The history of masseria is strongly tied to that of southern Italy which is a troubled history of poverty, violence, injustice, ignorance and denied rights. History that has its roots in ancient times, even as far as in the first centuries of the Roman Empire when Plinio il Vecchio, to explain the agricultural crisis, said that “latifundium (large landed estate) had ruined italy”.
Masseria has very old origins. The first examples date from the period of Greek colonization of the south (VIII-VI centuries b.C). Masseria was considered as a systematic organization of the land and was directed to farming activities.
Starting from the V century b.C. the Romans concentrated the properties in a few landowning companies which gave origin to "massericiae", rural entities that later on became residential and agricultural settlements called “villae” or “massae”.
With the barbarian invasions (V century a.C.) the “roman villa” passed to a new barbarian ruler who fortified it for defence and against attack. “Massa” went through a complete transformation in the IX century thanks to Carlo Magno who created a new rural entity called “feud”.
The Normans arrived in southern Italy in the XI century and transformed the feuds into “masserie villaggio” . “Masserie regie”, dedicated to the cultivation of cereals and horse breeding, were born thanks to the arrival of Svevi to southern Italy.
In the XV century that part of Italy passed to the Aragonese who abolished all the privileges that had been granted to farmers.
The only ones to conserve some benefits were those related to transhumance who were allowed to construct buildings on pasture lands, used as dwellings, shelters for animals or for the manufacture of dairy products. This is how “masserie di pecore” (sheep masserie), also called “iazzi”, were born. They differed from the masserie called “posta” in which cultivation was practised, as these were fixed positions into which the workers returned at the end of the day.
The typology of the XV century masseria had remained invariable in the XVI and XVII centuries and went through substantial changes when the Bourbons arrived in southern Italy in the XVIII century.
They expropriated ecclesiastic feuds which were taken over by rural middle class that organized latifundium in masseria in which the figure of “massaro” coordinated the work of the farmers.
In the XIX century with the enforcement of the “Napoleonic law” in Italy, poor farmers were assigned pieces of state land for cultivation, pasture or wood but they were so small that the farmers were forced to sell them in order to live on.
The rural middle classes continued to rule in the south, supporting “latifundium” which had been broken up in the rest of the country since a long time.
“Countryside masserie” were born with the cultivation of olive trees and grapevine. This kind of masseria offered occupation for several workers; field farmers, “gualani” (those who carried out humble farming and rural works), cow herds, cattle farmers.
Right after the union of Italy (XIX century) disappointed farmers (brigands) devastated most of these masserie. Towards the end of the XIX century rulers chose masserie as their residences in order to control the progress of the activity. “Masserie palazzo” which marked a period of maximum efficiency, were born for this purpose. The number of employees was very high: farmers, “massari”, regular wage-earners, “gualani” (those who carried out humble farming and rural works), occasional workers during the periods of olive picking and that of sowing and harvesting.
The conditions of the farmers got worse after world wars. With the password “the land for those who work” the “agricultural reform” was issued and as a consequence “latifundiums” were expropriated or divided. The life in masserie changed considerably and many of them were abandoned or used differently, modifying customs and needs.
“Latifondismo”, well-established in the south in feudal forms of large, scarcely productive, undivided properties that used to be owned by feudal lords and priests and later on bought up by the southern middle classes, has supported the spreading of masserie in the area.
Places of exploitation, poverty and marginalization all over the south, still today a subject of political-economical debates. Poverty that then leads to emigration which means definite loss of hope that the State would become aware of the people of the south, and yet…
In the masserie there’s an atmosphere of adaptability, which consists in tension, waiting, hope of changes that would lead to mutual help.
Thus masseria was born from negative historical events, becoming a place of positive values. This was a proof of the character of southern people who did not let themselves be abased by the oppressors, a character which hides under apparent resignation and submission the power of the poor against the arrogance of rich exploiters.