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By Giovanni Caselli

Inventing the Past

13th to 15th c. AD

Responding to the requirements of military activity, castles, designed as aristocratic residences, were converted into strongholds, and villages grew outside the walls. In 1289 the Florentine army defeated the army of Arezzobelow the castle and town of Poppi, in a plain called "Campaldino", a name to remember in the history of  Florence. The victory of Florence and its rule over a Republic that included the territory of Arezzo will never wane. Young Dante Alighieri, took part in this great battle; years later he was to be an exile from Florence and a guest of the Counts Guidi of Poppi, now mere custodians of  Poppi.

A slow but steady decline of the power of the Counts ensued. The dynasty of the Guidi divided itself into four families, one based on Modigliàna, one in Dovàdola, another in Romèna and the last in Porciano. The ambitions and aims of the wealthy bourgeoisie of the free communes gave no quarter to this old landed aristocracy who had made their fortunes by means of talls, rents and pillage. The hostility of  Florence manifested itself in all its determination when in 1440 the Casentino was invaded by the Florentine army with the help of the Guidi of Battifolle. The castle of  Poppi, freshly converted into a residential fortress, was seized, and with other similar castles of the Casentino, became the seat of a Florentine Governor representative of the Florentine Republic.

Cities, resurrected from their ruins, were inhabited by a population of largely Middle Eastern origin, turned into a bourgeoisie or urban nobility, thanks to trade, banking and craftsmanship, overpowering the old rural nobility of Germanic origins, who either succumbed or joined in by moving their residence to the city itself, or joining the ways of the bourgeoisie. However, no compromise was possible between a civilisation that, under the influence of its nomad origins believed in Customary Law and another which, influenced by Byzantium, followed the tradition of Roman Right as expressed in Code of Justinian.

Levantine influences, deriving from immigration and commercial exchange, left their mark in the architecture of the towns of  Tuscany, they did in Arezzo, Firenze, Prato, Pistoia, Siena, Lucca and Pisa. Dante himself, by virtue of his contacts with scholars such as Brunetto Latini and Raymond Lull -who travelled in Italy in 1313 - came across a Zoroastrian text, the "Arda Viraf", of the "Avesta", in its 1262 Arabic translation and drew from it the structure of his "Commedia".

In the late 13th c., scattered houses were common all over the countryside. These had a rectangular plan, with fashioned stone walls and a roof covered with terracotta tiles. These isolated houses, found mainly on gentle slopes and hilltops were in the main the dwellings of tenant farmers of the "mezzadrìa". They were as yet uncommon on higher ground and in the mountains, where dwellings were still grouped into "casalia". From a record of 1250, we learn that in a hovel near Siena lived a couple with a minor, dedicated to the cultivation of a vineyard. The furniture of the one-roomed hut consisted of a chest with a tablecloth, a shirt, a belt and two pairs of shoes. There was a bread-making chest (màdia), two tables and a light. There was no bed and there is no mention of the clothes worn. Household utensils included ten bowls, a small olive oil jar, and three larger jars for oil, drinks, and legumes. Foodstuffs consisted of 633 kg of wheat, 26,3 kg of flour, 146 kg of spelt, a similar amount of pulse, 100 kg of "Celtic beans", 48,7 kg of linseed, 24, 36 kg of dried olives. They drunk must, wine and "acquarello" (a wine derived from a second pressing). Wine production amounted to 974 litres per year, and this was probably sold for cash.

The "casalia" were, in many cases, abandoned by the middle of the 14th c. due to the spread of the Black Death. As the plague spread, halving the population, the "mezzadrìa" system of farming also spread. The "mezzadria" system, hitherto a rare occurrence, gradually became widespread, drawing from the ancient Etruscan and Roman traditions which never died out in outlying districts. With it, also spread the adoption of equally ancient tools and implements, such as the "tréggia", a summer sledge, the "civèa", a basket for the "tréggia", the circular hut called "California" or "tamberlucca", the wooden plough and the yoke, and a whole world of ancient methods deriving from an ancient living tradition, which had been laying dormant for centuries.

People of Jewish, Syrian, Armenian, Greek, Egyptian and Iranian ancestry made up the bulk of the urban population of Tuscany and elsewhere, this is clear from the results of genetic tests. By the beginning of the 14th c. a bourgeoise class of merchants, bankers and craftsmen had established itself, bringing the wealth and the confidence necessary to create a new urban aristocracy, which during this century absorbed or eliminated the ancient rural or 'palatine' nobility of Germanic origin. The wool trade reached its peak during the 14th c. English wool and oriental dyes, together with the secrets of the "Arte della Lana" of  Florence (the Guild of wool-merchants), produced a heavy red fabric which was sold throughout the known world.

Florentine banks lent money to traders all over Christendom until the crash of the Bardi-Peruzzi bank which occurred in 1342, caused by the default of King Edward III of  England. In spite of such crises, both aristocracy and bourgeoisie retained their power; resisting pressure from below, and gathered under the Guelph emblem. They were able to hold their own against Imperial or Ghibelline power. The struggle between Guelph "oligarchy" and Ghibelline "democracy" fuelled the uprising of the "Ciompi", the workers of  Florence , in 1378. The victorious revolutionary government only lasted four years. After the restoration of law and order, Guelph power was over, but the power of Florentine merchants did not wane and the Medici family rose above all others. As the Black Death was mowing down the population at regular intervals during the whole duration of the 15th c., war added to the suffering of a population upon which high taxation had already put a heavy burden. Farmers and free workers fell into debt, the rural population decreased; only the demand for roof tiles increased at this time.

If tiled roofs were still rare in mid 14th c. Tuscany, they were rarer still in mountainous or outlying areas, where roof tiles replaced thatch and slate only during the 20th c.. The typical roof of Tuscany, known as the "Corynthian" roof, probably of Chinese origin, arrived in Etruria around the 7th c. BC from Asia Minor. All over the Hellenic and Roman worlds such tiles came into widespread use, especially to roof temples and official buildings. With the fall of the Roman Empire tile factories closed down all over the Empire, and henceforth roofs were covered with slate or thatched. Only within the linguistic area of  Tuscany the "Corynthian" roof reappeared, beginning from the 12th-13th c. Why this happened, non-one knows.  In the province tiled roofs reappear the 14th c. almost exclusively in the towns. This "recovery" of a past industry might have been the work of Benedictine monasteries such as Camaldoli, but no research has yet been done on this matter.

In conclusion, during the first half of the 15th c. scattered houses proliferate at lower and medium altitudes. Houses, as a rule built on a flattened hilltop with gentle slopes, were provided with wells or springs. On the plateaux at higher altitudes and in mountain areas there survived the old "casalia" and villages, more rarely the odd castle. The drop in population caused by the Black Death will gradually be reversed only towards the end of the 15th c.

The Rebirth of Classical Civilisation

By the end of the 13th c., villas, in the Florentine meaning of the word, have already begun to flourish around that city. These were the residences of landowners who had adopted the "mezzadria" system, and had converted an older building or built anew, to create a country retreat. They built an urban residence in the middle of their farming estate from which to manage their business and process the products brought in by the peasants. As in Roman times, the villa had a "pars urbana" and a "pars rustica". The first mirrored the city residence, which itself mirrored Islamic models observed in Spain and the Levant, characterised by an inner courtyard; the second was a farm provided with storage facilities, and machinery for pressing oil and grapes etc.

The crisis caused by the continuous epidemics of Black Death which pervaded the entire 15th c., led to an increase in sheep farming and "transhumance", which in the Apennines and the Maremma again played an important role in the economy. This increase in the traffic across the country, caused frequent conflicts between farmers and sheep drovers, and the governments of Tuscan cities passed laws designed to bring order to the movements of flocks and in the assignment of pastures. From this time some prehistoric sheep tracks were abandoned or altered and proper "customs roads" or "sheep toll roads" (dogane delle pecore), established with defined halting places, rights and duties.

Apart from Michelangelo, himself a Florentine accidentally born in Casentino, it is true that many illustrious artists and scholars of the Renaissance are from the valleys of Mugello and Casentino, and that in these valleys many of them, and others who came in from outside, left their mark. One of the first and foremost patrons of such artists was Cosimo de' Medici.

The guilty feeling for having accumulated excessive wealth by speculation, brought a bourgeois class, of distant Levantine descent, to become patrons of the arts and of public works in Tuscan cities. If the Renaissance has a peak, this begins with Cosimo and culminates with Lorenzo de' Medici. The long process of "Italianisation" of a rural class born of an aristocracy of nomad warriors on the one hand and an urban bourgeoisie of Levantine traders on the other, was accomplished. A new ruling class, almost a replica of the refined Hellenistic princes of the Classical past, had emerged. The 60 years which elapsed between the rise to power of Cosimo de' Medici, in 1434, with the title of "pater patriae" (father of the motherland), and the death of his grandchild Lorenzo, in 1492, is the "Golden Age" of the Renaissance in Tuscany.

When the humanist Niccolò Niccòli died, Cosimo acquired his library and erected a special building to host it, next to the Convent of San Marco thus creating the first public library of Post Classical times. Marsilio Ficino became the first promoter of a new Athenian Academy, called "Accademia Platonica", which made Florence the main centre for Platonic studies. He pointed out to Donatello the Classical models for his inspiration. Michelozzo, who was employed by him to design the Medici family palace in Florence (now Palazzo Medici-Riccardi), took lavish Levantine samples as models, and copied the façades of the urban "khans", the caravanserais of Baghdad. Benozzo Gozzoli painted the private chapel of the palace with a symbolic scene representing the procession of the Magi.

The countryside too regained its classical look. It was exactly from the middle of the 15th c., that the full recovery of a mythical classical past in every aspect of life, including philosophy, was an accomplished fact. Of course this is far from saying that history had repeated itself, since this new “European world” was in fact a synthesis of Graeco-Roman, Persian, Indian and Chinese cultures. "Neoplatonism" expressed itself through scholars such as Marsilio Ficino or Cristoforo Landino. Landino wrote a commentary of Dante's Divina Commedia, and compiled the "Conversazioni di Camaldoli".

Neoplatonism is also expressed in the architecture and associations of the churches and monasteries of the Badia Fiesolana, of San Marco in Florence and also of Santa Maria del Sasso, near Bibbièna, the latter an echo of San Marco in Florence. Renaissance architecture crops up here and there throughout the towns of Tuscany. Buildings erected during the 13th and 14th centuries show embellishments and restorations especially from the late 15th c. onwards.

Many houses and churches in the towns and villages, and in the monasteries of the valleys and mountains of the Republic of Florence, bear the marks of the Renaissance or, in other words, of the rebirth of classical taste and spirit. There is in the main church of Bibbiena, a small and rather overlooked piece of sculpture in the local sandstone, a "holder for the host" (cyborium), which vividly synthesises such a taste and spirit. The question arises as to where the unknown artist has drawn the decorative elements for this work. Such elements clearly derive from the Hellenistic architecture of Asia Minor, but what events and which avenues brought them here? Such a small masterpiece most fittingly epitomises the recovery of the past in the Casentino and in Tuscany as a whole.

Many artists, and among them the Della Robbia workshop shines the brightest, have left their mark in the churches and monasteries of  northern Tuscany, such as Camaldoli, La Verna, Santa Maria del Sasso, and Santa Maria delle Grazie. The dazzling terracotta of Della Robbia were particularly suitable for the damp climate of mountain valleys, which tends to cause the deterioration of wall paintings, canvases and wooden tables; for this reason the works of Della Robbia are predominant in numbers. Besides the inspired faces and compositions of Luca, Giovanni and Andrea, we are particularly struck by the 'grotesque' decorations of the cornices, which display far-fetched cultural connections.

Decline and Recovery

From 1500 onwards

After a period of confusion which followed the death of Lorenzo de' Medici, and coinciding with the discovery of America (1492), Tuscany fell under Spanish influence. Florence, which after the Sack of Rome had again lifted its head, returned to the Medici family no longer as the capital of a republican city-state, but of a Duchy, now embracing the whole of Tuscany, a spurious monarchy, based on the myth of ancient Etruria. Tuscany as a state had never had historic basis since the Etruscan nation, Cosimo I de' Medici declared himself a "New Porsenna", and wore the fictitious diadem of the ancient Etruscan King, which stated: "Porsennae regis negligentia amissum/ Cosimus Medicis virtute ac vigilantia recuperatum"

From the 16th c., the Reformation and Counter Reformation brought about the decline of Tuscany, where the principles of Luther had been highly appreciated by a large section of the population. Cosimo obtained the new title of Grand Duke of Tuscany from the Pope, and became the first monarch of a dynasty and regime that lasted until the death of the last Medici in the 18th c.  The countryside of Tuscany was continually subject to rape and pillage by passing armies and gangs of mercenaries in transit to and from Rome. 16th and 17th century rural buildings were either the medieval farmhouses erected during the spread of "mezzadrìa" in the 14th c., or, for the majority, thatched huts of wattle and daub, "mere shelters for beasts and humans" as the scanty records report. At the dawn of modern times we find that life in the countryside was appalling, especially if seen through the eyes of today.

(Adapted from: Giovanni Caselli, The Casentino, its History and Nature, Le Balze, 2003)

Post scriptum:

I am glad to say that the so called "Renaissance Genius", as expressed by Dante  and by the Medicis, was little else than Levantine and especially Jewish, Genius.  I think nationalists, Fascists and Chauvinsts of all kinds must resign themselves to this rather unpleasant truth for them.