Apropos Byron’s Childe Harold (last post), I asked my friend Giovanni Caselli whether the Romans would have recognised the Italian landscapes of 1818. He generously replied with this broad-brush agrarian history of Tuscany, Umbria and the Marches and has allowed me to quote him. The same patterns are not necessarily found in northern Italy, Latium or the south. 1818 was a good time.
“The latifundia of Roman times collapsed during the war between the Goths and Byzantines. The large estates of the Late Empire, with great fields of wheat, vineyards, and olive groves with flocks grazing under the trees became a wilderness (5th-6th centuries CE).
“During the Longobard and Frankish period this wilderness was reclaimed with the [primitive feudal] courts system (7th-9th centuries). Patches of cultivated land appeared in clearings of the Mediterranean bush and oak wood forests.
“These cultivated clearings expanded during the castles period (10th-12th centuries), interspaced by larger clearings used for grazing.
“In the 12th-14th centuries the city bourgeoisie destroyed the power of the earls, who had demanded tolls for the transit of goods, and took over the production of wine, wheat and olive oil, with a crop-sharing system [payment of a share of the crop as rent]. Central Italy became dotted with hill-towns and scattered houses with mixed agriculture, and the mountains, largely deforested by charcoal burning, were used for grazing. The bourgeoisie employed the former slaves of the earls as farmers, giving them a better deal with contracts, enough land, and autonomy. They also bought slaves from the Crimea and the khanates of the Tartars. These introduced tools and implements of their own and also an ‘oriental’ method of growing vines. Women slaves introduced the use of pasta in Italy, being house servants and concubines. Each vine grew supported by the branches of a maple, shaped as a chandelier, each at a distance of eight to ten yards one from another.
“The Black Death caused a collapse of the countryside. By the start of the 15th century the towns and scattered farmhouses were gradually restored and reoccupied. Again the landscape was planted with mixed crops and trees. Sheep rearing was enormously increased with laws and regulations for summer and winter pastures and droves connecting them. Siena grew wealthy with this transit of sheep and by renting grazing areas to flocks along the Tuscan coast. The wool trade made cities like Florence rich.
“This mixed agricultural landscape collapsed again in the course of the 17th century, with another great plague, and this lasted till the shabby landscape that was seen by Tobias Smollett in 1766.
“Then, province by province, the country was restored to its ancient orderly farming system by the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, especially Peter Leopold of Augsburg [who became the Emperor Leopold II], a genius neglected by biographers. Tuscan farmhouses were specially designed by an appointed architect, new ways of farming and drainage of the country were perfected, and the Grand Tour travellers saw this Tuscany. Napoleon said, upon conquering Tuscany, that it was vastly more civilised than any French Department. No hovels, but great houses and competent healthy, proud farmers were seen working with their great white cows in the fields of North-Central Italy. Cities grew wealthy with a farming economy. Tuscany abolished the death penalty in the 1830s and many taxes. It drastically curbed the power of the church to the minimum for survival. Tuscany had Protestant leanings.
“With the unification of Italy, Tuscany became a Mediterranean country and ceased to be progressive and functional. In 1982 a law made the crop sharing system illegal. Farming collapsed for this reason, founded on political ideology, and climate change made matters worse. Marx had called the peasants conservative and obtuse. There were songs proclaiming ‘I won’t marry a peasant, I want a factory labourer and to have a good life’. Farmers could no longer find a wife. They all wanted to be employed by FIAT. If not by FIAT, they would prefer to become road sweepers rather than remain on the land. They lost both culture and wisdom, becoming indiscriminate consumers and never created a workers’ ‘culture’, like for example in England or in other European countries. The workers never wanted a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ either, contrary to what the ‘intellectuals’ proposed to them. They wanted to cease to be a proletariat and become petty bourgeois, imitating the life-style of their factory masters. Instead of a big villa, they would seek a small one. Rather than a big car, they would be happy with a 500. Instead of skiing in Cortina they would go skiing in the Apennines. And so forth. Plainly, Thorstein Veblen was right and Marx wrong in the interpretation of what the masses wanted.
“Now the landscape is reverting to the state it was in in the Baroque period, with sections of entire regions devoted to intensive agriculture and intensive industry, the rest an abandoned wilderness. Where the Italians speak about ‘National Parks’, these are mere wastelands. The people live in a bubble, they have no idea of what is done in other countries. Like the savage, they think in terms of themselves being the right people and the rest ‘barbarians’. Italy lives in this illusion, and the Mafia and corruption have a really good time. Should anyone object to this description, I shall take him by the neck and drag him to see reality. Organic agriculture is practiced only by a small number of heroes, fighting against ENI, the firm that produces masses of weed killers, fertilisers and other poisons that have killed every insect species, including bees, and made farming products inedible by people gifted with a sense of taste, smell and eyesight, who can see the disaster around them.”
Giovanni Caselli is an Italian historian, archaeologist, illustrator and expert on pilgrim ways. Emilio Sereni’s History of the Italian Agricultural Landscape is too theoretical for his taste: like Toynbee, he prefers to understand a landscape by walking in it.
Fall in Tuscany, copyright, used with kind permission of F Botros at fbotros.com