1902 Encyclopedia > Italy > Condition of the Lower Classes

(Part 13)


Condition of the Lower Classes

Though mitigated to some degree by the mildness of the climate and the cheapness of certain articles of food, pauperism in its most painful forms is a wide-spread evil in Italy. At Venice, out of a total population of 130,000, 36,000 are regular recipients of official charity. The slums of Naples are foul and overcrowded as the slums of London. Nor is the destitution confined to the cities. The condition of the agricultural labourers is in many cases deplorable. In the districts of Como, Milan, Pavia, and Lodi, the food of the eontadino, according to F. Cardani and F. Massara, consists of maize bread, badly cooked, heavy and rancid, and thin soup composed of rice 01' "pasta"of inferior quality and vegetables often old and spoiled. In Southern Italy, says Villari, the peasants live in miserable houses, with a sack of straw for their bed, and black bread for their sole sustenance. Maize is the general food stuff in the northern and central provinces, but begins to be rarer in Tuscany and Rome; it is again widely diffused in the upper provinces of Naples ; hut in Calabria and Apulia it forms the principal nutriment of scarcely a fourth of the communes, and in Sicily it disappears almost completely. In Piedmont, Lombardy, and the Veneto it is used mainly in the form of polenta, but also in the form of bread, and in the Napoletano in the form of a finer kind of polenta. Lombardy, the Veneto, Emilia, and the Marches are the regions where wheaten bread is least employed by the peasants. Barley is mainly consumed in Apulia and Calabria, rye in Sicily and Lombardy. In certain communes of the Marches and the Abruzzi acorns constitute the ordinary diet of the poor. Wheaten pastes are most extensively employed by the people in Liguria, Sicily, and the upper Neapolitan provinces. Animal food holds but little place in the dietary of the poor; and even in the house of the well-to-do peasant butcher meat appears but seldom. According to Dr Raseri, who has investigated the point by means of the customs returns and similar statistics, Sardinia is the region where animal food is most largely employed, and Sicily that whore it is least.

Wine is naturally the prevailing drink throughout the country ; but the extent of the consumption varies greatly from region to region, the average in the Roman province, fimbria, and Sardinia much exceeding that in the provinces of Naples and in Sicily. The use of alcohol is greatest in the Lombardo-Venetian cities ; and it is there only that beer is of importance as a beverage. Cases of accidental death and of insanity attributable to the misuse of stimulants are much more frequent in the north than in the south or centre, and in both respects Liguria has an unenviable pre-eminence.

An idea of the extent to which even the peasantry are oppressed by penury may be obtained from the investigations made by the Government into the spread of the terrible disease known as the pellagra. First clearly described as an Italian disease by Frapolli in 1771, the pellagra has within the present century gradually become more common and severe. In 1839 it was estimated that the number of pellagra patients was 20,282 in the " compartment" of Lombardy, and in 1856 it had increased to 38,777. According to returns for 1879 it appears that there were 97,855 patients in the kingdom—by far the greater proportion being in Lombardy, the Veneto, and Emilia, where they actually formed 31'70, 30'52, and 23'66 per thousand of the agricultural population. The disease has many forms, and not unfrequently ends in insanity. And to what are its ravages to be ascribed ? To insufficient and unwholesome food, and more particularly to the use of maize in a state unfit for human consumption.1 When such a state of matters exists among the rural population of some of the most prosperous regions of the country, there is little wonder that the number of conscripts who have to be rejected on the score of physical incapacity is a large one—20 per cent, in Lombardy and 18 per cent, in the Veneto in 1878.2

The interest of the Italians is gradually being aroused in the sanitary condition of their cities and towns. Many of the provincial capitals and cathedral cities are portentously filthy. Drainage and sewage works, however, are becoming matters of concern to a number of the more important communes ; and such cities more especially as Naples and Catania are bestowing much attention on the subject. A society of public health, Società Italiana oV igiene, was established at Milan, one of the most advanced of Italian cities, in 1877 ; it publishes a valuable journal.3 In Milan, Bologna, Genoa, Rome, and some other cities attention is being paid to the question of cheap houses for the working classes. On the general health conditions of Italy compare the elaborate study by Giuseppe Sorniani, Geografia nosological dell' Italia, Rome, 1881.

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