Sardinia is a large island in the middle of the western Mediterranean Sea. Close by, to the north, is the smaller island of Corsica; to the southeast is Sicily. Sardinia has been a part of Italy for more than a hundred years, but the Italian peninsula is a fair distance across the sea to the east. Before going to Italy, Sardinia was controlled by Spain; before that Byzantium; earlier the Vandals, who came after the Romans. In recent centuries, Sardinia was regularly raided by Saracen Moor pirates; the Sardinian flag, called “quatro mori,” features four captive black Moors with blindfolds.
Sardinia has a Mediterranean climate of wet, mild winters and hot, dry summers and Mediterranean vegetation of oak forests, which have been much cleared by human action to provide open pasture and agricultural land as well as human settlements. Traditionally cultivation has focused on Mediterranean crops: wheat, tomatoes, olives, and grapes; livestock are predominantly sheep, and also goats and pigs, with some cattle and horses. The corresponding Mediterranean diet common to Sardinia is bread and pasta, olive oil, tomato sauce, wine, sheep’s and goat’s milk cheese, prosciutto, lamb, mutton, and pork, supplemented by vegetables and fruits.
Today, a million and a half Sardinians (sardi) are spread across the island in many agropastoral towns, some exceeding ten thousand inhabitants. The two main cities are Cagliari, the capital, on the south coast, and Sassari in the north. The two main geographical features are the great Campidano valley running up the west of the island and the massive Gennargentu mountain range and plateau filling most of the eastern half of the island. Between valley and mountain, history and culture divides. The rich agricultural Campidano valley, bread basket of the Romans, was always the great target and prize of foreign invaders and imperial conquerors, and the culture was one of a beleaguered peasantry. The rugged mountains, home of escapees from the plains, resisters, rebels, and banditi, was friendlier to the pastore (shepherd) with his flock, than to large-scale agricultural production.
Sardinians have always identified strongly with their local community (il comune), which commonly includes a main settlement, water sources, pasture, forest, agricultural land, gardens, and orchards, and may include offshoot settlements and, today, light industries. Intended by design to be self-sufficient—a common ambition in the traditional Mediterranean Europe—these communities tended to be closed and inward looking: endogamous in marriage, agonistic with other communities, chauvinistic about the special virtues of each. All Roman Catholic, all speaking Sardu, a language derived from Latin (with the exception of a few small pockets of Spanish and Greek speakers), all depending on agropastoral production, all with similar customs, dress, and norms, the comuni differentiated themselves from each other by minor differences in dialect, cuisine, and politics. But they shared, especially in the mountain comuni, a fierce independence at the community and family levels. In the mountains, they followed a strict code, called the codice barbaracino, named for the highland region of Barbagia, which dictates individual “self-help,” vendetta, in response to insult or attack, vengeance in relation to injury to honor, property, or person, and neutrality and silence by anyone not directly involved.
Since WWII, mass media and education, as well as labor migration, have substantially Italianized Sardinia. Standard Italian is taking the place of Sardinian, and traditional agropastoral work has declined in prestige in favor of modern, salaried, “clean” office work. Young Sardinians complain that they “don’t want to be contadini (peasants).” And yet, great value is still put on genuino (pure) water, food, and relationships. Sardinians today are torn between the modern and the genuino.
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- Salzman, P. C. (1999). The anthropology of real life: Events in human experience. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.