Romance and reminiscence in the Tuscan countryside
Just a few days after Britain initiated divorce proceedings against Europe, I got married and my wife & I then headed off on honeymoon to… Europe! Italy specifically, and to be more precise, Tuscany, to relax and recuperate following both events (Brexit and wedding) on an organic vineyard and olive farm.
It could not have been a more beautiful and calming place. Nor more apposite for contemplating the breaking off of relations with our European neighbours. For the farmhouse Locanda set high above the Arno valley hosted a microcosm of the European Community; with fellow guests coming from Denmark, Germany, Holland, and Italy – along with one other refugee family from the UK fleeing the pitiful post-Brexit internecine back stabbing occurring across all political parties.
The notable, predominant tone to all the inevitable Brexit conversations we had within our community was people’s sadness at our leaving. Not anger, nor resentment or even a hint of them turning their backs on a country that should now be left to lie in the messed-up post-marital bed it had unmade for itself. How different to the angry, divisive exchanges that were traded by our posturing politicians gambling the next generation’s wellbeing for their short-term political ambitions. The calm concern we were offered, made me even more ashamed of the coarse and vindictive vitriol Nigel Farage fog-horned out in the European Parliament the week after the vote. Ashamed that Farage, in his faux country gent’s loud tweed checks and covert coat, might be considered by our continental cousins as representative of the manners and mores of a typical English gentleman.
Fortunately, the Italians – and Tuscans in particular – have had longer familiarity with more genteel and cultured English gentlemen and women over the decades. Such as, the aesthete, poet and historian, Sir Harold Acton, born into an Anglo-Italian family, who spent much of his life at his beloved Villa La Pietra, near Florence – and which became a stopping off point for many an aspiring writer and art critic on their ‘Grand Tour’ of European cultural centres. But as well as being the crucible of the Italian Renaissance, promoted during the ascendancy of the Medici family and their transformation of Florence through the patronage of Michelangelo and a myriad, lesser known painters, sculptors and architects, the Tuscan countryside beyond the medieval walled cities has and continues to resonate with the English.
Chianti-shire, a commercial, as well as romantic, concept
Not so much the arriviste ‘Chianti-shire Socialists’ politicking at Blair’s court and Tuscan Villa in recent times during the UK Parliamentary summer recess, but English travellers over decades seeing in the patchwork of vineyards and olive groves interspersed between arable fields and grassland and set beneath the rolling, blue-green wooded hills beyond, something reminiscent of the English countryside. At least that idealised English countryside as depicted by the great landscape artists of the 18th and 19th centuries, John Constable, Samuel Palmer and Francis Towne (the latter travelling and painting in Italy, which much influenced his style). Reminiscent because for much of the English countryside, that patchwork quilt has long been grubbed up, shredded through, and homogenised by the mega-machines of industrial agriculture. Whereas as we cycled through the Tuscan countryside in 2016, hay was being teddered by kit of the size I remember as a child used on the small tenant farm next door to our home on the Cheshire border – and pulled by, what I’m pretty sure was, a Ford Series 10 tractor from the 1970s (tiny compared to today’s computer-controlled behemoths bludgeoning British fields and soils into submission).
Italy has around 1.6 million farm holdings, averaging in size at just under 8 hectares, with only 5% above 30 hectares. In total these employ around 4% of the entire Italian workforce. England has ten times fewer farm holdings, on average six times larger than their Italian counterparts, with 30% of farms above 50 hectares, and worked overall by well under 1% of the country’s total workforce. Some might suggest this shows the greater efficiency of modern English agriculture compared to the ‘old-fashioned’ farming appealing to the eyes of rural romanticists such as myself?
But far from being backward looking or economically unviable, the Tuscan way of farming sustains that landscape beloved of painters over the centuries and drives an agri-tourism business contributing around 8% to the total Tuscan tourism sector – a significant percentage, given the huge concentration of tourists visiting the urban sites of Florence, Pisa and Siena. The vineyards, olive groves and farmed landscape of Tuscany have been estimated to contribute Euros 177 million annually in terms of monetary value to the tourist trade – and that’s not including, the economic value of the 180 million bottles of the regionally distinctive and denominated Chianti and other Tuscan wines those vineyards produce each season.
Our Countryside existing only in pictures…?
EU farm support, rural development programmes, agritourism and environmental schemes have been critical to protecting and sustaining this distinctive region. Of all EU member states, Italy represents one of the largest storehouses of biodiversity and wildlife habitats in Europe. And within Italy, Tuscany is the repository of the country’s richest, most diverse range of wildlife – hence having over 2,500 sites designated under the EU Habitats Directive. Having willfully turned our backs on Europe and so access to those support programmes and schemes, the very real worry is whether our remnant landscapes and countryside, which still do (just) hold on outside romantic reminiscence, will continue to exist in any form other than in the paintings of Constable, Palmer and Towne.
Rural Tourism Driving Regional Development in Tuscany. The Renaissance of the Countryside. (2011) Randelli, F.; Romei, P.; Tortora, M.; Mossello, M.T. Dipartimento di Scienze Economiche, Università degli Studi di Firenze, Working Paper No. 11/2011.
Natura 2000 habitats in Tuscany (central Italy): synthesis of main conservation features based on a comprehensive database. Daniele Viciani , Lorenzo Lastrucci, Lorella Dell’Olmo, Giulio Ferretti, Bruno Foggi. Biodiversity and Conservation, June 2014, Volume 23, Issue 6, pp 1551-1576
The economic and ecological role of the cypress in Tuscany: a case study Gianni Della Rocca, Paolo Raddi, Institute of Plant Protection, CNR Italy; Leonardo Casini, Carlo Daniele; DEISTAF, Florence University, Italy.