Tuscany, an Inspiration for Life
Valentino Monticello celebrates a region of breathtaking scenery, art, wine and opera
"As a lover of art, music and wine, there is no other region in the world that attracts me more than Tuscany.
Its beautiful landscape, surrounded by mountains, rugged Mediterranean coastline and rolling hills emanating a rich spectrum of breathtaking pastel colours, has inspired people of this region for centuries.
The Etruscans built their towns and afterlife abodes in this area.
In the woodland around the monastery of La Verna near Arezzo, St. Francis talked to the animals and preached to the birds of his love for nature.
The lack of intensive farming in the past means the region is still rich in flora and wildlife. Vast areas of the Garfagnana and Lunigiana mountains (the highest peaks in Tuscany) are designated as nature parks and the Maremma remains relatively unspoilt.
Tuscany is blessed with natural resources, alabaster is mined in Volterra, Carrara is famous for its white marble and the 300 quarries in continuous use make this area the oldest industrial site in the world.
Massa Marina is closely associated with mining, the surrounding hills once produced lead, copper and silver ores. Montecatini Termi and Bagni di Lucca are the most interesting spas. Bagni Vignoni south of Siena is full of hot sulphurous water, bubbling up to the surface from the volcanic rocks deep underground.
Saturnia is a health cure modern spa with its pools and rocks stained coppery green from sulphated hot water. The Etruscan, Romanesque, and Gothic influence can be seen almost everywhere.
Only 14 of the original 76 skyscrapers of San Gmginiano have survived but still the town is one of the best preserved in Tuscany and has scarcely changed sine the 13th century.
Tuscany is above all the cradle of the Renaissance - Dante, Petrarca, Boccaccio, St. Catherine of Siena, Pisano, Martini, Masaccio, Cimahue, Duccio, Giotto, Michelangelo, and many more have contributed to the spread of this revolutionary civilisation from the 12th century onward throughout Europe.
In Florence, Ghilberti, a master of perspective, created the illusion of spatial depth with celebrated doors of the Baptistery. Michelangelo enthusiastically called them the ‘The Gate of Paradise’ and Brunelleschi built, in a revolutionary way, the largest dome of its time without scaffolding.
The Renaissance artists introduced human expression and spirituality with deep psychological realism to their art.
Donatello’s wooden statue of the Magdalene in Florence conveys vividly the former prostitute’s grief and penance.
In Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection, in the town of Sansepolcro, we can see an impassive Christ striding out of his tomb surrounded by a primitive eternal landscape, while at his feet, the sleeping soldiers seem trapped in time.
Frangelico’s beautiful and tender frescoes in the Convent of San Marco, Florence, inspire contemplation and move one to tears.
Leonardo’s drawing of the battle of Anghiari express to the limit the ugliness of wars, vividly portraying the anger and suffering of humans and animals.
The Florentine cartographers, with their skill for space and perspective, produced the first revised maps of the world. Amerigo Vespucci was the first to realise that Columbus had discovered a new continent and the Florentine mapped and named this continent Amerigo (to later change to America).
This universal culture is carried forward today by modern artists, among them, Modigliani and writers like Collodi with his moral tale 'Pinocchio'.
Marble paper is a Florentine speciality. Tonics and liquours, perfumes and toiletries, have been handmade to ancient formulas by monks and nuns. Tuscan potters produce highly decorative modern pieces as well as perfect Renaissance copies.
Creative technical designs, fashion wear and accessories, jewellery, precious metal and stoneworks are produced by homegrown artists like Gucci, Cavalli, Daelli, Coveri and many others. Quality leather goods, handbags, wallets, jackets and handcrafted shoes are made by the likes of Ferragamo.
In the 11th century, Guido D’ Arezzo invented a form of musical note. By the 16th Century, Florence had seen the dawn of opera. In this century, a small group of thinkers, poets, and musicians formed a society called ‘Camerate’, a term used as an alternative for ‘Academy’.
The Camerata group which met during 1580 at the house of Count Giovanni De’Bardi in Florence was of great importance for the development of opera. Its members included Corsi, Galilei (father of Astronomy), Strozzi, Peri, Caccini, Cavalieri, and Rinucci.
The point of departure was the ancient Greeks, who they believed had performed their tragedies to the accompaniment of music in which there was a perfect union of words, melodies and visual costumes and scenery effect.
This new style made the first appearance in 1582 with Galilei’s cantata ‘Il Conte Ugolino’. In 1588, Peri’s ‘Dafne’ was presented in the Pitti’s Palace. Opera was also lavishly presented in the beautiful setting of the Boboli gardens and the Uffizzi.
The musical tradition continues with ‘The May Florentine’s Festival’ where many first world performances and little known works by great composers are produced.
Torre del Lago near Viareggio is another festival venue where the very popular operas of Giacomo Puccini (a native of Lucca) are successfully presented.
An arts festival (Cantiere Internazionale d’Arte) directed by the composer Hans Werner Henze is held at Montepulciano. This is a very important international festival of new works by leading composers, dramatists and choreographers.
The Tuscan soil shows a great diversity, limestone, dolomite volcanic soil, sand, clay, schist, flysh and marl all make an appearance in different places.
The climate depends on the altitude and the distance from the sea. It can be temperate in some places but continental with large differences between day and night in others. All this results in a varied and complex morphology and consequently a region that is able to grow some of the best olive trees and an enormous variety of red and white grapes successfully.
Winemaking in Tuscany dates back to the Etruscans. Their flourishing wine trade was allowed to slide back by the Romans and later destroyed by the Barbarian invasion.
It was restored by monks in the middle ages and grew greatly in stature during the Renaissance. This position of eminence was maintained for the next two hundred years when the region was well ahead of its time in winemaking skill.
In 1716, the Duchy of Tuscany named Europe’s first official wine areas, two of these being Chianti and Carmignano.
Methods of viticulture, fermentation and ageing, unsurpassed anywhere in the world, were developed and the region continued to flourish.
Unfortunately, a combination of this success and devastation caused by the phylloxera epidemic, led to a marked degeneration of what all wines, in particular, Chianti, stood for.
When the vineyards were replanted, in a misguided effort to make good all losses, the product failed to live up to the name. The wines became coarse and cheap in order to serve a mentality that put quantity above quality. Eventually, supply came to exceed demand, leading to a crisis in the industry.
The introduction of the D.O.C. and D.O.C.G. in 1963 and 1980 has led to more and more producers seeking to recapture the standards that had been lost.
Now, great strides have been made and a number of estates, particularly in Chianti Classico, are experimenting with non-local grate varieties with considerable success. Many so called super Tuscan wines are now among the best in Europe."
A luxury book: Valentino Monticello, "Opera and Wine, Wine in Opera" ISBN 90-807371-1-9 is available.
For further information see http://www.valentinomonticello.com
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Photographic contribution by Luca Moiana