Primo MaggioMayDay_Index.html

Primo Maggio is a national holiday in Italy, commemorating the momentous social and economic changes affected by the international labor movement, and inspired by a riot that occurred in the United States, at Chicago’s
Haymarket square.   A general strike was called to press the demand by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions for an eight-hour workday to come into effect on May 1, 1886.  A subsequent demonstration set off the riot, and resulted in the martyrdom of several of the organizers, who were hung for their involvement.  The eight-hour workday and other workers rights were eventually guaranteed, and May 1st came to be celebrated as Labor Day in many countries of the world, particularly those with Socialist or Communist leanings and ideologies.  Ironically, May Day is not recognized in the United States.

Labor laws may have benefited factory workers, but in a place like Sorano farmers still had to work from dawn until dusk tending their gardens, fields and animals.  For a thousand years Sorano, and the rest of Tuscany, lived under a feudal system, la mezzadria , where all of the lands were ruled or owned by the wealthy few.  There was also a small merchant class with shops in town, but 90% of the population was made up of poor subsistence farmers.  The land around Sorano was divided into fields and small allotments with farmhouses that were granted to the poor who worked as sharecroppers. Neither owning the houses or the land, the peasant farmers gave half of what they produced to the owners.  Although the people in the town of Sorano owned their small homes, and may have had a garden plot like mine across the valley, they too had no means to advance themselves.  The system was economically oppressive and didn’t allow for capital investment and improvement because the apportionments were so small that the farmers and their families could never grow enough to do anything more than just survive, and pay off the owners.  Eventually the feudal system was turned on its head- but not until 1953, when the government instituted an agrarian reform that basically confiscated much of the lands from the rich and distributed most of it to the poor farmers.  The wealthy were deeply resented, and in some cases were treated roughly.  When a town representative from Sorano went to the landowner Alberto Busatti to ask if he would willingly part with his land, Busatti famously replied, “better a liter of blood than a clod of earth.”

Sorano’s oldest inhabitants continue to marvel at their greatly improved standard of living, even if measured only in the abundance and variety of food that is now available.  They all remember the hard times, particularly the deprivations during the Second World War, and still harbor resentments.  I bought the first apartment that I renovated, and later acquired my vineyard, from the Mari family, and Leopoldo served as the mediator between myself and his notoriously difficult family.  Poldo took me aside once, after I got to know him quite well, and told me that there are three types of people he most despises in the world- and he added that he was passing this information along to me only because he was sure that I must feel like he does. 
Counting out with his thumb, firstly the rich, then his index finger, secondly the Pope, and lastly, with his middle finger and a pause for special effect, all the Americans.   That I am American did not seem to be particularly relevant to him at the time, but I noticed a distinct iciness about him, and all the other communists in town for that matter, when the Americans invaded Iraq the first time.   When The U.S. went in the second time he no longer spoke to me, and if he ever saw me would loudly clear his throat and spit.   Before he died Poldo did seem to get over his hatred for the church, as he all of a sudden after a life of abstinence started to attend mass every morning- so perhaps he got around to forgiving me, too.

One year I attended a big annual Primo Maggio festival that is held in a large open field in the middle of the lovely Lamone forest close to Sorano.   There were bands playing music, and much to drink and eat.  At a certain point I went by foot with my friends to find a nearby mysterious volcanic eruption site called la rosa crepante- the bursting rose.   There the earth had wonderfully spewed out large and jagged black and grey magma into the form of an amphitheater.   The rocks are difficult to walk on, and the forest around the rosa crepante is dense, so the only way to get a good view of the site is to climb up in the trees.  Probably emboldened by drink I climbed very high, and was enjoying the view, until the branch gave way. I plummeted a good 20 feet onto the rocks below.   I cracked a couple of vertebrae in my back and a few other bones, but the most bothersome thing was that I banged my head in such a way that for several years I could no longer smell spring flowers or taste the wine I make or the meals I cooked- I totally lost my olfactory senses.  Fortunately, after several years my senses were restored, but I have never again returned to that Primo Maggio Festival.


                                                 “Wantonness in her games, and freer jests,

                                                    But it struck me that the goddess isn’t strict,

                                                    And the gifts she brings are agents of delight.

                                                    The drinker’s brow’s wreathed with sewn-on garlands,

                                                    And a shower of roses hides the shining table:

                                                    The drunken guest dances, hair bound with lime-tree bark,

                                                    And unaware employs the wine’s purest art:

                                                    The drunken lover sings at beauty’s harsh threshold,

                                                    And soft garlands crown his perfumed hair.

                                                    Nothing serious for those with garlanded brow,

                                                    No running water’s drunk, when crowned with flowers.”    

                                                                                                                                 Ovid, Fasti




A much older festival, and probably the origin for all May Day celebrations, was the ancient Roman Floralia.  Romans celebrated for six days, between April 28th and May 3rd, in honor of Flora, the goddess of Spring and flowering plants.   As much as I respect disgruntled old communists, I, too, rather choose to honor Flora at my May Day feast- and my garden certainly relies upon her good blessings.   According to Pliny, the festival of the Floralia was begun in 238 B.C. when a temple to the goddess was built on Rome’s Aventine Hill.  As Ovid wrote, Flora was married to Zephyrus, the God of the West wind who presented her with a “fruitful garden in the fields” as a dowry, after he had forced himself upon her, and instructed her to be “mistress of the flowers.”  Flora was assisted by the Hours, who “gather dressed in colorful clothes and collect my gifts in slender baskets,” and the Graces, who “draw near and twine wreaths and garlands to their heavenly hair.” 



As the myth goes, before Flora scattered seeds from her garden, certainly with help from her blustery husband and her allies the honeybees, to all the peoples of the world, the earth was only of one color.  Romans during the festival set aside their normal white robes, and dressed in colorful garments, festooned with flowers.  Goats and hares were released at the Circus Maximus, and in fields and gardens as acts of fertility and homage to Flora.   Games and theatre presentations known as the ludi Florales were staged that were of a decidedly licentious character, particularly as prostitutes participated, often naked, at many of the events.  What my predecessor at the garden, La Topa, might have most approved about the Floralia was that Flora was also considered to be the patron goddess of prostitutes.  “The reason the crowd of whores celebrate these games Is not a difficult one for us to discover. The goddess isn’t gloomy, she’s not high-flown, She wants her rites to be open to the common man, And warns us to use life’s beauty while it’s in bloom:  The thorn is spurned when the rose has fallen.”

Likely because of the festival’s great popularity and unruliness the Floralia was eventually abolished, but it only took a year with bad weather, in 173 B.C., for it to be reinstated. “The lilies drooped: you could see the violets fade… And the petals of the purple crocus languished. The olives were in blossom: wanton winds hurt them: The wheat was ripening: hail blasted the crops.  The vines were promising: skies darkened from the south, And the leaves were brought down by sudden rain. I didn’t wish it so: I’m not cruel in my anger,  But I neglected to drive away these ills.”

I can well relate to the desperation the Romans must have felt when an unappeased Flora did not stay the damaging frosts and hail.  One particularly bad year a late Spring frost nipped all my blossoming fruit trees which went on to produce only a couple of cherries, one plum and no apricots or peaches.  Later that same year in July a freak storm with golf-ball sized hailstones wiped out my vineyard, so I was not even able to make wine that year.  Fortunately I had plenty of wine left over from the previous harvest, which had a particularly abundant crop of grapes, but ever since that fateful season I have done all I can to make May Day a joyous and thankful occasion to Flora.   Nevertheless, a fire that passed through my garden, destroying most of my prized plants and all of my rare variety of peach trees one year, the repeated stomping of some of my saplings over consecutive years, and the mysterious emptying of my water cisterns on several occasions were not acts of nature.  So, while celebrating Flora I also keep in the back of my mind those hardened men who cannot accept me because of what I represent, and to them as well I do not forget to raise a propitiatory glass.