Saturday, August 17, 2013

Conversation with an Historian of Tuscan Architecture

Scattered Notes on the Past

View of Florence, Raffaello Arcangelo Salimbeni (1914-1991)
Just the other day we had a visit from an architectural historian, a retired professor from Florence University who specialises in Tuscan architecture, from the grand to the humble. Obviously we hoped to glean something more about the history of Le Ripe, but although he could give us no greater indications than the name of the archives (in Florence) where we should carry out further research, his conversation was full of fascinating snippets which I thought to compile in a post for those who might be interested. (If I repeat things already written in other posts I apologise to our most attentive readers!)

the epitome of Tuscan grand architecture: the renaissance Ponte Santa Trinità in Florence, with its elliptic arches, considered one of the most elegant bridges in the world

We showed the professor around Le Ripe and he made a few observations. The most likely deduction, which confirms what we already thought, is that Le Ripe may have been a watch/signal tower from the middle ages converted into a farmhouse in the 18th century. The possible tower is still observable today in the magnificent cornerstones on two sides of the central part of the main building while the thickness of the walls would seem to confirm the theory. He informed us that before that time the peasants lived in hovels, not stone farmhouses, and that anything built in stone would have belonged to a landowner. 




The four corners of Le Ripe's (probable) former tower. On the west side, in the cellar, we carefully preserved and display the stonework; on the south side are two sturdy buttresses; at top see the dovecote entrance - the higher parts of former towers were often used for breeding doves; on the eastern side, the well-dressed cornerstones are clearly visible. The walls on all sides are at least 50cm thick; on the lower level they reach 80cm+.

He also told us that the main road below us used to be the real Chiantigiana, not the subsidiary road (SP2) it is today, and that there were establishments in Lucarelli which supplied horses to help haul cartloads (trapelare il barroccio) up the hill to Panzano. The extra horses were harnessed to the others, then  released in Panzano to make their way back home to Lucarelli by themselves. It paints a nice picture and adds to what little we know about Lucarelli. 

open goods cart or barroccio - this is in Naples, but with the chianina ox in the centre it might well have been Florence

Our area as far as Radda was Florentine until Napoleon's time, when it passed over to Siena. This would explain the locals' noticeable preference for Florence which also expresses itself in loyalty to the Florentine soccer team. 

The professor told us a few amusing anecdotes about the archaeological riches of this area: even today Etruscan vases and sculptures keep popping up. Once he was visiting a farm near Castellina and noticed that the farmer was using a perfect Etruscan stone head as a doorstop. He did not approach the farmer about it directly, but the head eventually arrived in a Florence museum. There was also a local priest in the 60s who possessed an incredible collection of artifacts including Etruscan pieces, ancient weaponry, even a genuine medieval chastity belt! They had all been gifted by locals in thanks for his spiritual guidance.

The Etruscan head could have been like this: maybe it reminded the farmer of his wife. I have seen many beautiful faces like this in Chianti
The professor told us something we were unaware of about country churches: the ones called pieve were historically the only churches with a baptistery, which might have been a separate building or a chapel with a baptismal font. The other churches in the area without baptisteries were subordinate to the pieve. In our case San Leolino is the pieve and San Piero, formerly the church nearest Le Ripe, was simply a parrocchia, or parish church. Interestingly, the term pieve derives from the Latin plebs, people, and in the middle ages came to signify the community of baptised people living within a certain territory. This relates to another story the professor told us. A farmer, lamenting the departure of the parish priest, said "Non semo piu' popolo" meaning, "We are no longer a people - or community" which demonstrates how the old meaning of the pieve still survives after all these centuries.

The popolo or plebe of a parish
Speaking of the extreme poverty of the farmers of Chianti up until relatively recently, and how property here was devalued (or unvalued), the professor recounted the anecdote from the 1960s about a farmer willing to exchange his entire farm for a car: "Cambiasi podere con 1100 usata" Not only a car, but a used one at that. 

used Fiat 1100

The professor also pointed out how bad the wines of Chianti could be, until recently. One of the reasons was poor cultivation techniques, another, more serious, was adulteration, from the  innocuous, such as using grapes from other areas, fruit juices and sugar, to the dangerous, such as methanol to increase alcohol content. He spoke of the river Greve running red when such adulterations were discovered. Imagine that.

chianti fiasco in more ways than one
Finally he reminded us how once upon a time there was a steam train/tram from Florence Porta Romana to Greve which continued the service until the 1930s when it was replaced by motorised buses or pullma' as they call them here.

the station in Greve in Chianti upon its inauguration in November 1893
Although short on gems about local architecture, the conversation was interesting. We shall read some of the professor's many books on the history of Tuscan architecture to learn more.

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