Bittersweet times in Tuscany

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Lots of folks travel to Tuscany to gawk at Etruscan tomb paintings. Many seek the remains of the Renaissance, or they (as I do) fawn over the carvings in Romanesque churches, (or—like my mother—swoon over Baroque churches). By the time we come to the 20 years of Fascism, our little tourist army has dwindled considerably. There are only a few stragglers by the time we get to the mid century 1950s, when Italy finally started to show signs of a post-war economic recovery, however dawdling its arrival. Italy was still considered poor, and it wasn’t until late in the 1960s when you could count on a Tuscan farm house to have indoor plumbing.

This slow crawl out of poverty makes for a very interesting historical period to me, as I sit in the shade of my neighbor’s house in the Lunigiana and listen to reminiscences of times past. It’s not something you come to Italy to hear about. Italy in modern times seems locked into a particular, unchanging present, held hostage to our dreams of artisan-produced pork fat and gelato.

But things actually changed quite drastically in that half century. The country’s “economic miracles” created jumps in time and fortune, people got serious about what they ate, the tourists came and overpaid, and the rest, as they say, is history, or yet an agreed-upon version of it we hold close to our hearts.

I came to discover Europe in the mid 70s, and settled upon a yearly sojourn thereafter. In the Tuscany of the early 1980s I realized we were standing at the precipice a new era as we watched a man with a rag and a couple liters of chemical goo wiping down a nearly black chapel, and watching in amazement as the pink and gray marble emerged from behind swipe of the rag. Suddenly, tourists couldn’t say Italy was dirty, and not so long after a simple plate of pasta with tomato sauce brought oohs and ahs from the invading hordes.

Tuscany soon became the nexus of a movement toward that looked toward Europe, and particularly Italy for a peek at that imaginary “simpler” life to cleanse the gunk from our commerce-hollowed spirits. I bought our house in the 1990s, late to the party but glad to witness my Lunigiana neighbors slaughtering pigs to make prize-winning salami, or trudging to hilltop olive groves with an army of friends to make olive oil. We were amazed to hear them talk of the region’s prized beans, and how they only grew on the north side of our nastily narrow little road. We lived close to the land, at least for three months at a time.

Others, of course, had the good sense to come to Tuscany earlier. Food writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who arrived in 1950 and bought a cottage with ample land for olive-growing, has observed a good part of the history of the region in modern times. She has recently collaborated with the Camden Public Library to produce a fascinating narrative of life near the town of Cortona over the past 70 years. I encourage you to watch this fascinating presentation.

Change is slower in the Lunigiana, so some of the things lost in rural zones outside of Cortona are still intact today in our little corner of paradise, but the inevitable erosion of the feel-good nature of a tight relationship between the land and its curators is indeed disappearing little by little. My advice is to come now if you want to experience the living museum.

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