals (2000 kilos) of wheat per hectare, and expect a million lire in gross returns. Yet, after expenses, net income came only to about 200,000 lire for an entire family (equivalent today to $3107). One contemporary commentator noted, “That is starvation, or something very similar to starvation. The result is that the peasants are starting to run away from the reform lands.” 12 Another observer remarked that “the land expropriated in 99% of the cases lacks almost everything. There are no roads, no houses, no villages, no water, and, in short, it is without the basic elements needed to establish a settlement.” 13 Most of the new houses were abandoned within two years. 14

Riforma house
Riforma Fondiaria 22, Santa Maria Di Irsi, Italy, 2017.

The program “never created a stable network of small family farms for the landless peasants and farmworkers.” 15 It did, however, favor the Italian state. The Riforma weakened and ultimately broke the peasant movement. In the short term, peasants pleased with the prospect of land grants allied with the government. Somewhat later, the widespread failure trapped a labor force in untenable conditions; they were thus prepared to move whenever other employment might emerge. 16 This was exactly what happened during the industrial expansion of 1958-1961, when more than 3 million farmers went north to the Lombardy region around Milan to work in factories producing clothing, plastics, machinery, motor scooters, and cars. 17 As farmers defaulted on their loans and moved away, the state resold their holdings at a profit.

Today, Riforma lands are mainly owned by corporations, including the pasta companies Barilla and De Cecco, who grow wheat, farro, and other grains on the still-unirrigated plains. It is agribusiness, then, that has benefitted most from the state’s capital investments in rural infrastructure and the efforts of peasant laborers to make marginal lands productive. The houses stand empty, though they are occasionally repurposed for storing minor supplies (fertilizer, tires, tarps), as shelters where combine drivers can take naps, or as seasonal housing for migrant laborers, mostly from North Africa.

In 2017, we three made up a collaborative team integrating archaeological and artistic practices in order to explore the built environment of the Basilicata and Puglia farms. Our ongoing project aims to develop interdisciplinary methods to document these settlements, to investigate potential relationships among archaeology, heritage studies, contemporary art-making, and public awareness, and to better understand the development and displacement of precarious communities in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Little is known about daily life on these farms. A government publication from 1958 optimistically describes an ideal paterfamilias “settled in a home built on his own piece of land. Each dwelling was provided with a good size living room, a kitchen, two bedrooms, a storeroom, an indoor lavatory with tub or shower. Built in proximity of each house was a stall for three to four animals, a pigsty, a hen house, and a small silo.” 18 This is the only account of the Riforma house form that we have discovered — and it describes houses in the Po delta of northern Italy, not those in Basilicata and Puglia. The dearth of information has helped to catalyze our research.

The Riforma weakened and ultimately broke the peasant movement, and millions of farmers moved north to work in factories.

The pamphlet’s description is loosely accurate to the southern farms, in that each house does indeed have a living room/kitchen, two bedrooms, a storeroom, and an indoor lavatory. But the reality is far less cheery — in fact, quite bleak. There are no tubs or showers. The livestock stalls are typically attached to the houses, usually by a door chopped through an interior wall so that farmers could tend their animals without going outside. Only some sites have a silo. Many never received irrigation and only a few got electricity; most have a cistern or catchment tank and an outdoor wood-burning oven. Indoors, new items mingle with old, presenting material evidence of contemporary and historic practices­ — kitchen tables handmade from scrap wood lie overturned on blue plastic tarps, and cornstalk-stuffed mattresses sit beside broken 1970s televisions and cheap bedsets with splintering veneer. Beer bottles, plastic fertilizer jugs, and matted work clothing are strewn among boxes of broken wine glasses and Corelle bowls; here and there, the leftovers from older households have been reorganized in semicircles for the comfort of 21st-century workers on lunch breaks.

Riforma house schematic diagram
Archaeological plan drawing of Riforma Fondiaria House, Site 20, Irsina, Italy, 2017. [Carolyn L. White and Myles McCallum]

Following standard archaeological practices, we made scale drawings of the interiors and exteriors of each structure. We created detailed records, assigning room numbers and recording our observations on site. Finally, we systematically photographed every room with a scale in each picture, recording all contents and wall surfaces, along with ceilings, floors, decorative elements, and graffiti. Meanwhile, Seidenberg too was photographing the buildings and surrounding landscape. In many ways, his artist’s method is not so different from our fieldwork procedures, in that he was also documenting interiors and exteriors from multiple angles. Yet his aesthetically rich photographs center details that our workmanlike ones do not.

Kitchen tables handmade from scrap wood and cornstalk-stuffed mattresses have been reorganized by North African agriculture workers on lunch breaks.

Seidenberg’s photographs were made in two groups of Riforma houses, one in Irsina and the other in Santa Maria Di Irsi. He typically works in series, and these images explore within and beyond the houses’ concrete shells, paying special attention to window openings, as well as to objects that variously widen and narrow the scale of the micro-worlds he examines. Selective rather than systematic, he guides the viewer to rigorously structured views. The distinction between architecture and landscape seems to waver, with the burnished reds and grays of weathered brick and concrete playing against the muted golds and greens of fields. Inside, the faded blues, pinks, and whites of the plastered, whitewashed walls index each room’s history. The framing of abandoned objects suggests sculptural installations as much as artifactual evidence. Through manipulations of focal length and depth of field, interiors take on a painterly flatness.

Several images in the series depict a two-story apartment block in Santa Maria Di Irsina in Basilicata, festooned with traces of paint in primary colors. The town of Santa Maria Di Irsina was constructed as part of the broader network planned during the reform period. These interiors in particular reveal recent habitation — mattresses on the floor; a wall covered with sexually explicit graffiti in Italian, English, and Arabic that has been partly obscured by a smeared gesture, and Arabic graffiti of the lyrics to Sudanese songs (“Oh our shadow, drawn on the sand of the distance, complaining about how long the road is” and “Your love lives in my heart forever”). The original residents attempted to sustain lives in these spaces, but later occupation has always been transient.

In the last image in this selection for Places, light shines directly into the stopped-down lens, literally overshadowing a back-lit facade with the starburst of diffracted sun. In faded block letters on the facade we read RIFORMA FONDIARIA, a monument to the broken promises of postwar neoliberalism. These landscapes of abandonment in southern Italy testify to the forced mobility of their erstwhile inhabitants, most of whom moved to industrial Lombardy, but also abroad to Germany and the United States. The relics of marginal lives that we are studying are all the more poignant today, when Italy’s elected officials (like ours in the U.S.) run on platforms of anti-immigrant xenophobia — even as their nation has become Europe’s front door, through which the most recent waves of migrants move north, seeking safety and stability, fleeing starvation and war.

  1. Carlo Vanzetti and Frank Meissner, “The Agrarian Reform in Italy,” Land Economics vol. 29 no. 2 (1953), 147, https://doi.org/10.2307/3144406.
  2. Payments to landholders were based on the self-reported taxable value of their land in 1946-1947 (Vanzetti and Meissner, 150; G. Gaetani D’Aragona, “A Critical Evaluation of Land Reform in Italy,” Land Economics, vol. 30, no. 1 [1954], 15, https://doi.org/10.2307/3144913). Effective compensation amounted to 40% of the average land value.
  3. Vanzetti and Meissner, 148-49.
  4. Marco Percoro, “Land redistribution and local development: evidence from the Italian reform” (2014), 7; Vanzetti and Meissner, 150. Contracts required annual payments over a 30-year term at 3.5% interest. Fees included compensation paid by the state to the original, expropriated landholder, plus two-thirds of the state’s expenditures on improvements (Jim E. Davis, “New Hope in Italy: Land of the Noonday Sun,” Land Economics vol. 35 no. 1 [1959], 61; Vanzetti and Meissner, 150; D’Aragona, 15).
  5. Total distribution was 578,649 hectares, although 740,000 had been expropriated (Davis, 63; these are the latest numbers reported in available sources). Of this, 208,572 hectares were in Basilicata and Puglia (D’Aragona, 16). It is not clear what happened to the remaining 161,351 hectares.
  6. Vanzetti and Meissner, 151
  7. Vanzetti and Meissner, 150; D’Aragona, 16; Davis, 61.
  8. D’Aragona, 17.
  9. D’Aragona, 14.
  10. Alessandro Bonanno, “Theories of the State: The Case of Land Reform in Italy, 1944-1961,” The Sociological Quarterly vol. 29 no. 1 (1988), 140.
  11. Bruno Leoni, “Economic Laws and Land Reform in Italy,” Il Politico vol. 23 no. 4 (1958), 724.
  12. Leoni, 724.
  13. M. Bandini, La Riforma Fondiaria (Rome: Edizione Clinque Lune, 1956), 54. Translated and quoted by Bonanno (1986), 140.
  14. C. Marciani, L’esperienza di Riforma Agraria in Italia (Rome: Giuffrè, 1966), 120; P. Pezzino, “The Agrarian Reform in Italy,” Monthly Review vol. 8-9 [Italian edition, vol. 2-3), 1972, 120.
  15. Bonnano, “Theories of the State,” 141.
  16. G. Mottura, and E. Pugliese, “Capitalism in Agriculture and Capitalist Agriculture: The Italian Case” (1975), in The Rural Sociology of the Advanced Societies, ed. F. Buttel and H. Newby (Montclair, NJ: Allenheld Osmun, 1979), 184; G. Fabioni, L’Agricoltura Italilan tra Sviluppo e Crisis (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1979), 129; Alessandro Bonanno, Agricoltura e Sviluppo Dualistico (Milan: Franco Angeli, 1984), 50, 142, 144.
  17. A. Graziani, L’Economia Italiana dal 1945 and Oggi, 2d ed. (Bologna: II Mulino, 1979),154; G. Mottura and E. Pugliese, Agricoltura Mezzogiorno e Mercato del Lavoro. Bologna: II Mulino, 1975), 168; C. Podbielski, Italy: Development and Crisis in the Post- War Economy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974),15; Bonnano, “Theories of the State,” 142.
  18. “Ente per la Colonizzazione del Delta Padano,” in Colonizazione, Trasformazione Fondaria ed Edilizia Rurale nel Comprensorio di Riforma (Bologna, Italy: Officine Grafiche Calderini. 1958), 13. Quoted in Lorenzo M. Belotti, “Analysis of the Italian Agrarian Reform. Land Economics vol. 36 no. 2 (1960), 122.
Carolyn L. White, Steven Seidenberg, and Myles McCallum, “Disaster for the People, Bonanza for the State,” Places Journal, September 2019. Accessed 08 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/190903

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