Monte San Savino, for instance, was especially fortunate that Andrea Contucci was born in nearby Poggiolo in 1460. His skills as an architect and sculptor brought him noteworthy commissions in Florence, in Rome and as far away as Portugal. Yet, he not only chose to live in the village, but also took its name and built some of its finest monuments. To Andrea Sansovino, then, it owes above all its magnificent Loggia dei Mercanti, with its Corinthian arcades, which the architect designed in the second decade of the sixteenth century.
Add to such architectural elements olive groves, cypresses, rolling woodlands and, of course, the great towns of Pisa, Florence, Arezzo, Lucca, Volterra and Siena. Add also a cuisine based entirely on indigenous produce - the famous olive oil of Lucca, the unbelievable variety of meats, the great red wines - and you have another essential element in the classical image of Tuscany.
Yet Tuscany is immeasurably more enticing than this idyllic vision. First, it extends geographically far beyond the region of Chianti, so beloved of Northern visitors, and the six great towns. The Apennines stretch along its northern and eastern limits. Its southwestern boundary is the Tyrrhenian Sea, where the coast is lined with exquisite villages. Latium is its southern border, while to the east it reaches Umbria and the Marches. Above Florence the countryside known as the Mugello is more rugged, and that section of the Alps which abuts on to Massa and Carrara, called by the Tuscans the Alpi Apuane, is even wilder. Near Carrara, Monte Altissimo still supplies the same pure white marble that Michelangelo used for the facade of the Florentine church of San Lorenzo, yet another commission from the great patrons, the Medici.
The greatest lovers of the landscape of Tuscany have been quick to perceive the complexity of particular regions. So, in 1818, Shelley celebrated the valley of the Arno (a valley that has scarcely changed almost two centuries later).
A captivating mixture of chestnuts, acacias, scrub oak and broom clothes the slopes of many of Tuscany’s hills and mountains, while those of the interior are thickly wooded, especially majestic Monte Amiata, which rises 1738 metres above sea-level and is the highest peak south of the river Arno, sheltering crumbling villages from harsh winds. Around Volterra cornfields replace woodlands, the land still supporting a few sparse trees and riven with deep clefts (known as balze), where the soil has been eroded.
The region is dotted with lakes and spas, including the tiny village of Casciana Terme, set amid olive groves, its classical baths approached by tree-lined streets and Art Nouveau houses. Tuscany's valleys are threaded with rivers, which flow through such exquisite villages as Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, at the confluence of the Serchio and the Secca. Some of these river valleys proved so hospitable - particularly, for instance, that of the Orcia - that a succession of villages grew alongside them, notably the beautiful Castiglione d’Orcia and hilltop San Quirico d'Orcia.
Defence against aggressors was always a priority over scenic beauty for the Tuscan villages. Those who controlled the cities of the region longed to increase their power and fortunes. Florence and her satellites rivalled Siena and hers, and their rivalry often broke into open warfare. Strife between the Emperors and the Popes developed into a notorious struggle between the Ghibellines. who supported the Emperor, and the Guelphs, who supported the Pope. The villages and small towns of Tuscany, especially those along key routes such as the river valleys, were prized possessions in these struggles for ascendancy. Such towns and villages were necessarily fortified. Defensive hilltop sites were favoured. (The high ground also allowed the citizens to escape from malaria.) In consequence, again and again a Tuscan village is dominated by its rocca, or castle, today often ruined, but once of considerable strategic and defensive value.
Etruria, the country of the Etruscans from which Tuscany takes its name, was taken over in 351 B.C. by the Romans, who utilized the skills of the people they had conquered and lived in their settlements. They did not destroy Etruscan civilization, which in our own era has been increasingly rediscovered by archaeologists and revealed as one of astounding artistic achievements. The Romans brought their own skills to the province, too, one of which was road-building; the Cassian Way, among the finest roads in the world, was constructed around 220 B.C. with the practical purpose of controlling Etruria. It connects Rome with Florence and Fiesole; it passes through Viterbo and the plains of Tuscia; touching the shores of Lake Bolsena, its goes by Siena before winding through the valleys between Lazio and San Quirico d'Orcia, a splendid village whose fortunes have been greatly enhanced by the presence of the road.
The Christian era saw the building of another route to run parallel to the Via Cassia. The Via Francigena was designed for pilgrims, and brought many to enrich Tuscany. In consequence, the monasteries of small villages can surprise the visitor with, for example, exquisite Irish reliquaries. In the early Christian era missionaries founded many such monasteries, alongside which grew some of the most beautiful villages we enjoy today.
Meanwhile, the Lombards united the region politically, basing their power on the city of Lucca. Charlemagne, conquering much of northern Italy in the eighth century, obliged the region to become a frontier state, its defence for the most part in the hands of the state counts of Lucca. Soon these counts would claim sovereignty over much of present-day Tuscany. Their success, however, was limited. Many Tuscan villages and towns set themselves up as free communes in opposition to their would-be lords. By playing off the Ghibellines against the Guelphs, they often managed to achieve a remarkable degree of freedom. During these later eras, however, Tuscan towns and cities were frequently also riven internally, with such feudal families as the Malaspina and the Aldobrandeschi struggling for power. Some of their palaces and fortresses remain in what are now peaceful villages. Yet experiments in republicanism and peaceful self-government also took place, a legacy visible today in Tuscan villages and towns in the form of the palace of a podesta, or chief magistrate.
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