The popular saying “Taking a bear to Modena”

Valle del Serchio. Più vicino a te

In the Garfagnana valleys, an ancient proverb can still be heard that is used to emphasise the difficulty in fulfilling a request, and that is, “it’s like taking a bear to Modena”.

This statement can appear very cryptic since its origin is rather ancient, dating from the middle of the fifteenth century.

On 28 July 1451, by means of public deed, the Community of Soraggio was granted in endowment by the Chamber of Ferrara some pastures and woods on “Montecipolla” on the southern slopes of the Apennines. In return, every year the men of Soraggio, for the Christmas festivities, had to take a live bear, captured on their lands, to Modena, the capital of the Duchy. In those days, these animals could still be found in the most remote forests in the mountains, although rarely.

With the passage of time, finding a bear in the forests of the Alps became completely impossible so, in 1604, Duke Cesare d'Este, in confirming the deed by which the portion of land had been assigned to the community, decreed that, if the animal could not be found, a fattened wild boar or domestic pig would suffice, as long as it weighed at least "twelve pounds".

The animals, like the bear, were required for cooking and serving at the ducal table. However, even this request seemed particularly difficult to fulfil and so, around 1740, it was decided to convert the request for a live animal into money and, for that same land, the Community of Soraggio was obliged to pay the amount of twelve ducats every year.

The leasing fee was once again converted, this time into lire, as soon as the Kingdom of Italy was established, becoming less onerous for those little clusters of houses in the mountains but, in the collective memory, indelible traces of that burdensome and almost impossible request remain, to the point that any difficulty in maintaining agreements became so proverbial as to be crystallised in the popular saying.