Over the Hills and Far Away – This Is Tuscany

Ah, Tuscany! Since time immemorial one of the most romantic spots in the whole wide world and indeed one of the thoughts that first come to mind when thinking of Italy. Everything about this region speaks for itself and it has for ages put a spell on people who wonder to get married under the sun, to roam on a Vespa through the narrow streets of its iconic hill towns, or more simply to sip a glass of delicious wine in a context quite similar to the one of a fairy tale. I would like to say that living in such a spectacular place makes you somehow forget the beauty you’re surrounded by every day, but it doesn’t. So here I am, after 23 years, still taking the time to say: “I am so lucky”. Of course “Wonderland” would be nothing without its inhabitants and I can tell you Tuscany wouldn’t be what you expect if you exclude the remarkable sense of humor of Tuscan people, their love for their land and the famous hospitality which makes us a good stereotype of our nation. Proof is in the pudding: anyone who was born and raised in Tuscany will always have a joke to tell, will very commonly swear and will die inside if by the end of the conversation they haven’t made you laugh at least once. What can I say, this is who we are and we don’t expect anyone out there to understand our manners, but if irony is not your cup of tea you better book your flight for another destination!


If you decided to keep on reading this article it means you’re fearless enough to get to know us and you definitely deserve to know a bit more about the land you wish to explore too. Tuscany is the fifth biggest Italian region and ninth in terms of population, while Florence, the biggest Tuscan city is also one the richest of the entire nation. However, in order to know who we are, we need to go find our roots and ours happen to begin in the prehistoric times, between the X and VII century b.C, with the people of Villanova who left behind many objects like weapons and jewels that show their advanced crafting techniques.


Despite this early proof of civilization, the first reliable traces were left by the Etruscans. These people were exceptionally advanced considering the times they lived in (VIII and III century b.C.) and since they were also the most powerful civilization in Italy they had no obstacles in expanding and conquering the surrounding areas so that they ended up being a proper federation made of twelve cities (dodecapoli). Not only they were responsible of giving Tuscany its name – coming from “Etruria” and then “Tuscia” – but they also left us an incredibly rich treasure made of jewels, statues, a well-defined alphabet, almost intact burial sites, and tableware too! Even today if you wish to build a house from scratch in the areas that were once Etruscan settlements you might find unexpected surprises while excavating…


The Etruscans’ success faded away as soon as the Carthaginians and the Greeks knocked on Italy’s door, but their extinction was determined by the Romans around the III century b.C. Well, who doesn’t know even a bit of Rome’s history? And it comes as no surprise that Tuscany was one of their first conquests since the Etruscans were practically their noisy neighbors. Once the neighbors were gone, Tuscany, as the “Regio VII” (Region number seven)  was placed in a complex system that might have been seemed too ambitious for those times, but believe it or not it ended up being the Roman Empire, the biggest and most powerful ensemble of land and people that history has ever seen. Florence was founded in 85 b.C. under the name “Florentia” which means “flourishing” was immediately set to be the politicians’ headquarters and a crucial strategic point going north. For this reason, a dense network of streets was built connecting Rome to all the major Tuscan cities, most of which still exist and they are as important today as they were 2000 years ago.


In 476 a.C. the west side of the Roman Empire was crushed into a million little pieces and Italy was invaded by peoples of the north. The Lombards were the ones who mainly occupied Tuscany and the city of Lucca in particular, which became the financial center for all the aristocrats who didn’t exactly get along with the Church in Rome. Not being in the Pope’s good graces was not the smartest idea at the time, both politically and financially wise and that’s why the Lombards were defeated by Charlemagne who personally bothered to include Tuscany in the Holy Roman Empire. From that moment, Tuscany witnessed the blooming of castles and medieval strongholds such as Monteriggioni, Volterra, and Montalcino. Pisa became famous for its one of a kind fleet which had control over the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea as well.


Let’s be honest: the middle ages were quite boring throughout all of Europe. The only thrill one could have was to mess with the Pope and get excommunicated. And that’s what happened from time to time in Tuscany, and when everyone had their fun they would usually go back to Rome, say they were sorry and take their Christianity back. Except for this one time in 1267 when the famous political camps against the Pope based in Pisa, Siena, and Grosseto were excommunicated and cursed until the end of time. The war with his Holiness ended the year after, a bishop was placed in each one of those cities, but some bureaucrat at the Vatican offices forgot to send out the excommunication annulment papers. Nowadays they are all still waiting on those documents of forgiveness and we respectfully invite the Pope’s minions to at least send an email with a PDF attached…


By the end of the XII century, Tuscany was not such a bad place to settle in. That was the moment when the first lines of capitalism were drawn: bankers, merchants, artisans, they all crowded the city centers of Florence, Siena, Arezzo, and Pisa ready to become rich not only for themselves but also to give splendor to their hometowns. This was precisely the story of one of the most famous families of all times: the Medici family. Starting to be prestigious with Cosimo de Medici, a true diplomat with many great talents, the family reached its finest moments with his grandson Lorenzo de Medici. Lorenzo was the first of his dynasty to marry an aristocrat, Clarice Orsini, very well linked with the Vatican and very useful for keeping the peace pretty much everywhere in Italy. Florence was the richest city in Europe, and beside financing others for whatever expenses they had to face, Lorenzo always spent a great deal of money on arts giving the chance to people like Leonardo, Botticelli, and Michelangelo to emerge and create all the wonderful things we still go to museums for. This exciting age of freedom and creativity is globally known as the “Renaissance”, the era in which God is not at the center of attention anymore, but the human being is, with all their questions and dilemmas.


The Medici dynasty ended with Gian Gastone de Medici who despite being married, he didn’t have any children as he was overtly homosexual and apparently recruited young men on a daily basis for orgies. Even if this happened in the XVIII century, people in Florence were not that easy to shock and they buried their duke with all his luxuries only after a sumptuous funeral procession. After a Risiko game between the most powerful European families, the Habsburg-Lorraine family rolled the dices and won Tuscany. The projects for the region’s growth went beyond the wildest dreams of the Medici family and rightfully gained the status of freest place in Europe. Under the liberal leadership of visionary Leopold II, Tuscany was the very first region to abolish death penalty in 1786, to allow free press and to have a constitution in 1848.


The Grand Duke’s many reforms paved the way for Tuscany’s vote to join Italy in its process towards unity. Florence was Italy’s capital city from 1865 to 1870 and played a crucial part when politicians had to decide what the newborn nation had to aspire to, but the king was based in Turin, and that’s where the real decisions were actually made.


As approaching the XX century, Tuscany was still mainly rural and little aristocrats were ruling small pieces of land. But in 1915, after a year spent deciding whether sending millions of people to die in the Alps or not, those brilliant men in charge chose to follow all the other European mad colleagues and plunge into the most preposterous war ever. Any healthy man between 19 and 28 years old was in the sight of the Italian army and 5.6 million of them were shipped to the frontline, around 450.000 of which came from Tuscany. Around 700.000 Italian lives were taken in that hell and 47.000 were the Tuscans that never came back home. A heavy price to pay for something they didn’t even understand.


A second round was bound to be as things were left pretty much unsolved throughout Europe. Everyone was now part of a much bigger picture they couldn’t frame. From the ashes of fear, a new scary movie was about to start: fascism. Benito Mussolini managed to change everybody’s everyday life by using propaganda and violence until it got normal. They were beginning to hear the word “Italy” very often now and behaving meant being part of a great nation. The dream of going back to the Roman Empire faded quickly as Mussolini went from being a puppeteer to being a puppet in the hands of his mustache-friend Adolf Hitler.

And there we were again, with stupidity in one hand and a shotgun in the other, ready to go dying because a blowhard dwarf said so. This time though civilians were involved as well and when people had enough groups of rebels started to gather in order to overthrow Mussolini and defeat the Germans. Needless to say, the Germans didn’t take it very well and vengefully slaughtered civilians whenever they could. Two of the most famous massacres happened in Tuscany: Civitella in Valdichiana on June 29th, 1944 where 244 innocent people were shot dead and S. Anna Di Stazzema on August 12th, 1944 where over 350 were killed and not even a 3-week old baby girl was spared.


After the rollercoaster of madness, people only wanted to forget the horrors of war and move on. And that’s what they did. Families felt free to try the new way of living that came under the American influence: new tools for the house were bought such as the fridge and washing machine, fashionable clothing by legendary Italian brands were surprisingly affordable at the time so that with a little saving one could actually buy a Gucci coat, and last but not least, people could buy a car, and that was really a big deal in the early days of consumerism.


It took a while before everyone could get their hands on a brand new shiny tv or a decent phone, but it looks like time moved so fast that doesn’t seem people used to wait that long after all. And yet we are, in the glorious XXI century, where everything seems possible and we can’t wait for anything. Tuscany got global, and all the characters we mentioned in this story wouldn’t believe how far we got. Somehow we managed to let the world know we exist while remaining local and very attached to our little vineyard.

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