Some years ago young summer travellers to Scotland returned tanned on a late summer ferry from Dover to Calais. We were returning from a rainy Tuscan summer and looked at them enviously. One vivid memory was of a visit to Perugia. A host of umbrellas hurried along the streets and round the famous 13th-century fountain. Our wet and hungry children were rushed up the steep steps into the vast ‘Hall of the Lawyers’ on one side of the main square, built about the same time as the fountain. Across the valley you can see the basilica in Assisi dedicated to St. Francis. There the two proud cities fought many a battle over the control of their hinterland and of the trade routes from north Europe to Rome and southern Italy.
Instead this time we flew to Rome leaving parched Britain – no longer William Blake’s ‘green and pleasant land’ – to travel north along the verdant Tiber to Tuscany where it rained in June. The stream below our land is still flowing, one of many that drain the hillsides between Cortona and Arezzo into the Chiana valley. Travellers assume that the Chiana is a river. Not so. In 1503 Leonardo da Vinci sat where I am writing to draw a map, which is also a sort of landscape, of the view from this house. His map is now in the Queen’s collection at Windsor.
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 one 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 to 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 stone 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 is a good year for olives. The trees are laden, but the heat is building up to a storm. We shall see.