One of the themes of our Sicily trip that was unexpected was coming to understand the impact of the land reform that took place in the 1950’s in Sicily. The Milazzo Law passed in 1950 decreed expropriation of land from the Latifundisti, the large landowners, and compensation to them and distribution of the land among the peasants. The law limited land holdings to 150 Hectares (370 acres).
As you might expect this change did not go smoothly. The bureaucracy created for the land redistribution was dominated by the Mafia, Over time however it did break up the huge land holdings. We visited several places; the Palazzo Conte Federico and the Contessa, the Bruniti Vineyard and the Madam of the Estate all of which appeared to be adaptations; the ways the former Lords of the land have adapted so they can create the cash flow needed for maintaining their estates in the absence of huge land holding and peasant farmers. The much smaller land holdings brought these new conditions. Each of these places seem to have adapted.
The Contessa gave us a tour of her and the Conte’s house. The flyer shows that tours were the business of this woman and her aristocratic husband. The house was remarkable in that it hardly looked like anyone lived there. I saw a couple of corner desks that looked like they were used. Otherwise it seemed to be a stage set. Along with the tour was the story of the Contessa’s courtship and marriage. There was a fifteen to twenty year difference in age between the couple
The Contessa, thin, blond hair and still attractive. Her skin reminded me of the Southern California women who had been in the sun a lot. She was in her fifty’s wore a tank type beige dress with a low neckline. She had long legs and the dress was above the knee. She had the posture of a dancer. She told us proudly that she was Austrian. The couple had two grown boys. She sang a cappella, a song from an opera for us in her parlor. We moved from room to room and she narrated.
The claim to fame for this villa was that it had on the top floor one of the original city wall watch towers for Palermo. We walked up the narrow steep stairway to a rustic lookout. It was easy to imagine colorful uniformed soldiers with long rifles in this space, in my movie rendition of the scene the men with the guns have to have colorful uniforms. We looked out on the cities orange tiled roofs. It was dusk and light had an orange hue that blended with the roof tiles. We were at the lookout. We could look down into people’s patios and gardens.
The added flavor to this tour came when we arrived at the “man cave” of the Contessa’s husband, Conte Federico. A man in his seventies, a head of grey hair combed back. He had welcoming arms, an open man in good shape, his wife was taller than he was. He supplemented his limited English by moving his hands gracefully when he spoke. If you didn’t understand him you could just nod and he accepted that.
His hands were very soft It seemed clear that he had never worked. Rather, his was a lifelong passion for race car driving. His large desk that sat in the middle of the rectangular room had car paraphernalia on it and surrounding it. The room, desk and all surfaces were full of manly nicknacks related to cars and car racing. There were photos of the man in a race car, helmet on head with slight variations on this theme. There were numerous awards, trophies, even a stack of tires in one corner from one of his races one could assume. Several of the people, men in the tour group, were drawn to the Conte like a magnet, car nuts I would call them. To me the Conte was the genuine thing four generations of Contes.
Next we walked into a room with his collection of old firearms, collected over generations, perhaps a hundred mounted in glass covered display cases. Our tour ended with a small glass of red or white wine, of course from the family’s vineyard. There was also a choice of juice, some small crackers and nuts. The attendant at the table was a young man pouring wine. We left, walked down the wide staircase out into the street and to dinner.