Landscape in the Po Valley © Fotografia di Andrea Samaritani

Are Lombards still living in San Giovanni in Persiceto?

Genetic studies have demonstrated that a significant part of the population in San Giovanni in Persiceto near Bologna may perhaps trace its roots back to the Lombard invasion in the 8th century

Typical small house in a Partecipanze Bolognese © Franco Ardizzoni
Typical small house in a Partecipanze Bolognese © Franco Ardizzoni

San Giovanni in Persiceto is a small town north of Bologna located right in the middle of the fertile flat land of the drained swamps of the wider Po river plain. This land was historically filled with small farms, ‘podere’, tilled by ‘mezzadria’ (tenant farmers living as sharecroppers). Such small farms usually consisted of a mixture of arable land, meadows, pastures and vineyards. The land would be crisscrossed with hedges and ditches. The main crop was wheat, but also rice, hemp, orchards with mulberry trees and vineyards played a significant role; the last supplied not only wine, but also fodder for the animals and wood for the fabrication of utensils and farm tools. These peasants were tenants under the rule of absentee lords residing in the large 15th and 16th century renaissance villas, still recognizable in the landscape.

Apart from the small farms, an ancient institution secured a local elite amongst the peasants access to plots organized by so-called ‘Partecipanze agrarie’. These plots belonged to communal land, which were originally reclaimed from the swamps and drained some time in the Middle Ages.

Three features characterize the right to use these plots. First of all, the right was not to use a specific plot, a ‘morelli’. The plots were switched approximately every nine years. Secondly the right was an exclusive patrilineal inheritance. Third, no one could use a plot without living on it. The institutions were rather large. For instance the ‘Partecipanza agrarian da S. Giovanni in Persicato’ [1] today numbers 945 participants, covers 2092 ha, which is divided into 1180 plots, each 17.700 m2 on average. App 60% of the participants till the soil.

The overall agrarian landscape of the Emilia Romagna does not exist anymore. Today hedges, tree groves, and hemp retting pits have all been transformed into arable land, leaving us with large monocultural vistas.

However, certain traces of the ancient landscape can still be found, especially in the communal land governed by a few remaining ‘Partecipanze agrarie’. Although encroached upon by law and the great industrial agriindustrial complexes the institution still exists in six areas in the provinces of Modena, Bologna and Ferrara: San Giovanni in Persiceto, Nonatola, Cento, Pieve di Cento, Sant’Agata Bolognese and Villa Fontana.

For this reason, the history of these ancient communal institutions have garnered new interest – both historically, environmentally and locally.

Early Medieval San Giovanni in Persiceto

partecipanza in San Giovanna in Persiceto
Partecipanza in San Giovanni in Persiceto 18th century

The first Roman settlements dates back to a centuriation, which took place 189 BC. The land was cut into regular parcels, while a network of parallel and perpendicular roads (centurie) crisscrossed the land. These were distanced 2.400 Roma feet (710,4 m), which were further subdivided into squares (actus), pieces of land 120 feet x 120 feet. Two ‘acti’ corresponded to a ‘jugerum’ – a piece of land, which could be ploughed in a day. This system of land division is to a certain extent still discernible in the countryside.

However, in the 5th century the area appears to have been depopulated and the flooded plain remained uncultivated until the Byzantines, ruling from Ravenna began to drain the land once more. Nevertheless the Fosse Augusta, a canal which had been dug to lead water from the Po Valley into the Lagoon of Ravenna was still not navigable; and when the Lombards in AD 727 overran the Castrum Persiceta and founded the Duchy of Persiceta, the region was still characterized by extensive wasteland [2] . It is likely, the village at this point was organized as a Borgo Rotundo. It is believed that the local economy at that point depended upon the pasture and raising of pigs supplemented by hunting and fishing.

San Giovanni in Persiceto

The Relevance of Common Lands in Building Cultural Landscapes- The Case of Cento © Francesco Minora
The Relevance of Common Lands in Building Cultural Landscapes- The Case of Cento © Francesco Minora

With the fall of the Lombard Kingdom in 774 the early-medieval district of Persiceto (later San Giovanni in Persiceto), that stretched up to stream Samoggia, fell under the rule of the County of Modena and later the Abbey of Nonantola. It was during this period the Abbey and the Bishops of Bologna began to reclaim the wasteland. In general, though, this reclamation “perpetuated a context of coercion and repression”. Even though the peasant might try to reclaim land on their own, such initiatives often encountered opposition and harassments by the local seigniorial lords. [3]. According to Curtis this reclamation process can be divided into three phases: The first reclamation (8th to 9th centuries) took place in the context of large bipartate estates, which appear in charters from around 740. The second reclamation seems to have been connected to the crystallization of seignorial lordships in the 10 – 12th centuries. Finally in the third phase land clearances were performed in an urban jurisdictional context).

It is during this third period it is believed the formation of the ‘participanze agrarie’ came about, probably fostered by local urbanized centres like for instance Giovanni in Persiceto. At this point it was an urban-led investment in land-clearing, canal-digging and dyke-building by which a local part urban part rural elite secured for a long period the continued usufruct of their huge investment in labour and capital.

In fact, as it stands today, the descendants of the same families seem to have continued to harvest the dividend of their medieval ancestors.

But who were they? And how far back can this continuity can be traced.?

Partecipanze Agrarie

The privilege to participate – i.e. share in the leased land – was and is traditionally as explained above inherited in the paternal line; at the same time it depends on continued residence on the land. This can be traced back through at least 500 years. Local archives reaching back have thus shown a widespread continuity in the families administrating their shares over time. It can also be historically demonstrated that the families, which traditionally belonged to the ‘partecipanze’ were considered as belonging to the local elite. Today there are 38 different surnames identifying members of this select group in Giovanni in Persiceto. Many of these have had their genealogy successfully traced through careful analysis of the ‘Registri delle Inscrizioni’ from 1606 – 2004. Recently, however, these genealogical studies have been supplemented in a somewhat unexpected manner.

Genetics of the ‘Partecipanze’ families

In a recent study a group of geneticist has explored the paternal and maternal genetic variability of the families in the present-day families involved in ‘Partecipanze’ in San Giovanni in Persiceto, while at the same time identifying their genealogical relationship through the ‘Registri’ mentioned above. Results were compared with a set of control individuals sampled from wider Europe.

The conclusion is highly illuminating. By identifying specific genetic loci characterized by certain mutations, they were able to trace back through 62 generations a certain genetic make-up, which continued to mark a remarkable percentage of the group out as distinct from that of the Italian control-group. Thus they could identify a limited group of 22 families, which developed an intense set of inter-relations some time between AD 700 – 1400.

However, what was really interesting was the fact that the genetic make-up of this group could further be identified as belonging to a genetic cluster, which was primarily found in present-day Poland, Slovakia and Germany.

The geneticists have of course been careful in their conclusion. They write that, “it seems plausible to relate historical and archaeological information with our molecular results, suggesting that a Lombard component may have had a key role in the foundation of the Partecipanze.” [161] However, they are very careful to state that the Partecipanze cannot be understood as “living Lombard fossils”.

What they claim to have discovered is rather that there must have been a significant enrichment of the local population by immigrating Lombards from the 8th century and onwards, which thanks to the partecipanza – which were characterized patrilineal inheritance-patterns and group intermarriage – had their genetic make-up preserved amongst their modern-day descendants in San Giovanni in Persiceto.

We, however, may perhaps widen the perspective some more in view of what we know about the different phases in the land-reclamation, which were sketched above.

The fact is that if the partecipanze can primarily be dated to the 12th century and onwards, we are left with a gap of app. 3 – 400 years, where a group of “Lombard families” – or at least families with a distinct common history as immigrants from Central Eastern Europe – were able to “keep” themselves apart from the surroundings genetically as well as probably culturally, but without the help of the institution of the ‘participance’. How did this come about?

Perhaps we should be allowed to hypothesize that 22 families got engaged en the land-reclamations process as members of a semi-urban community, the small rural town of San Giovanni in Persiceto, which they perhaps reclaimed in the 8th century and kept dominating for centuries afterwards? Later – but perhaps first later – their genetic make-up continued to survive due to the institution of the partecipanze.

Perhaps it is even time to rethink our ingrained convictions concerning the character of that assimilation and cultural integration of the Lombards in Northern Italy, which is believed to have taken place soon after the Carolingians took over?



[1] Minora 2008

[2] Curtis and Campopiano 2014, p. 3

[3] Curtis and Campopiano 2014, p. 7


Emilia Romagna
By Franco Cazzola
In: Italian Historical Rural Landscapes. Ed. by M. Agnoletti.
Series: Environmental History 1
Springer Verlag 2013

The Relevance of Common Lands in Building Cultural Landscapes: The Case of Cento (Italy)
By Minora, Francesco
Conference Paper: Cheltenham, England, July 14-18, 2008

Back to the Peasants: New Insights into the Economic, Social, and Demographic History of Northern Italian Rural Populations During the Early Modern Period
By Guido Alfano
In: History Compass 2014 Volume 12, Issue 1, pages 62–71, January

Medieval land reclamation and the creation of new societies: comparing Holland and the Po Valley, c. 800–c. 1500
By DR Curtis and M Campopiano
In: Journal of Historical Geography, 2014

Traces of medieval migrations in a socially stratified population from Northern Italy. Evidence from uniparental markers and deep-rooted pedigrees
By A Boattini, S Sarno, P Pedrini, C Medoro, M Carta, S Tucci, G Ferri, M Alù, D Luiselli and D Pettener
In: Heredity 114, 155-162 (February 2015)


Un breve viaggio lungo le sponde del canale denominato “Collettore delle Acqua Alte” che da San Giovanni in Persiceto arriva a congiungersi


© Andrea Samaritani




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