A few years ago I went to the archives of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to find out when the Tuscan mountainsides were first terraced. I had already walked through every room in the famous picture collection, hoping to find landscape replacing the gold of heaven in early religious paintings in the later 15th-century ones by Perugino and Raphael and to find some indication of terracing. Rolling hills lay in the middle ground with misty mountains at the back. No indication of terracing. Landscape was yet to become a subject in itself.
Our neighbours have taken us up their Tuscan hillside through overgrown paths once well-trodden by their ancestors. There are terraces, sometimes quite narrow and now invaded by scrub, above the ‘olive line’ where it is too high and cold to plant olive groves. One can only marvel at the toil involved. Streams that drain the hillsides have worn paths into the rocks to form marshes in the valley below, drained and cultivated in Etruscan and Roman times from about 600 BC. After the decline of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD, trade decreased, Roman roads fell into disuse, the Val di Chiana returned to marshes. The population dwindled, succumbing to malaria, and retreated to the well-drained hilltop towns to cultivate the hillsides around them. The lowland returned to the pre-Etruscan swamps.
We have restored an abandoned mill that stands strangely above the stream that should power it. Behind it is the dry hollow that must have been the mill race. When we were digging holes for poles to support a pergola two terraces above it, we found a large hole lined with bricks. What was it for? And why there? Was it to store food so the landowner would not know how much food his peasants had produced? Or was it to hide food from mice and rats? Further up the hillside there is what looks like a manmade bank that straddles the terraces – was it once a watercourse? Our neighbour, whose family has lived in this area for centuries, explained that it had been built to carry water to fill our millrace from the same steam, but higher up the valley. The current was stronger there and would keep the millrace full – there is a gap for a sluice gate to avoid it overflowing. The inhabitants of the valley must have built at least a kilometre of earthworks to carry the water – a piece of engineering across our valley to enable the four gritstone wheels to grind wheat and olives.
The struggle for survival patterns this hillside – is that part of its attraction?