In Turi, Apulia, to trace the history of oil and oil mills

ulivo secolare in puglia

Ancient oil mill in the church of Santa Maria dell'Isola in Conversano, Apulia

Fresco showing an ancient oil mill in the church of Santa Maria dell’Isola in Conversano, in the Bari area
Translated from

Giunio Moderato Columella, who died in Taranto of the Roman Apulia, in 60 AD and one of the great agronomists of the time, recited: “Olea prima omnium arborum est”: among all the trees, the first place belongs to the olive tree. According to the historian Pliny, the Italian peninsula had excellent olive oil at reasonable prices already in the first century BC and the best in the Mediterranean, according to a ranking (he was the first to draw it) of fifteen different species of olive tree of which listed the merits.

The olive tree has always been a symbol of glory, purification, peace, abundance and blessing. In antiquity it gave its fronds to crown both the winners of peaceful games and the warriors of bloody wars. With oil, his precious fruit, he consecrated the head of the great personages of the Earth and illuminated the votive lamps of all religions.

The Greeks and the Romans used olive oil, especially for body care. Almost all men and women used it. The oil smeared on the bodies had a cleansing and protective function, and was also used as an ointment, enriched with perfumes made from herbs and flowers. Who had dry hair and skin, was considered dirty, for this reason after having washed, we anointed ourselves with olive oil.

In ancient times olive oil was not only used for the production of perfumed balms, but was used to prepare numerous wraps, ointments and healing ointments, useful for the treatment of bleeding wounds, to relieve itching, for bites caused by insects and plants, against skin burns. In addition, headaches, ear, eye and uterus infections, intestinal and liver disorders were treated. Olive oil was also used in cases of poisoning.

In the twelfth century, the German abbess Hildegard of Bingen, a naturalist scholar, argued: “The olive tree-derived garlic is of little use if it is ingested, because it causes nausea and makes food heavy; instead it is useful as a medicine”. Today the mother abbess, who became a saint in 2012, would have had to re-examine many of her studies, modifying her theories with regard to olive oil, as in the following centuries, and especially nowadays, her multiple virtues have been proven beneficial, becoming a basic element of a healthy and correct diet.

With the fall of the Roman Empire and the barbarian invasions, olive cultivation lost that economic importance. However, in later centuries, it had moments of recovery, thanks to the work and dedication of some monastic orders, such as the Benedictines, Cistercians and Basilians, who revived the important olive-growing economy. Perhaps one never saw so many olive groves and vineyards as from the year one thousand to the fifteenth century, the golden years of the Benedictine and Cistercian monks. It was precisely these conventual orders that first recreated the vast olive groves, granted in management to the peasants, in Puglia and throughout southern Italy, with ad laborandum concession contracts.

First of all, the Benedictines were the ones who, due to pre-eminent liturgical motives, had to keep the olive oil tradition alive, operating according to the ‘ora et labora’ rule. Devotees to the creed of prayer and work, they persuaded peasants and agricultural workers not to abandon the lands but to dedicate themselves to profitable crops such as the olive tree. The great animator of the Cistercians was instead Bernardo Chiaravalle, “the last of the fathers of the Church”. His monks taught the peasants, disappointed by the state of semi-slavery in which they were, to plow the fields, to plant income crops, to become independent as factors of production.

After the year 1000, the religious and political forces will restart the activities mainly due to the rich donations of olive groves made to the Church by the Lombards, Normans, Swabians and Angevins and the Maritime Republics will reactivate the international trade in oil; in the 13th century the Venetians set the price: 3 ducats per 1000 pounds of oil from Puglia and Campania; 1 duchy for 1000 pounds of other origin.

Olive oil became one of the most important commercial references, capable of making the economy of the time take off, becoming an important driving activity. So much so that, appropriately, the feudal lords imposed the ‘predial rights’, real abuses with which, for example, the arbitrary installation of millstones was forbidden, and those who needed it, had to use exclusively the trap of the feudal lord.

In Turi, in the Bari area, the feudal lord’s trap, “the baron”, was planted off the castle (now the marquis palace). “… Coverto a lamia with a door that matches the outside of the earth, located below the main stairway and next to it follows a large low covered with lamia with a window with an iron gate towards the covered courtyard, and it becomes impiana in two cisterns to conserve oils of some 100 “capacity (100 some equivalent to 184 quintals).

Among the many abuses, harassment and taxes imposed by the feudal lord, there was that of paying him the tenth part of the harvested product, ‘the extraction of the tenth of the oil’, as well as that of the olives, wine, almonds , of legumes and other fruits that were gathered in the territory of Turi.

At the beginning of the 14th century, Apulia became a huge and widespread olive grove, and soon many plantations were also established throughout southern Italy. Towards the middle of the sixteenth century, the oil market in Puglia had become so important, that the Viceroy of Spain, De Riveira, had a road linking Naples to Puglia, Calabria and Calabria built to facilitate transport and marketing. Abruzzo. At that time an oil corpse cost 14 ducats (1 body was equivalent to 350 liters). The duchy, at the time of Charles V of Habsburg (1516-1556), weighed 3.53 grams in gold, so we should assume that a duchy of the time would be more or less around 43.60 euros today.

In the seventeenth century, with the Spanish domination, taxes on oil production were increased and the Royal Government set up temporary contracts lasting two or three years (no longer convenient for the farmer).

However, oil production continued to grow in the 1700s, with the development of the free market and with the exemption of taxes on olive groves for the duration of 40 years. In 1830, Pope Pius VII guaranteed a cash prize for every olive tree planted and cared for up to the age of 18 months. Of the 18 ancient traps, planted in the municipality of Turi, all but two were implanted ‘extra moenia’, in particular they were located in the immediate vicinity of the ancient city walls.

It is important to remember the importance of olive oil in the production of soap, in the ‘soap shops’, of its use in the ‘tanneries’ for leather processing, and to feed the oil lamps, used in our dwellings until the early 1900s.

Since ancient times we talk about saponification and olive oil, where from the most important ports of the Mediterranean, between these Taranto and Gallipoli, departed ships with large loads of olive oil of poor quality ‘lampante’ e ‘ acid ‘, headed for the large centers of northern Europe, where the saponification industry was developed. Even in Puglia, although modest, soap makers were active, craft factories managed by the industrious ‘saponari’. An activity parallel to the oil mills, for which oil residues were often used, the so-called “fezze” remained in the bottoms of the tanks or in the bottoms of common oil containers.

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