Kings, noblemen, dictators and even the fabled Medici have shaped this region, leaving behind more than just castles and walls, but also a heritage that has been beautifully conserved by generations of Maremmani.
When Dante Alighieri was writing The Divine Comedy, there was no such place as the Maremma. To him and other 14th century poets, the beautiful countryside was called Corneto. Forever immortalised by Dante in this quote:
Dante Alighieri (Inferno XIII, 7)
“Non han sì aspri sterpi né sì folti
quelle fiere selvagge che ‘n odio hanno
tra Cecina e Corneto i luoghi cólti.
Quivi le brutte Arpie lor nidi fanno,
che cacciar de le Strofade i Troiani
con tristo annunzio di futuro danno.”
Which in English, can be roughly translated as:
“Such tangled thickets have not, nor so dense,
Those savage wild beasts, that in hatred hold
‘Twixt Cecina and Corneto the tilled places.
There do the hideous Harpies make their nests,
Who chased the Trojans from the Strophades,
With sad announcement of impending doom; “
Okay, so maybe it’s not the nicest of quotes, but you have to give Dante a break. The Maremma he knew was pretty uncivilised. What are now sunflower dappled pastures, were brackish swamps back then. The only things that managed to scrape any sort of existence out of the area were diseased lepers and no well-to do Florentine, writer or no, would have had anything to do with them. The landscape was wild and foreboding and so were the people.
But, to take a step back in history, the Maremma wasn’t always a cesspit. Before it was given any defined boundaries, before it was lost to disease, the province was one of the proudest and most magnificent corners of the Roman Empire in Tuscany. It represented everything that made the Roman Empire grand, except not all of it was built by Roman hands.The earliest records of this undefined province date back to the Bronze Age. Archaeologists have found early settlements and necropolises throughout the countryside that were built in the 3rd century BC. Much of these have been lost, but you can still admire the remains of this age in the museums of Grosseto.
But the Maremma’s real golden age was brought about by the calm and industrious Etruscans. Etruria covers much of the modern Maremma and was a beautiful empire that funded its existence through mining and selling metals and golds to the rest of the pre-Roman world. Archaeologists believe the Etruscans were incredibly cultured, loved music and dancing, had a frighteningly-modern system of government and shared their knowledge with the Greeks.
Unfortunately, they weren’t the best soldiers, so when the Romans came to take their land, the Etruscans were wiped out. The Romans wanted the Maremma for its minerals, its thermal springs and access to the sea. You can still visit Etruscan cities throughout the Maremma. The best two are Vulci and Roselle and both are open to intrepid tourists all year round.
From the glory of Rome, the Maremma collapsed into age after age of fear, religious zealots and war. The two shining figures of the Middle Ages were the Aldobrandeschi and Orsini families. Both incredibly noble, and at times brash, they divided almost all of the Maremma between them from the 10th to the 15th century. They built the fortresses that dominate almost every modern Maremman city today.
But their rule couldn’t last forever and the Spanish and Sienese Republic tore the province apart. The Maremmani hated their foreign rulers, but they had to endure them for almost 300 years. By that point, the province had almost been entirely abandoned. Large swamps and coastal marshes covered the fertile lands, rivers without dams flooded the woods and Mediterranean vegetation. Malaria killed everyone, including Grand Duke Ferdinando III of Lorraine – the Medici who liberated the Maremma from their foreign invaders.
As I sit here and write this history, it seems a little bulky and dry, but you have to understand that it’s this history that defines the modern Maremma. The province itself was only united in the 18th century along with the Republic of Italy. Its residents may no longer remember a time when the Maremma was separate, but those dividing lines are still a part of their lives.
The locals here might call themselves Maremmani, but what they really mean is that they’re Mancianese, Pitiglianese, Grossetani. They have their own histories, their own traditions, their own cuisine and sometimes their own dialect. When I first came to the Maremma, I fell in love with this independence and assertiveness. No matter how small the city, there is always something that makes it unique from even its closest neighbours.
For a tourist, every Maremman city is like its own world. Centuries of history and an infectious heritage that is just waiting to be discovered city after city.