Maremma amara

Maremma amara

By
Emiko Davies
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781743792117
Photographer
Emiko Davies; Lauren Bamford

Known for its wild natural beauty, the idyllic coastline of the Tyrrhenian Sea and winding (often crumbling) hilltop villages, Maremma is an area marked by an invisible border of Etruscan history squeezed between the geographical borders of the sea and the mountains. Almost a region within a region, it runs the length of the Tuscan coastline from Cecina, in the southern part of the province of Livorno, to Lazio’s province of Viterbo. Making up about a quarter of Tuscany’s surface area, it has the town of Grosseto and its province, more or less, at its heart.

Dante Alighieri helped define Maremma’s area in the Inferno of the Divine Comedy, where he describes the Maremma of the 1300s as a rugged, harsh land inhabited only by wild animals:

‘Non han sì aspri sterpi né sì folti quelle fiere selvagge che ’n odio hanno tra Cecina e Corneto i luogi cólti.’

Even its name, Maremma, comes from a description of its landscape – from the Latin maritima (of the sea) and from the Castilian word marisma (marsh or wetland).

It is this wetland that plagued the Maremma with deadly malaria from Dante’s time until the early twentieth century, resulting in poverty, isolation and abandonment for centuries. In the 1700s and early 1800s, improvements to the Maremman wetlands and the soil were attempted by the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, notably Ferdinand III (who ironically caught malaria there and died in the summer of 1824), and then his son, Leopold II. The idea was to repopulate this part of Tuscany by draining the marshes and making the soil fertile enough to cultivate. But it wasn’t until the 1920s that the marshes were drained and the area successfully repopulated under the Fascist government.

In part, the delay in ridding the Maremma of malaria and its devastating effects has to do with the fact that it wasn’t until 1898 when the cause of malaria was finally discovered and proven as a mosquito-borne infectious disease. Although even the ancient Romans realised that malaria occurred in areas where stagnant water was found, they didn’t know it was because it was the preferred breeding ground of mosquitoes. Before the discovery of the cause of malaria, it was thought that stagnant and dirty water created a sort of miasma that made the air toxic and unhealthy and that this, as well as poor quality or badly-kept food, was the cause of malaria – which comes from the Italian words, mal aria, literally, ‘bad air’.

The words of a famous nineteenth-century folk song, called Maremma Amara, is sung in a beautiful but melancholy and mournful tone. With its eerie and extremely sad undertone, it can be likened to Portuguese Fado. It’s a song that speaks of the real pain, suffering, longing and isolation caused by the malaria-stricken lands.

‘Tutti mi dicon Maremma, Maremma ma a me mi pare una Maremma amara. L’uccello che ci va perde la penna io c’ho perduto una persona cara. Sia maledetta Maremma Maremma sia maledetta Maremma e chi l’ama. Sempre mi trema il cor quando ci vai perchè ho paura che non torni mai.’

‘Everyone tells me Maremma, Maremma but it seems to me a miserable Maremma. The bird that goes there perishes I have lost there a loved one. Damned Maremma Maremma damned Maremma and those who love it. Still my heart trembles when you go there because I’m afraid you’ll never come back.’

The few Maremmans who remained steadfast, such as the butteri (the cowboys who raised long-horn cattle) became icons who symbolised the tough and hardworking lifestyle of this unique part of Tuscany. The many centuries of malaria, poverty and isolation may have been the Maremma’s curse, but today they also seem to be its blessing. Everything that you see now has been shaped by it, from the unspoilt landscape to the culture and its important connection to the land and its wonderful food, with its rich traditions.

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