The Town in Italy Where Most Women Are Barred From Inheriting Land

The commons outside of Cortina D’Ampezzo are governed by a medieval property-rights system that has almost completely disappeared from the rest of Europe.

Consorzio di Promozione Turistica di Cortina d’Ampezzo

When tourists arrive at Cortina d’Ampezzo, “medieval” is probably not the first word that comes to their minds. This wealthy town 80 miles north of Venice, a posh destination in the Italian Alps, regularly hosts Alpine Skiing World Cup races and is a popular vacation choice both for wealthy foreigners and Italian celebrities. When looking for a place to set Vacanze di Natale (“Christmas Holidays”), a classic Italian movie franchise that satirizes the eccentricities of the rich, the writers picked Cortina.

Yet, the town still manages a portion of its land with a system that dates back to the 11th century. The system is one of collective property, overseen by heads of family—making it one of the last places in Europe where most women are formally barred from inheriting and controlling land.

The green areas surrounding Cortina—roughly 60 square miles that are used as pasture, for firewood supplies, and, more remuneratively, rented as ski slopes—are collectively owned by 1,200 “historic” families, whose presence in the area goes back centuries. Known as Regole Ampezzane, which roughly translates to “the commons of Cortina d’Ampezzo,” they are administered by an assembly of “family leaders” who periodically meet to discuss investments and approve new projects.

Some locals see this system as a tool to preserve the area’s natural resources from excessive use and to prevent corporations tempted by Cortina’s thriving tourism industry to buy the land. The problem is that, well, it excludes women.

The inheritance rules for the Regole work like this: When a head of family passes away, all his sons automatically become members of the assembly and pass to their offspring the right to use the land’s resources; his daughters do not. Some exceptions do exist. If a woman’s father leaves no male heir, a woman can represent the family in the assembly and pass to her offspring the right to use the land—but she loses this power if she marries outside of the community, a restriction that does not apply to men. Also, widows can count as heads of family if they don’t have adult male children, though they lose that status when their oldest son comes of age.

Cortina D’Ampezzo (Consorzio di Promozione Turistica di Cortina d’Ampezzo)

Unsurprisingly, the women of Cortina aren’t happy with the system. “It’s a matter of principle. It’s not fair that a brother has certain rights and a sister does not. It’s 2016 and I don’t see why we shouldn’t have an equal say in the administration of our beautiful land,” says Roberta da Zanna, a 53-year-old jewelry shop owner in Cortina. As the only child of of one “historic” Cortina family who married inside the community, da Zanna has her own seat in the council of families. But she wishes the right could be extended to all women, whether they have brothers or not.

Last month, the women of Cortina formally requested to end the male-preference system with an assembly vote. It failed. To be fair, the majority of the (male-dominated) council voted in favor of repeal, but it did not reach the two-thirds of votes necessary to approve it.

Cortina is not the only small town to administer its land with a centuries-old collective system. Once a common practice in rural Italy, the model still survives in a few communities in the Eastern Alps. But most of those have ended the male-preference clauses. Most recently, Costalta, a village not far from Cortina, voted to include women in its own Regole in April.

According to Giulio Sapelli, a professor of economic history at the University of Milan, Italy has a long history of collective land ownership. “For instance, in Sardinia, as much as 40 percent of the forests used to be collectively owned,” he says. “This practice began to weaken in the late 1880s, when the government became more heavily centralized, and since then it has been slowly dying out.”

“The core idea behind so-called ‘commons’ is that the land belongs to the community, not to individuals,” Sapelli continues. “With the advent of capitalism, this model got lost and survived only in few places. Some see it just as a matter of folklore, but it’s an economic system that has proved valuable for centuries. It was a way to encourage poor farmers and herders to help one another instead of engaging in cutthroat competition.”

While the inclination to co-own property is something that has, historically, varied across Italian communities, many saw collective ownership as more cost-effective, especially when it came to, say, chopping firewood or herding livestock. Piero Paolo Viazzo, an anthropologist at the University of Turin who has done fieldwork in the Alps, suggests that preferences about cheesemaking also played a role: “Some of the local traditional cheeses come in huge shapes—that’s the way people like them. Moreover, larger cheeses have a longer shelf life. Problem is, to make huge cheeses, you need a lot of milk, so families started pulling resources together. We noticed that communities with collective properties tend to produce larger cheeses.”

So why has collective ownership, a system that used to be common throughout Italy but has mostly faded in modern times, survived in Cortina? “The reason is both historical and cultural,” says Mario Belli, an independent scholar who authored a book about the town's history. “Since it's so high up in the mountains”—it’s more than 4,000 feet above sea level—“central authorities didn't have much influence. Even when Napoleon tried to make this tradition illegal, people just ignored the order. Then there's a strong sense of community, an anti-individualistic mentality. Also, people see their ancestral land as almost 'sacred', not as an asset that can be sold or bought."

Perhaps in line with that sentiment, the commons don't bring in a huge amount of revenue—just about €2 to €3 million a year (most of it tourism-related), which is not much for 1,200 families, according to a representative of the Regole. Indeed, some Cortina women, including those who want reform, seem to be genuinely attached to other features of the Regole and fear that the negative attention might threaten the institution.

That’s probably because the Regole’s rules would likely not stand up to any rigorous legal examination. Italian law explicitly forbids gender-based discrimination, and a civil lawsuit could easily end the system’s male preference. In 1988, Italy’s equivalent of the Supreme Court refused to rule on the exclusion of women in the Regole, citing a special status granted to mountain communities. But since then, the country’s justice system has become much more interventionist on gender-equality issues, which is what might be worrying some residents of Cortina.

“Women should be equals and a lot of us are fighting for this right,” says da Zanna, the shop owner in Cortina. “But the change must come from within the community. We love the Regole—it’s a precious tool to protect the environment of our beautiful land. Also, we love the autonomy that our community enjoys.” Da Zanna says she’d rather not get the federal government or courts involved, noting that Cortina was close to reaching the two-thirds majority it would need to change its rules.

The desire to keep these rules separate from modern laws—and, ultimately, away from the modern economic system—might not be entirely a matter of cultural solidarity, however. True, the inhabitants of Cortina are a proud minority with a long history of valuing self-governance. And they belong to a distinct ethnic group that speaks a language, Ladin, that’s closer to French than to Italian. So for many, the Regole is a symbol of independence to take pride in.

But to others, the ancient system is primarily a means of limiting the exploitation of natural resources. Stefano Lorenzo, the current secretary of the Regole Ampezzo’s assembly, says that the commons were born out of a need to use green space and trees with an eye for sustainability. “So families started discussing together how to share resources making sure everyone took just what they needed," he says. “When you think about it, it’s a very modern concept: the conscious consumption of natural, renewable resources. And that’s precisely what the Regole are about today. When we meet in the assembly of the families, we don’t ask ourselves how we can maximize the profit. We ask ourselves, what’s the best way to use our natural resources without destroying them?"

Lorenzo is himself a supporter of including women. “The way I see it,” he says, “it’s pretty obvious that women should be equal. Especially since we’re living in an era of evolving [gender] roles, and the concept of the male ‘head of family’ often no longer applies.”

But he also stresses that the change must come from within the tradition, not from outside. Although Lorenzo wouldn’t say so explicitly, Cortina’s resistance to getting the central government involved likely lies in the fear that if authorities were to step in on the gender-discrimination dispute, they might do so on other issues as well. If excluding women is considered discrimination under Italian law, why should excluding “outsiders” be allowed? And what about private investors? Or corporations?

Viazzo, the anthropologist, says that this illustrates the flip side of collective ownership. “Communities that still use this model tend to be less welcoming of newcomers and less open to change,” he says. “Because the ‘historic’ families retain a special right to the land, recent immigrants are left out. It's not an inclusive culture.”

Lorenzo, however, disagrees. The Regole’s “greatest strengths," he says, lie in their ability to “adapt to new contexts” and to include new members. “Not everyone is a direct descendant of the first families who settled here a thousand years ago,” he says. “New families were included throughout the centuries. The idea of our collective system is not about nativism, but about accepting [new] members based on their commitment to the community. Centuries ago, it was new settlers. Soon, it will be women."