Biography of the last puparo (=puppeteer)

Excerpt from Vincenzo Battista, "La via dei Carrettieri", courtesy of the author.


Angelo Santilli was born on 14 October 1911 in Castelvecchio Subequo son of Elia Santilli and Caterina Salutari, who worked as merchants. At 14 he started work in the sawmill at Molina Aterno, and two years later he was an apprentice in the workshop of Mastro Genuino, Castelvecchio Subequo. Then he was a collector of medicinal herbs, a puparo, luparo, fisherman, woodcutter, fireworks maker, carpenter, healer with local herbs from Sirente. Emigrated to Africa in 1936, he was a military worker in a mechanic shop, and came back to Italy in 1938. Soon after WW2 he worked in tunnel constructions in Rome for a year. He travelled on trains in the animal waggons to escort shipments of flour and potatoes. In 1951 he moved to Australia where he worked for 18 months as a carpenter building wooden homes. Back from Australia, he took up his carpenter job in the sawmill.

The interview

"When i was young, I went into the forest, at Guado dell'Orso (Monte Urano) to make firewood. I was twelve at the time; I was born in Castelvecchio Subequo, in 1911. I picked up ghiande below oaktrees, pigs ate them. There were small roads, the "mulattiere". Now they are covered, since grass is not cut from the paths. We did not go into the Sirente woods, because only the residents of Gagliano could go there; we only took dry wood. We paid a ticket to the contractors who had received the forest from the municipality: the small wood was used by charcoal makers while you could take the bigger wood paying a contractor. You prepared a load for the donkey, and travelled by night to take the load to destination. When we went to make the wood we left in the night and the following day we were in Castelvecchio, at midday. That was the wood for the family, to be used in the home.

We worked in the fields like slaves. We sowed corn, the land was not ours. We had cows and horses, but the poorest families had to work the fields with spades to sow the corn. Half to the landowner, half to the peasant. The next year, at the harvest, the landowner took instead all the wheat. In August soon after the harvest the fields had to be cleaned, and work started again. Poverty was great. From Secinaro we sent the women with the donkeys to sell some wood. Men went to work in the fields. The lands belonged to Valerio, Don Ciccio, Pirro. In Australia I was for two years and a half; I left when I was 49.

I also was in Africa as a military worker in 1936. I also fought in the war. The farmers went to work in the fields with day's wages, to work in the vineyards, to clean the corn. Families were poor. They bought a quarter meat and had it "noted" in the shopkeeper's book. When labour was necessary for the wheat harvest, the butcher took the peasants so that they paid with their day's work the debt accumulated. Meat was taken throughout the winter, then the peasant was called to work in the fields to pay for his debt. Who had sheep was better off. There was one who had many children; we gave him some work and my father paid his day. They had so poor they did not have a house, they slept in a cave. In 1915, after the earthquake, barracks were built because the town were destroyed and in one room even seven people slept.

Two days before a work was due, you went to the square, and found the men that would come to the fields to clean the corn and the potatoes.Mostly we sowed corn and potatoes. Corn more than wheat, because you had little land. The fields were of the landlords, so you sowed corn that was always shared with the landlord. Wheat instead was produced by the landowners on their own fields for themselves. Peasants cultivated wheat only for the landowners, the harvest was not split as for corn. With corn you made polenta, the "parrozzo", with that taste of the soil breaking in august. That was the peasants' food.

Then you made pizza, always with corn, under the fireplace cover. Corn leaves were used to bake the potatoes and corn plant cuttings were used to make the fire. There was little fire. If the landowners who had given their land in rental to you bought you sheep to take to the fields, when the wool was made you had to sell them the lambs. If it rained, you were forbidden to go to the fields, not to ruin them, "the soil got sick"; so they asked you to do other things just like slaves. The soil got sick. When the land is dry and a shower comes, if you go to work the fields, the soil makes "chetigli", that is, it is"disrupted", the "restupponni" come out, and not even the sheep can go there. You call it "green and dry", the soil sticks to the shoes, and the soil underneath is dry.