Hidden on the hills of southern Prato is the commune of Vernio, a series of small hamlets, each with its own name, that overlook the Bisenzio river. Of Roman origin, the fief of Vernio was inherited by the Counts Alberti of Prato during the 12th century. The following century it was sold to the Bardi family, an influential Florentine family that started the powerful banking company, the Compagnia dei Bardi.
In the 14th century the Bardis lent Edward III of England 900,000 gold florins, a debt which he failed to repay along with 600,000 florins borrowed from the Peruzzi family, leading to the collapse of both families’ banks. During the 15th century the Bardi family continued to operate in various European centres, playing a notable role in financing some of the early voyages of discovery to America including those by Christopher Columbus and John Cabot.
Unfortunately for Vernio, bordering in the north with the Papal States, it was an area of brigandage and for this the hamlets suffered raids and looting on behalf of foreign armies. Renowned is the Spanish invasion of 1512, which caused a severe famine due to which the Counts Bardi distributed to the population worn-out by hunger chestnut flour, dried cod and herrings.
Hence was born the “Società della Miseria”, the Misery Society, which every year commemorates this event with historical re-enactments and dishes of chestnut polenta, dried cod and herrings. Today known as the “Festa della Polenta”, it was once held on Ash Wednesday but recently has been moved to the first Sunday of Lent.
Certainly a return to tradition.