Tuscany: An Introduction to the History and Geography
During the last thirty-five years of exploring the world, I’ve come to appreciate the perspective of one of my geography professors. "There is no such thing as an uninteresting place," he observed, "there are just ‘uninquisitive’ geographers." As true as this is, though, there is no question that some places are more interesting than others. These are the places we go back to time and again, trying to understand them, trying to get to know them, and trying to become a part of them insofar as that is possible.
Tuscany is such a place. Indeed, if you begin to make a list of historic regions in the history of Western European Civilization where events converge, Tuscany looms large. That list would most certainly include Minoan Crete, Attica of Classical Athens, Rome and Latium, even the maritime empires of Phoenicia and Carthage. It might include the 12th century monasteries of Burgundy and the Medieval markets of Burgundy and Champagne and certainly the Hansa towns of Flanders and the Netherlands and Swabia of the Hohenzollerns. Venice would have a place on that list with its long reign over the Adriatic and the Eastern Mediterranean. But when you get to Tuscany, the list is longer than anywhere.
The Etruscan and Roman Contribution to the Human Geography of Tuscany
Tuscany was the gateway for classical civilization into Italy by way of the Etruscans or "Tusci," as the Romans called them, who made "Etruria" their homeland and eventually gave us "Toscana," the Italian, and "Tuscany," the English term for the region. The grapevines and olive groves of Tuscany that we so admire came from the eastern Mediterranean with the Etruscans. And no, we still don’t know where they came from, but we are learning more and more about how much they contributed to Roman culture and civilization. As John Noble Wilford writes in the April 15, 2003 New York Times, not only did the Etruscans introduce Greek culture and its pantheon of gods to the Romans, but "their influence shows up in later Roman works of architecture and engineering." So the Etruscans provided the foundation but the Romans built upon it.
Rome took over where the Etruscans left off and by 100 BC Rome controlled Etruria, had built a complete network of roads and had founded settlements on the sites of modern Florence, Lucca, Arezzo, Pisa, Pistoia, and more. The Roman imprint on these towns was so complete and long lasting that even today as you look at a map you can see the square form of the original Roman town in the city center. For an example, take a look at this map of Florence. Lucca is another good example of a modern city grown up around the square grid of a Roman town.
The rural settlement, including field patterns, road network and drainage ditches in the Arno River Valley west of Florence, around Pistoia and Prato and in the Val di Chiana, in southern Tuscany (which you’ll see from the train between Arezzo and Cortona), were part of this same settlement initiative. Under Rome, Tuscany and all of Central Italy flourished until the fall of the empire and the barbarian invasions in the 5th century AD.
Tuscany in the Middle Ages
As we know so well this classical heritage was only the beginning of Tuscany’s important role in western history. The region was eclipsed during the five or six hundred years from 450 AD until the rise of Pisa, Genoa, Amalfi, and Venice as major maritime trading powers. Commerce and security motivated these coastal cities to take control of the adjacent seas, push the Moors to North Africa, and begin trading with others throughout the Mediterranean basin. Among these powerhouses, only Pisa was in Tuscany, but the entire group of maritime powers gave rise to a period of commerce that lay the foundation for the rise of the city-state throughout Italy but especially in Tuscany.
Tuscany is very hilly, has some good soil in a few small parts, but has never been a rich agricultural region. Indeed, it grows a wide mix of crops based on the traditional Mediterranean crops of wheat, olives and grapes. Yet it has never been a great exporter of any of these. Even Chianti wine, now famous, has become a major export only in the last century (compared to the "clarets" of Bordeaux, the "sherrys" of southern Spain, and the "port wines" of Portugal which go back hundreds of years, Chianti is a relative newcomer on the international wine scene).
Tuscany’s wealth came, not from the land, but from commerce and from its unique position at the center of trade routes within the Mediterranean basin. The resurgence of the former Roman cities of Florence, Lucca, Pisa, and Arezzo, and the creation of the new city-states of Siena, Pistoia, Prato, and other smaller towns such as San Gimignano, Colle val d’Elsa, Volterra, Livorno, and Grosseto is due to this massive trade. It developed and flourished from about 1000 AD until the discovery of the new-world trade routes across the Atlantic and around Africa.
During this period, Florence, Lucca, Pisa and Siena, in particular, flourished. The Florentines became the bankers of southern Europe, the Sienese became rich growing and shipping wool, the "Lucchesi" specialized in silk and the Pisans continued to trade across the seas. The wealth that they generated translated into richly adorned cities with 12th and 13th century walls and cathedrals that eventually gave way to more expansive 14th and 15th century walls and the Renaissance.
The Renaissance in Tuscany
I hardly have time here to even begin to discuss the Renaissance in Tuscany, but let me say that by about mid-fifteenth century the area we now call Tuscany was consolidated under the Republican communes of Florence, Siena, Lucca, and Pisa. Though rivalry was intense, a relative peace reigned and allowed these cities to become embellished with the art and architecture which draw us like a magnet to Tuscany. But this period set the scene for another important phenomenon: the creation of the rural Tuscan landscape which we find so fascinating today.
Tuscany’s Rural Landscape
The raw material was there since Etruscan times – that is the olive and the grape. The Romans added infrastructure and cities, the 11th through the 14th century resurrected those cities and embellished them with substantial city walls and architecture and the relative peace in the 16th and 17th centuries gave rise to expansive rural settlement. This latter period, combined with the soft hills of Tuscany covered in vines, olives and wheat is one of the major attractions to Tuscany today.
The Medici villas are, perhaps, the best known of the wealthy villas dotting the Tuscan landscape. At least a dozen rural villas from this period are identified in one way or another with Florence’s first family, including the one in Cerreto Guidi that we visit on our Tuscan tours.
North of Lucca, the Lucchesi built their rural villas in the foothills of the Apennines. This settlement of the countryside in Italy was not limited to Tuscany. At this same time, in northern Italy, Andrea Palladio was constructing villas in the hinterland of Venice around Vicenza and Castelfranco Veneto.
The hilltop villa in Tuscany is often surrounded by its own feudal village and it is framed by cypress trees, almost certainly brought by the Etruscans from the eastern Mediterranean three thousand years ago. A purely decorative tree, the role of the cypress in the Tuscan landscape is to accentuate these noble villas and to mark the solemn entrances to cemeteries on the edge of towns. That lone cypress or row of cypresses standing on the ridgeline in southern Tuscany marks the last remnant of an approach to a now bygone villa or farmhouse on that hillside.
The landscape that we now admire in Tuscany is like the accumulation of family collectibles in Grandma’s attic. Tuscany has collected the heirlooms of western Civilization for three millennia. No other region can make that claim and no other region displays that memorabilia quite as well as Tuscany.
Traveling to Tuscany
There are degrees of "Mediterraneanness" in Italy. During many times of the year if you cross the Alps by train, car or bicycle you’ll feel as if you’ve crawled from under a cloud and come upon a truly "Mediterranean" scene, sunny Italy. Indeed, Italy’s Lake District hints of a Mediterranean "flavor" but travel away from the lakes and into the Po River Valley and you quickly leave the olives and the Mediterranean feel behind. It is not until you cross another mountain barrier, the Apennines, into Liguria or Tuscany, that you find the true Mediterranean in Italy.
Our bicycle tours from Venice to Florence, and Venice to Pisa, truly show you Tuscany as a traveler might have seen it four hundred years ago. We travel over the Apennine Mountains on the ancient Roman route from Faenza to Florence: Faventia to Florentia. As you crest the last range of hills north of Florence and begin to glide down toward Fiesole you begin to see olives, grapes, and wheat fields. Cypress trees line the ridges, patrician villas punctuate the hilltops, and, in the distance, the Renaissance clock tower of Fiesole is built on the ruins of the Etruscan and Roman settlement. Tuscany literally takes center stage and unfolds before you.
Reading List & Other Resources for the History and Geography of Tuscany
This is but a small start to what could become a massive reading project for anyone interested in pursuing it!
I have yet to run across a book about "Roman Tuscany" since Tuscany is so hard to separate from the Romans throughout Italy, the Etruscans and the medieval and Renaissance periods. But for a thorough guidebook to history and art try this one:
Medieval Tuscany to the Present: Geography and History
There is very little written in English to help the traveler understand the human geography and history of Tuscany. But here are a few suggestions that combine geography and history.
Tuscany in General
There is so much to list. Try some of these:
These books can be ordered from our web site. (Thanks to Tom Behr, ExperiencePlus! tour leader and Dr. Judith Brown, Provost at Wesleyan University for their suggestions for this reading list. The list is far from comprehensive and has a definite bias to help the traveler interpret what they see in Tuscany. It certainly is not an academic list and neither Dr. Behr, nor Dr. Brown would endorse it as such.)