The Shaping of Tuscany
I grew up in the outskirts of Florence in the 1970s and 1980s, in a town that was neither city nor country and that is now firmly embedded in Florence’s metropolitan area. Back then, it was still possible to meet “peasants,” which in Tuscany meant sharecroppers. I remember them as old men, with contorted limbs and huge hands, and with skin the colour and texture of tree bark. My father never tired of pointing out that our family, while far from wealthy, was not of peasant stock. One could tell, above all from our small hands. And yet, my father, who had grown up in a working-class section of Florence, was always on the lookout for a farmhouse he could buy. He never did, but that contradiction between condescension for rural folks and longing for the places they had inhabited stayed with me. In fact, it followed me as I moved to the United States, where everyone I met seemed to love all things Tuscan but no one could mention the name of a single Tuscan person that had lived after the times of Leonardo. And then came Frances Mayes’s remarkable memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun, which placed those contradictions at the top of many a bestseller list. My working-class Florentine father and Frances Mayes longed for the Tuscan countryside in similar ways, with a gaze a world removed from the gestures of the sharecroppers I met as a child. Here was a “phenomenon” an historian could sink his teeth into.
This book addresses a fundamental question: what does it mean to read history in place? Tuscany is of course a place saturated with history, and yet it is also a place from which many stories have been elided. Tuscany played a prominent role in the repressive mythology of the Fascist regime. In the late 1940s small tanks patrolled the streets of hill towns threatened by insurgent Communist peasants that rebelled against their landlords. Southern peasants and shepherds migrated to the Tuscan countryside when the local sharecroppers began to desert the same farmhouses that wealthy foreigners would bid big money on only a couple of decades later. Through all of this, Tuscany has always remained a “landscape”. It has always harbored and conveyed many meanings to the people who looked at and dwelled on it. The Shaping of Tuscany tries to retrieve some of those meanings, arguing that Renaissance painters and refined romantic writers were not the only ones who perceived and interpreted the Tuscan countryside. Ordinary people did as well, and their perceptions and aspirations have shaped the Tuscan hills at least as consequentially as artistic representations. When I started my research I had no idea how much the shape of Tuscany’s vineyards has changed over the last century, for example, and how that reshaping was the outcome of conflicting perceptions and aspirations. I had to dig through many archives and ask many questions in my search for those mundane perceptions and senses of place. In the end, my goal with this book is not to debunk Mayes’s (or my own father’s) way of seeing but to put it in its place, as one of the many experiences that make up the texture of life in one of most beloved corners of the world.