Commons – Italy

The institutional context regarding the commons was markedly different depending on the geographical area analyzed (Corona 2003), and was also subject to relevant processes of change over time during the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern period (Alfani and Rao 2011). By the nineteenth century however, in Northern and Central Italy, common property was more based on the democratic idea of the community, while in the Mezzogiorno, Sicily and Sardinia, collective property was characterized by a rigid social hierarchy andf associated to the large property (latifondo). In Lazio and most part of southern and insular Italy, under a different legal tradition, civic uses preserved almost intact their original character also because they had not been influenced by the rise of the municipalities (comuni) in the  Middle Ages (Medici 1948a, 260).

Commons in the North were generally referred as beni comunali or ademprivi although there existed different terms depending on how they were managed and used (Corona 2003). Common meadow reserved for the grazing of domestic animals was called pardu. The aidazzoni (common arable) was reserved for sowing cereals and some of these spaces (perebili) were open after harvest and lay fallow. In Lombardy and Piedmont,  waste lands (wooded areas, wild pastures or unproductive land) reserved for grazing cattle or getting wood were often called baragge or braide, but in most areas they did not have any  particular name, except for special concessions. These spaces, organized in concentric circles around the villages, were collectively owned by different kinds of institutions such as the Regole (Casari 2007; Tagliapietra 2011), the Società degli originari, the Partecipanze or Società della Malga. These institutions developed at the end of the Middle Ages or at the beginning of the Early Modern period, usually to protect the rights of “originary” inhabitants fearful of foreign incomers (Alfani 2011; Alfani 2012; Rao 2011), or more generally to restrict to specific groups within the community the entitlement to the use of “common” goods (Grossi 1977; Rao 1995; Alfani and Rao 2011; Tagliapietra 2011).

On the other hand, in Southern and insular Italy, commons were considered demanio universale or comunale, and maintained their feudal character for a much longer period even after the law had decreed their end was passed because the legislative changes were not accompanied by an evolution of the social and economic context (Medici 1948, 267; Bulgarelli Lukacs 2011).

The legislative attack over common lands started around the decade of 1770 in some regions such as Lombardy, Trentino, Tuscany, Naples, Piedmont, Sardinia and the Papal States (Demélas and Vivier 2003, 36; Tagliapietra 2011), even if there are significant precedents: for example in Venice, the organized attack on the commons started as early as the fifteenth century (Barbacetto 2007). These laws abolished collective rights and encouraged the partition of the commons. Their diffusion over the rest of Italy was uneven due to the political fragmentation before the Italian Unification (1861) and so did their effective application in response to the different contexts and interests. Neither the process was culminated in 1924-1927 by the passing of a national law that theoretically abolished common rights but proved deficient in practice (Medici 1948a, 263; Tagliapietra 2011). Besides, as in the Spanish case, this kind of land was being assimilated by other public entities throughout the whole period.

In 1946, common lands mainly belonged to municipalities and other agrarian associations (Medici 1948a, 262) that own land collectively (comunaglie, università agrarie…). Regarding their extension, we have two kinds of data. The most extensive survey dates from the 1940s and extended over 90 provinces. Another survey, in which a more restricted definition of commons was being used (Medici 1948a, 264), provided more aggregated data. Both these data can be found here. The evidence about the evolution of the privatization process from the eighteenth century, however, is few and dispersed. Moreover, these earlier figures are not very reliable because they generally do not stand the comparison with contemporary ones. On the other hand, it seems clear that the appropriation of the commons was already quite advanced in some areas (Biagioli 2007).