Leonardo da Vinci’s Valley

The Etruscans from 800 BC onwards drained and cultivated this fertile valley and held their Olympic games to the west of Cortona where the great burial tumuli still stand. The Romans took over the Etruscan canal network until it fell into disuse after the decline of their empire in the fifth century.  The larger tumulus has the remains of a monumental staircase with sphinxes wrestling humans at the bottom. It faces a monumental gate in the walls of Cortona high on the hill opposite. One can imagine a procession leaving the city following a priest down to the flat area where the games took place to ascend the steps to the ceremonial seat and look across the games back up at the gate he had just left.

The Chiana valley became a malarial swamp in the Middle Ages when the dwindling population lived in the hilltop towns and walked or rode out to their fields down the slopes to the edge of the valleys. Boulders and stones were built into retaining walls and hillsides were transformed into terraces. When I first discovered Cortona, the narrow fields were planted with olives and under them, kitchen gardens thrived and even small wheat fields. Along the edges of the terraces, about three metres apart, were long upright stones with holes chiselled at the top for wooden poles to stick out over the terrace below. Originally twine, then wire from post to post supported vines that hung over the lower terrace so the breezes ruffled the leaves and bunches of grapes while the dappled sunlight ripened them. At harvest time families on the lower terrace would reach up to snip off bunches of ripened grapes. No bending, no backache.

Hot weather heralds storms, usually after the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on 15th August. Just when small green olives are beginning to swell and grapes to ripen, heavy rain, or worse, hail, can beat unripe olives and grapes to the ground. After one such storm, the clouds cleared, sun sparked diamond drops on the olives and oleanders and three of our neighbours stomped from their fields on one side across our forecourt – with a slight nod at us up on the veranda – to their fields on the other side  This has not happened yet this year but storms are forecast.

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