Jennifer Osei-Mensah writes about the peculiarities of ancient legacies in Tuscany
One of the things I love most about Italy, apart from aperitivo and pizza, is how varied the culture is across the country. Bigger cities such as Florence existed for hundreds of years as individual city states before Italy was unified in the 1800s, and some of the rural Tuscan towns have been around since the Etruscans chose to settle there, so the locals have had quite a while to develop habits. And as the cities were separate and often in competition with each other, they have developed some very specific, and kind of strange, traditions.
Florence is known for being the home of the Renaissance – a city of art, culture, and sophistication. Or so I thought, before I watched a game of calcio storico. ‘Historical football’ is played in the Piazza Santa Croce, on a pitch made of sand and surrounded by bales of hay. There are four teams of 27, each representing one of the neighbourhoods of central Florence, who play in a tournament of three games. They also all wear ‘historical’ and hilarious breeches. Nothing so weird about that, right? The catch is that there are basically no rules. This means that there’s punching (although not to the head), kicking, tackling, people ripping other people’s shirts off (I didn’t work out what tactical benefit that has)… in the match I watched, which lasted 50 minutes, one man was carried off on a stretcher. People have been killed while playing. But the team representing my neighbourhood won that day, so silver linings…
Siena, to the south of Florence, has a similarly violent tradition in the Palio. I had heard of this famous horse race before visiting Siena, and believed it to be a pleasant gallop around the city’s central piazza. Wrong. The Palio is in fact of massive cultural significance, because the contrada, which are the 17 neighbourhoods of Siena, race one another. If your contrada doesn’t win the Palio in 50 years, then your neighbourhood ceases to exist. So far not so weird. The interesting part is it is the horse that represents the neighbourhood, not the rider. Unsurprisingly, this means that riders are totally allowed to interfere with other jockeys’ horses on the track, and push the riders off with their whips. An ancient and savage tradition.
Another striking way that cities differ from one another is in their architecture – despite being geographically extremely close, cities in Tuscany vary greatly in their aesthetics. Again, because they were often competing with each other, the cities were constructed to show off their pride and intimidate each other. For example, there’s a lot of black and white in Siena because, according to legend, the sons of Remus (aka brother of Romulus, founder of Rome and raised by wolves) escaped Rome on black and white horses to found the city of Siena. There’s also a lot of pink marble, solely because it was expensive and the Sienese wanted to flaunt their wealth.
San Gimignano, a tiny hilltop town, had a particularly inventive way of showing their strength, which was to construct lots and lots of towers. In its heyday, which was the 1300s, San Gimignano had 72 towers. Considering the historical centre was 13 hectares (about the size of 13 rugby pitches), this was quite a feat. Sadly, San Gimignano was devastated by the Black Plague and then the Medici family – now all that remain are 14 towers, and the Medici seal plastered about. However, while the unique skyline wasn’t a great defense technique against invasion, it has earned the city UNESCO world heritage status.
Tuscany can seem like one single destination, made up of rolling hills, cypress trees and lots of wine. And while these things are true, the stereotype doesn’t do justice to the massively rich and varied history that is kept alive here in all its weird and wonderful forms.
Feature Image: Soprano Villas
Image Credits: Dream of Italy, Giovanni Pisano