Behind the ruin, which is now the house where I am writing this, were the usual weeds and a few bushes. It was a hot August day, and most were wilting, but on one side I noticed a light purple flower with yellow stamens. Ah, I thought, this is an attractive weed, and then moved on to look at a fig tree laden with small, hard fruit. There were two ageing plum trees and further back still a walnut, all planted, we were told, by the peasant farmer before share-cropping was abolished in 1964. Still further back was an olive grove planted centuries ago, perhaps even by the Etruscans who trod these hills from around 600 AD, or maybe even before that. The olive was probably the first tree to be cultivated, since time immemorial, to produce oil for cooking and lamps, on well-drained hillsides with sun and no frost.
Van Gogh, born too far north in Holland, became fascinate d by the gnarled trunks of olive trees in the south of France – two, even three or four – growing out of the ancient roots. South of Rome, olives have a single trunk because they have never been struck by frost. One spring we arrived in Tuscany to find local countrymen in despair. Above the valley road were hillsides speckled with blackened ghosts of ancient olive trees. Moisture in the branches had been unexpectedly frozen, we were told, expanded and split the branches. There would be no olive harvest that year, maybe not even the next one, but the trees never died. The dead branches would be cut off and others would sprout from the Etruscan root, there before Christ was born. Regeneration. Nature gives hope but requires patience. So grandparents would plant olive trees for their grandchildren. Hope literally springing out of the ground, if one waited long enough.
Olives, the local countryfolk stress, require care. Come spring and they should be pruned. Branches are lopped off at the centre to let the sunlight and air in. Some scatter farmyard manure over the roots. Agricultural historians disagree over how far medieval farming relied on the manure from horses and oxen conveying people and produce, depositing in the process manure on the land.
Theories abound to explain the causes of the famine that devastated the countryside in the first half of the fourteenth century. Dante’s Florence at the end of the thirteenth century is thought to have had a population of around ninety thousand. Over a century later, according to the census taken in the 1430s in the Florence of the early Medici, it was around 40,000. As the population increased in the 1300s, so did the cultivation of the hillsides to provide more food for the city’s population. Ploughs climbed further and further up the hillsides as is clearly depicted in the fresco in Siena’s town hall, one of the earliest paintings of the countryside in Europe. Manure was deposited more thinly on a wider area causing a series of crop failures. It may be that a weakened population was less able to resist the disease, or ‘Black Death’, carried by rats on ships, that devastated Christendom in the first half of the fourteenth century. It was frighteningly depicted in numerous Dominican and Franciscan church frescoes during the fourteenth century. Many are still there.