Piemontese Sinti

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Piemontese Sinti

ETHNONYMS: Sinti Piemontesi, Sinti Pimuntezi


Identification. The Piemontese Sinti of northern Italy are one of a number of related peripatetic or formerly peripatetic groups including the Hungarian Sinti, Sinti Lombardi, the Gaškane Manuš ("German" Manuš), the Valče Manuš ("French" Manuš), and the Prajštike Manuš ("Prussian" or "Alsacian" Manuš).

Location. While the Piemontese Sinti were for some time centered in Piedmont valleys of northern Italy, they are now found scattered over a broader area, including Piedmont, Lombardy, Tuscany, and Latium provinces in Italy, Switzerland, and France.

Demography. The population of the entire group is difficult to estimate, although it is likely that they number somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000.

linguistic Affiliation. The Piemontese Sinti speak a Regional dialect of the "Sinti-Manuš" language, which evidently originated in ancient northeastern India. The dialect includes a high proportion of loanwords from French, Provençal, and Piedmontese, although unlike other Sinti dialects there are relatively few loanwords from German. The dialect is still spoken in the more traditional Sinti communities but is declining in use in communities where children attend the local schools.

History and Cultural Relations

The Piemontese Sinti are one of a number of groups called Gypsies who are descended from peoples who migrated west from India about 1,000 years ago. Why these people left India is unknown, although in 1011 a Persian poet, Firdousi, in his Book of the Kings mentions a group of 10,000 musicians called Luri sent from India to entertain his people. Whether the Luri are the ancestors of the current-day Gypsy groups is unknown, although linguistic evidence indicates that Gypsy ancestors did live in Persia and the Byzantine Empire. The arrival of Sinti ancestors in Europe may go back to the arrival of the Turks in the fifteenth century, and evidently involved two waves of emigration. The first wave involved a people commonly called the Vlachs who settled in central Europe where they were enslaved in Romanian principalities. The second wave, which included the Sinti's ancestors, settled in western Europe. The first Gypsy settlements in the Piedmont date to somewhere between 1410 and 1430, a period when they were already present in what are now south Germany, Switzerland, and France. By the close of the fifteenth century the Piemontese constituted a sizable population in Piedmont as they were paid large sums of money by the government not to settle in the cities. The contemporary Piemontese Sinti are probably descendants of these fifteenth-century immigrants; their surnames are the same as those registered in the civil status books of the 1450s.

The Piemontese reject the labels "Gypsy" and "Bohemian," viewing themselves instead as a distinct group. They also see themselves as standing in opposition to the Gadže (sedentary, peasants), a belief which tends to align them with other peripatetic groups on the basis of a traditional or Current nomadic way of life. The Gypsy/Gadže opposition thus represents the dichotomy between sedentarism and nomadism. This opposition is reflected in long-term mistrust between the two groups, reflected in attempts at various times to assimilate the Sinti, remove them from the Piedmont, or exclude them from the government. Hostilities have also occurred between different Piemontese groups, largely caused by the practice of similar economic activities and competition over economic niches. Despite conflicts with the Gadže, the Sinti have been much influenced by the Gadže, and, in fact, the unique features of each Sinti group tend to reflect local customs and beliefs borrowed from non-Sinti neighbors. In the past, when the Sinti were largely nomadic, these borrowings had little chance of turning the Sinti into Gadže. Contemporary settled groups, however, are facing strong assimilation pressures from compulsory public education for their children, television, and contact with the urban, industrialized world.


Until the close of World War II the Piemontese lived in horse-drawn wagons and traveled about in small groups of five or six families each, setting up camp on the outskirts of villages. By the 1950s, most had replaced their wagons and horses with automobiles and trailers. Today, many continue to reside in trailers, whether they are nomadic or not. Many wealthy Piemontese also live in permanent houses or villas while poorer ones live in slum housing. The vast majority now lives in urban areas, on the edges of cities such as Turin, Cuneo, Marseille, Nice, Lyon, and Paris. As a general rule, Sinti households in a village all tend to be located in the same neighborhood.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. With their tradition of nomadism, it is not surprising that the Sinti shun agricultural work. Generally, they practice crafts and trades such as horse dealing and knife sharpening; such economic activities are compatible with a nomadic life-style because they can be quickly discontinued, and they require small inventories and little productive equipment. Economic activities generally are based on the exploitation of the non-Gypsy world; in-group trading activities are considerably less exploitative. Despite the variety of activities, all Piemontese work has three major characteristics: mobility, autonomy, and when trading, haggling to obtain the highest price. The expression used by the Sinti to define their work brings this last characteristic home: džava te mangav, meaning "I am going to ask for." As a result of this work ethic, they have difficulty adapting to sedentary work and even young people who accept wage labor usually quit after a short time.

Industrial Arts. Traditional activities included basket making, rebottoming, knife grinding, horse dealing, reprocessing discarded metal, and seasonal farming. Some people were musicians and circus managers. Women peddled haberdashery and items made by the men, and engaged in palm reading and begging. Although most of these activities still exist, second-hand car dealing has replaced horse dealing, and trade activities have become more important than craft production. Thus, many Piemontese now sell goods at Markets, with the wealthiest selling Oriental carpets, precious stones, and gold jewelry. Reprocessing of discarded materials from the industrialized society has also become an important economic activity in recent times.

Division of Labor. As noted above, the division of labor is largely on the basis of gender. In general, a woman's work produces a small yet steady income that covers day-to-day family expenses while a man's work produces income used for the purchase of expensive items or adds to the family's prestige. In difficult times, however, this division is set aside so that everyone helps provide for the family.


Kin Groups and Descent. The word sinti following a possessive adjective means "parents" in a general sense. Used in a more limited sense, it refers to a whole group of related Households that travel and camp together. This traveling group is usually composed of consanguineal kin. While each Household is an independent economic unit, in difficult times they are expected to help each other. The Piemontese kinship System is bilateral, with an emphasis on the patriline as reflected in a preference for patrilocal residence and the use of patricentered surnames.

Kinship Terminology. Piemontese kin terms conform to the Eskimo pattern.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The age of marriage has increased as the Piemontese have shifted from a nomadic to a settled lifestyle. Because of public education and the decline of training in Piemontese crafts, the young often delay marriage, thus also denying themselves the status of adults in the Community. Premarital sexual relations are also more common now than in the past and virginity at marriage for females is now more an ideal than a reality. Marriages are common between both first and second cousins. Marriage is by elopement, with a respected man acting as a go-between for the couple and their parents. The marriage is then officially recognized through a religious service and a feast attended by both Families. The parents help the couple set up a household, with patrilocal residence more common than matrilocal. Divorce is rare, but when it does occur the woman and her children are cared for by her family.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the basic residential and economic unit, although it is often closely linked to four or five other families.

Inheritance. Except for a few personal items, such as jewelry or pictures kept in a secret place, property of the deceased is either burned or sold to non-Sinti without haggling. The proceeds from the sale are spent on the deceased. Socialization. Sinti infants are cared for closely by their mothers, who look after them day and night, react immediately to their cries, and sometimes nurse them until they are four years of age. This indulgent nurturing fits well with Sinti values, which stress the avoidance of frustrating situations and catering to individual needs. Consequently, parents prefer to talk to their children and convince them to obey rather than to punish them. As they get older, children are expected to help in return for what they receive and eventually are deemed able to make their own judgments about how they use their time. This indulgent-permissive socialization process produces adult Sinti who are able to work autonomously, live a nomadic life-style, and bargain effectively with customers.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Piemontese do not have formal social classes, although wealth differences between families are noted.

Political Organization. The Piemontese are a culture without a clearly defined territory and without a leader, Despite legends of Gypsy kings. The authority of an elder extends beyond the family only when it is accompanied by respect. Those elders play a crucial role in making important decisions and in settling conflicts.

Social Control and Conflict. In general, community Pressure tends to control the behavior of individuals. Community control is effective because of the communal nature of Piemontese life and because of the absence of private places in the camp. When conflicts cannot be resolved peacefully, families may leave or be ostracized from the group.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Most Piemontese are Roman Catholics. Piemontese Catholicism, however, stresses relatively minor cults (e.g., the cult of Saint Sarah) and pilgrimages, and gives less attention to the major beliefs and practices of Catholicism. For at least the last ten years, the Piemontese, like other European Gypsies, have been drawn to evangelical Pentecostalism. Pentecostalism is particularly appealing to Gypsies for a variety of reasons. First, it stresses miracle cures and divine revelation, practices that have always attracted Gypsies, as indicated by their regular participation in pilgrimages. Second, it easily integrates with Gypsy practices; for example, the Pentecostal ministry does not require celibacy, as does Catholicism, and hundreds of Gypsies have become ministers and preach in their native langauge. And, third, the movement involves events that regularly bring diverse elements of the European Gypsy Community together.

Arts. Singing and music composition are the major artistic activities, with music composed for performance on guitars.

Medicine. Some Sinti women have a great knowledge of medicinal plants, while others seem to have a gift for fortune-telling, as indicated by their regular non-Sinti clientele.

Death and Afterlife. The Piemontese believe in an afterlife, and they fear malevolent deeds (mule ) perpetrated by the dead. Consequently, they try to respectfully ignore the deceased, try not to speak about them, and destroy their Material possessions. Xa tre mule! ("Eat your dead!") is the most spiteful insult one Sinti can say to another.


Formoso, Bernard (1986). Tsiganes et sédentaires: La reProduction culturelle d'une société. Paris: l'Harmattan.

Formoso, Bernard, and Georges Calvet (1987). Lexique tsigane: Dialecte sinto piémontais. Paris: Publications Orientalistes de France.

Franceze, Sergio (1989). "La situation culturelle des Sinti Piémontais au Piémont." In Tsiganes: Identité, évolution, edited by Patrick Williams. Paris: Syros Editions.

Partisani, Sergio (1972). "Glossario del dialetto zingaro Piemontese." Lacio Drom 6:11-32.

Winstedt, Eric O. (1910). "La Bella Chiavina: A French or Piedmont Gypsy Tale." Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, n.s. 3:242-253.


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