HUI216.01 -- ITALIAN CIVILIZATION (Winter session 2007)

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Reading on local identities and cultures in Tuscany

This page contains a reading discussed in class on Jan. 4.

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The Bargain with Pistoia: Tuscany's Hidden Treasures

Maurice Hewlett was born in England in 1861. For a few years he worked as Keeper of Land Revenue Records and Enrollments. After almost a decade of letters of rejections, in 1898 Hewlett published The forest lovers, a historical novel which was an instant success both in England and across the Atlantic. Like many of his contemporaries, Hewlett loved Italy, especially Tuscany. Between 1892 and 1898 he visited Tuscany regularly, walking or using a coach to move from place to place. In 1901 and 1902 Hewlett went back to Italy to work on a travel guide entitled The road in Tuscany, which he published in 1904. And even though on a page of his Diary he wrote, "I think I am done with Italy," he returned to Tuscany at least twice before he died, in 1923.

Italianate English writers were a common feature at the turn of the century. Even Forster's A Room with a View pokes fun at them. What makes Hewlett different from the others? For one thing Hewlett firmly believed that men and women living in various parts of Tuscany belonged to separate ethnic groups, with very little in common. For example, Chapter 12 of Hewlett's Earthwork out of Tuscany is dedicated to the city of Pistoia, which had already provided the place and the characters for one of his Little Novels. According to Hewlett's description, the people in Pistoia "with no money, no weather, and taxes intolerable, (...) laughed and looked handsome. (...) They were still the well-favoured race Dino Compagni described them in the fourteenth century — (...) the men leaner and longer, hardier and keener than you find them in Lucca or Siena (...). They are mountaineers, a strong race." The principle that lies behind this kind of representation is the revival of a typical medieval notion: i.e., men and women are nothing more than by-products of their natural environment, and their attributes are determined by the air, the soil, the amount of sunlight and rain etc. Yet this theory would be rather simplistic, had Hewlett not come up with a peculiar allegation: in Tuscany, he claimed, the centuries following the Middle Ages and the Renaissance had very little impact on social institutions and local customs. Modern history, if you read Hewlett, has not touched or changed the small towns and villages in Tuscany: "in Italy it is still impossible to separate the soul and body of the soil, to say, as you may say in London or Paris, — here behind this sordid gray mask of warehouses and suburban villas lurks the soul that once was Shakespeare or once was Villon. You will not say that of Florence; you will hardly say it (though the time is at hand) of Milan and Rome. (...) At any rate, in Italy as I have found it, the inner secret of Italian life can be read, not in painting alone, nor poem alone, but in the swift sun, in the streets and shrouded lanes, in the golden pastures, in the plains and blue mountains" (Earthwork out of Tuscany). What Hewlett implied is that with every step and every breath modern-day Tuscans grow to be evidence of their own past. The assumption that brings the decisive twist inside this blend of tourism and racial determinism is that, given the history of Tuscany's towns (their medieval origins as independent city-states, the long-lasting fights and the rebellions against the Florentines, the presumed lack of industrial development, the seemingly restricted social mobility), Tuscany is the perfect place to discover what life was like in a pre-modern civilization. In Hewlett's eyes Tuscany became Europe's "land that time forgot," where one could really find — to quote from the novel written by Edgar Rice Burroughs —, "things that no other mortal eye had seen before, glimpses of a world past, a world dead."

To Hewlett, and to some of his fellow travel writers, political decadence and the Darwinian laws of natural extinction provided the basis for exotic explorations of Tuscany. The gloomy descriptions of the Tuscan countryside became an essential part of their literature: not only did they add a picturesque dimension to travel books, they also served to prove a fundamental argument, that many areas of Tuscany had not changed, since change was beyond the power of its people. In fact Hewlett considers the authentic people of Tuscany a dying breed, the last descendants of medieval merchants and bishops, soldiers and artisans; in his view, this is exactly what makes Tuscany worth a visit. Early twentieth-century tourism had turned into a new kind of archeology. Hewlett argued that one should go to Tuscany not to contemplate dusty old ruins, but to find the live specimens of a glorious past: "The people live — Fiorentini, Sanesi, Pisani, Lucchesi — every nation of them as distinct as on the day when their own painters set them on their own church walls: the Tuscans live, but the land is dead. (...) At any hour of the day you may see Giovanna degli Albizzi walk in the streets of Florence, or Ilaria Guinigi go like a goddess down the narrow ways of Lucca."

Of all places in Tuscany, the city of Pistoia, 20 miles North of Florence, was found to be the place best suited for this kind of time-traveling. Hewlett's preference for Pistoia was not unique. Richard Bagot, in My Italian Year (1911), wrote: "I must admit that, much as I love Tuscany, I do not greatly care for Florence, and for Florentine life I do not care at all." But he cared to add: "Very different are the people of the Pistoiese." With them he spent a whole winter and the following spring: "the furniture (...) was primitive, and so was the life — but all the same (...) thoroughly enjoyable — in its own peculiar way, and this entirely, thanks to the simple kindliness and almost embarrassing honesty of the peasant population." And Francis Miltoun in his Italian Highways and Byways from a Motor Car, published in 1909 (that heroic era when inns did not have a garage, and the author's car often had to share the stables with horses, donkeys and pigs), remarked: "All is primitive and unworldly at Pistoja, but there is no ruinous decay. (...) One has only to glance upward as he drives his automobile noisily through some mediaeval gateway to have memories of the days when cavalcades of lords and ladies passed over the same road on horseback or in state coaches."

No single description, though, can match Hewlett's deep fascination with Pistoia. Walking down the road that connects Modena to Pistoia Hewlett sees "all the Val d'Arno lie below him like a carpet" (The Road in Tuscany), like a "brocaded plain," with the city of Pistoia, the Arno and its tributary rivers: Elsa, Sieve, Era, Ema, Evola, Pesa. A simple footnote informs the reader that from those mountains one can actually see Pistoia, but never, not even in the clearest days, Florence or the Arno and the other rivers. So, from the beginning, objective reality is confined to the margins, and the traveler's expectations easily take over. Like a "pilgrim" traveling to "holy places," like a "bride-groom, before the unveiled bride," Hewlett walks into Pistoia moving with a "steady stream of people," who are coming to the city for the feast of St. Atto. He starts a conversation with a "sharp-faced bristle-bearded countryman carrying tools and a wickered flask of wine." The traveler and the countryman talk about religion, spirituality, and the lack of consideration for Saints in Hewlett's native England. After a brief digression on the demagogic practices of British newspapers, the dialogue turns to the basic questions of who this countryman really is, and what is his business in Pistoia. We learn that the countryman's name is Gino Cancellieri and that he works for a Marquis called Panciatichi. When these names are mentioned, Hewlett suddenly realizes — without any doubt or the slightest hesitation — that this man is none other than "the last of the Cancellieri," the only remaining descendant of a family that once ruled Pistoia: "in this man's blood had been brewed that infernal drink which drove Florence mad and Corso Donati to a dog's death." (The fights between the Panciatichis and the Cancellieris fueled the quarrels between White and Black Guelphs in Florence; even Machiavelli and Montaigne mention them when they make reference to Pistoia, in the Prince and in the Journal de voyage en Italie.) To the countryman's humorous dismay, Hewlett solemnly proclaims: "Your forefather, my dear Sir, (...) was tyrant of Pistoia." When the conversation comes to an end the "last of the Cancellieri" enters the Cathedral, and Hewlett follows him. The countryman is going there to perform a ritual in front of the tomb of the Saint; in exchange for an exact amount of prayers, St. Atto is supposed to save the man's son from the evil influence of a brigand, a road thief whose forces Cancellieri Jr. has joined. (A thief had made Pistoia infamous in the 24th canto of Dante's Inferno, where Dante encounters Vanni Fucci, who allegedly robbed the treasure in Pistoia's Cathedral.)

Since his son has chosen such a dangerous life, Gino the countryman may very well end up being "the last of the Cancellieri." He gets into St. Atto's chapel. His "private devotion" is described by Hewlett as "methodical" and primitive. It is, as Hewlett points out, simply a "bargain." And the very idea of a "bargain" inspires Hewlett to define in similar terms his whole experience in Pistoia: "The pleasures to be got out of Pistoja are very much like the benefits you may coax from San Atto. You must make your bargain with the place. If you love the very words Middle Age; (...) if (...) you can be pleased and not offended with the shrewd surmise of savagery and heathenism only too ready to go naked, then you will do well in Pistoja. It has the real mediaeval air. (...) It has been battered by rams, blackened by fire, fretted by weather, speckled all over with men's blood. It is rude, it is hale." Only at this point, after Hewlett's best discovery has been presented, one finds the ordinary catalogue of monuments and churches that is expected from a guide book. A hospital with a Della Robbia frieze and three churches are listed in this section, before Hewlett moves out of Pistoia along the road that takes him to Florence, in a "colourless, heat-ridden, fly-ridden, dust-laden country."

It was not until the 1930s that modernism eradicated that passion for antiquity which had lead Hewlett and others onto less-traveled roads in Tuscany. In Sunshine and Dust (1936), Anne Bosworth Greene, wondering whether she will find any "petrol" in Pistoia, finally sees "a dusty stone house, and a scarlet-and-yellow gas pump decorating its wall. Yes, decorating (...). This one positively glorified the gaunt old house it stood against." When gas stations and old houses began fighting for the attention of Tuscany's visitors, the living fossils from Hewlett's books vanished from sight.

Hewlett's view of Tuscans as separate ethnic groups

As I wrote before, the principle behind Hewlett's reasoning is the revival of the old medieval idea that men and women are nothing more than by-products of their natural environment. Take for example the family journal kept by the Florentine merchant Giovanni di Pagolo Morelli, who lived between the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century: there you find an entire section devoted to the Mugello valley, the place where Morelli's ancestors came from. Morelli goes on and on, describing the extraordinary qualities of so many of the natural products of the valley (plants, animals, vegetables etc.), merely to support his final claim, that men and women born in that valley must be equally perfect. It's just a matter of logic, of cause and effect.

A list of other authors sharing the same conviction would be really too long. But I will mention a couple of modern examples that are particularly close to the original extreme formulation of this idea: the almost poetic paragraphs that 20th-century French historian Fernand Braudel dedicated to the "montagnard" of France and Italy, in his La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen a l'époque de Philippe II, and the pages on "ethnic tendency" and "climate or latitude" as primary causes of poverty in John Kenneth Galbraith's The Nature of Mass Poverty.

Hewlett, as I wrote, maintained that with every step and every breath modern-day Tuscans develop their individuality to become real-life testimony to their own history: living in a pre-modern setting, which is presumed to have survived virtually intact, Tuscans are bound to realize over and over again the same potential that is hidden in their genetic identity. Mutatis mutandis, this kind of travel literature gives new meaning and new applications to the biological principle "ontogenesis recapitulates philogyny"; the development of Hewlett's archetypal Tuscan repeats and summarizes the history of the entire community. In fact after a sketchy summary of the history of Tuscany, Hewlett makes these two statements: first, that "to talk of the history of Tuscany is to talk nonsense," second, that "local character, local idiosyncrasy, local manifestation are the points of supreme interest for the intelligent traveler"; and he adds: "if any one of these towns has no history (in the world-sense), it has a biography, which is a sum of all the biographies of all its unknown citizens - the men who sat at its councils, ruled its markets, built its churches, painted its walls. This is the real history of Poggibonsi, and Barga, and Sinalunga, which I have tried to get at."

A confirmation of this anthropological theory was the supposed purity of the language spoken by Tuscans, and in particular by the people of Pistoia. In his guidebook Italian Highways and Byways from a Motor Car (1909), Francis Miltoun writes that the shepherds and peasants living around Pistoia speak "the purest speech of Italy, the nearest that is left us to the speech of Boccaccio's day" (132). Constantly, Anglo-American authors feel the need to go back to the Middle Ages, and manage to find in Tuscany not just the ruins, but the vestiges, the living traces of that period. Their assumption is that, given the uniform history of most Tuscan towns, their medieval origins as independent city-states (comuni), the long-lasting fights, the numerous rebellions against Florentine domination, the presumed lack of industrial development, and the seemingly reduced social mobility, Tuscany is the perfect 'laboratory' to recreate or rediscover what life was like in a pre-modern civilization.

To Hewlett and to some of his fellow travel writers, therefore, political decadence and natural extinction were the necessary conditions for their explorations of Tuscany. Those conditions represent the objective reality, if you rely solely on books such as Siena and Southern Tuscany, written by Edward Hutton (it came out in 1910): "it is true here in Italy they have attained to peace, but in such a place as S. Gimignano it is the peace of death. Is it very much else, I wonder, in Siena, in Assisi, in Pisa, even in Florence [...]? Some wonder is gone out of the world" (30). "Now the place is less than nothing, a curiosity for strangers; it has no life of its own, and is incapable of producing anything but a few labourers for the fields" (31). And clearly Hutton is not talking about intellectual products alone: "As you pass through its narrow ways and look on the monuments of the Middle Age and the Renaissance, you find everything deserted and a cruel poverty the only tyrant left" (31). "The whole place is deserted. A few beggars, a lounger here and there, an old woman spinning at the door, a few children playing on the steps - these and the sun are all that life has left the Piazza of S. Gimignano which Dante trod as ambassador for the Florentine Republic. Only the past seem to remain here, magically embalmed for once by the indifference of men" (31). "Indeed," Hutton says at the ending of the chapter on S. Gimignano, "I have not [...] altogether understood why I love her so. Yet this I know: she has nothing to do with machinery or the getting of wealth" (38). His champion is Siena: "The modern spirit, a mean utilitarianism, has stolen away the universal beauty of Rome, is even now overthrowing Venice, and has rebuilt and ruined Florence [Florence was Italy's capital from 1865 to 1870]; but Siena it has not really touched, she remains perfectly herself" (69).

And you can compare this with Hewlett's inn in Volterra, which "might have been a dead-house; and so it was" (2.92); Hewlett's inn-keeper was "dying of typhoid" and "all Volterra was exactly accursed, from the landlord to the land" (2.92); "Death alone sat hale in the guest-chambers, and had bespoken the chief seat at the feast." And already Henry James in a piece on Tuscan Cities dated 1874 (collected in the volume Italian Hours), talks about the "pleasure he found it to lounge away in the empty streets" of Pistoia (279). James even maintains that if Italy ever comes out of its status of poverty, it will loose "her picturesqueness" (39).

I don't have to tell you that there is no evidence of all of this being true. James Buzard, the author of a 1993 essay entitled The Beaten Track. European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to Culture, 1800-1918, aptly talks about "strategic omission": inside the tradition of nineteenth-century "picturesque seeing." "Everyday features of the visited place (populations included) either fell cleanly away from view or arranged themselves as part of the spectacle" (PMLA 34); "The gradual improvements in standard of living, the mundane political struggles, the ordinary commerce, and all the many other unpicturesque pursuits were what travelers sought to elide from the view they savored" (35).

Tuscans and change

Naturally Hewlett's position about Tuscany is for the most part the result of his own British colonialist, positivistic view. Reality was not exactly as he described it: he saw what he expected to see, or simply what he was looking for. He had a goal, clearly, which was to prove that Tuscany was as exotic and romantic a place as India or Congo, much exalted in other contemporary travelogues. He omitted references to Tuscany's industrialization and commerce, which were increasingly visible phenomena at the end of the 19th century, and journeyed through the small villages and towns of the countryside looking exactly for the remnants of the past: whatever he found that was true, he then exaggerated in his narration. His Tuscans are often merely literary characters, figments of his imagination, created for the enjoyment of the English readers of his time, who were able to relate to the idea of Tuscans from different areas being separate ethnic groups, and to the idea of Tuscans being sort of anthropological relics, because they were familiar with similar 'scientific' concepts being applied to the Australian aborigines or to African tribes living in remote areas.

Tuscans were changing during Hewlett's time, in fact they had changed already, even though traditions such as the rivalry among towns that were once independent communes (during the Middle Ages and sometimes into the Renaissance) were still strong.

For a long time, between the eleventh and the fourteenth century, sometimes longer than that, most Tuscan cities and many of its smaller villages had been independent from each other, and only formally subjected to the higher authorities of Emperors and Popes. Under the Medieval institution known as "Comune" each community enjoyed a long and prosperous autonomy: each had its own constitution, or "Statuto," each had its own laws, borders and military forces. Even when Florence, in the North of Tuscany, and Siena, in the South, succeeded in a partial unification of the region, the continuous rebellions demonstrated the futility of those attempts to impose any kind of unity and harmony. In fact when Florence was attacked by the Spanish army of Charles V, in 1529, and sustained a year-long siege, none of the other Tuscan cities did anything to help, considering Spaniards and Florentines equally hostile to them, two enemies of the same kind. (And here I will remind you that the same did not happen to Venice in 1509, when the city was attacked by the armies of an enemy alliance called the League of Cambrais: many inhabitants of the Veneto region kept loyal to the Republic of Venice, and kept fighting at its side even in its most desperate hours). A few years ago I visited one of Siena's Web sites and I found the following astonishing declaration of undying municipal pride: "Even now, on the fatal anniversary of Montaperti, the epic battle fought on September 4th, 1260, many people from Siena go and pay homage at the stone commemorating the great victory over the Florentines."

Going back to the history of Tuscany, it was only at the end of the sixteenth century that most Tuscans accepted the ineluctability of their fate, as subjects of Florence and of the Medici Dukes. But they never forgot their past, and the fragmentation, that once was a political reality, marked by city-walls and gates, became the distinctive mark of their culture, the catalyst for the creation of a heritage in which the all-too common Italian phenomenon of "campanilismo" was raised to new levels of intensity and popularity, as well as to new levels of insolence. They had an option, they made a choice. Tuscans chose not to forget. For a long time, even before it became fashionable, they cherished what others have often called the "Dark Ages." They live surrounded by the vestiges of a "Medioevo" that they consider their springtime, their Golden Age, the ultimate consolation for any present trouble or misfortune. They multiplied those vestiges during the age of Romanticism, building fake watch-towers, fake medieval buildings, false evidence of glorious memories, like the house of Dante, in Florence. In more recent times, after WWII, they have restored those vestiges, often at the expense of later changes and additions, tearing off baroque altars from the walls of Romanesque churches or reopening holes in the walls where once were gothic arches. And finally, everybody knows that Tuscans take every chance they can get to dress up in Medieval costumes and play the roles of their ancestors in countless occasions, like the "Calcio storico fiorentino," (every year in June) and the "Palio Remiero di San Giovanni" in Florence (on June 22), the "Palio" in Siena (twice a year, three times on special years), the "Gioco del Ponte" in Pisa, the "Giostra del Saracino" in Arezzo, the "Giostra dell'orso" in Pistoia, the "Palio" in Montalcino, the "Salto della Contessa" in Grosseto: just to mention a few of the Medieval recreations and festivities (some of which are notorious historical fakes).

That municipal spirit still thrives in conversations, and generates successful publications such as Livorno's periodical Il vernacoliere (visit its official site at your own risk:; it's all in Italian, but even if you cannot grasp the vulgarity of the language, the cartoons can be very, very graphic), and books such as Livorno contro Pisa e viceversa [=Livorno against Pisa and vice versa], or Toscana presa a schiaffi [Tuscany slapped in the face]. And this spirit finds the ideal support in the repetition of proverbs and sayings.

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