Always and forever, the Bel Paese
The variety and beauty of its ‘landscape’ is what makes Italy unique.This term is not always easily translatable but relates to the environment and the many ways in which man has transformed it, during its multi-faceted history. The result is a combinatio
The variety and beauty of its ‘landscape’ is what makes Italy unique: a combination of nature and art that delights the eye and the heart.
Italy takes up only 0.5% of the planet’s surface. So the impact it has on travelers across the world is thus totally out of proportion to its actual size. However, there are many reasons for this: the history of the Roman Empire, whose power made Italy the centre of the world for decades and its strategic position in the Mediterranean, which fostered Italy’s relationships with other countries, are only two of the many reasons. However, what makes this peninsula unique is its ‘territory’: its incomparable wealth of coastlines and mountains, lakes and plains, compressed by nature into the smallest of spaces, and then skillfully shaped by man using a variety of artistic techniques. Therefore, what we call ‘landscape’ is actually a convergence of hills and rows of cypresses planted by man, steep banks and cultivated vineyards, fertile areas transformed into cities and then decorated with marble, embellished with art and painted with colours that have made history. This is Italy. A poignant example of how a place can be blessed by both the climate and man’s ingenuity (which does not mean that everything is perfect…). On 14 March 2017, for the first time, the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities (MiBACT) celebrated ‘National Landscape Day’, to raise awareness among citizens about issues linked to the protection of the landscape and remind people just how important it is to adopt a new, more insightful attitude to it, since the landscape is a
heritage that can only be protected through a network of public and private bodies, local agencies, associations, individuals and tourists visiting Italy.
Chefs, academics and entrepreneurs of the agri-food industry (including people like Slow Food’s Carlo Petrini and Eataly’s Oscar Farinetti) have made it a crusade, that emerged conceptually in the themes dealt with during Expo Milano 2015. Italy’s wealth lies in its biodiversity, which is expressed in 7,000 different species of edible vegetables, 1,200 indigenous grape varieties, five hundred olive cultivars and much more. This variety of agricultural products is matched by a similar diversity of landscapes, works of art and history. According to many this cultural biodiversity is truly the ‘Great Beauty’ of Italy. FAI, the Italian National Trust and the cultural body that protects the environment and its treasures, has catalogued several of Italy’s principal landscapes. There’s the hilly landscape of the Langhe in Piedmont and the even more famous one of Chianti, in Tuscany. The former, comprising soft, rolling hills, is famous for its wines, truffles, hazelnuts and cheese. The latter, located between the provinces of Florence, Siena and Arezzo, is known throughout the world for the beauty of its countryside dotted with farmhouses, and a scattering of sacred Roman or Gothic buildings. The abbey of San Galgano, located just a few kilometers from Siena, is an almost perfect example of the marriage of art and nature. The ruins of a famous medieval church, of which only the outer walls have remained, have become a sort of stylized icon, of Gothic creativity. With only the sky for a roof, it is a place of universal devotion, where nature appears to rule, embellishing the area surrounding its ruins with an explosion of vibrant sunflower fields. The number of times that the Tuscan hills have ended up as part of a film are impossible to count and this, according to many, is the real Italian landscape. But there’s much more.
Mountains of coral and floating cities
There is the jagged, uneven mountainous landscape of the Dolomites, whose breathtaking rock formations
resemble a coral reef, which they actually are. Geologists have confirmed that, in the distant past, the Dolomites were surrounded by water. The Ligurian landscape, consisting of mountains plunging into the sea, cliff-hugging towns and plots of land transformed into terraces for farming purposes, with the surprises of the Gulf of the Poets or the Cinque Terre is also breathtaking, as is the lagoon landscape, inscribed en bloc on the World Heritage list, which includes Venice and its islands. An example, rightfully acknowledged throughout the world, of how man has used his ingenuity together with incredible feats of architecture to dominate and beautify an extraordinary geographical area without distorting it, by building a city on water and transforming it into a maritime power. Another spectacular area is the lacustrine landscape of Northern Italy, including the world-famous Lake Como, a basin of glacial origin, inhabited since the dawn of time, and now surrounded by some extraordinarily sumptuous villas, often graced with paradisical gardens. Its beauty has been immortalized on the silver screen and is a destination that continues to attract tourists from all over the world. The landscapes of central Italy, recently and tragically ravaged
by recurring earthquakes, have no need of an introduction. These include Umbria and Montefeltro, the Gran Sasso mountain range and the lentil fields of Castellucio di Norcia, known for their beautiful, brightly coloured blossoms. The coastal areas offer several picturesque views from the Tyrrhenian sea to the Adriatic. For example, the Argentario and the Conero Nature Park.
The seas of the south
And then there’s Southern Italy. The Amalfi Coast, lying south of Naples, with its towns (Amalfi, Ravello and Positano) and its neighbouring islands (Capri, Ischia and Procida), is an outstanding example of a Mediterranean landscape. It is scented with lemons, infused with folklore and blessed with several of the most unique archaeological sites in the world, including, first and foremost, Pompeii, the Roman city petrified by the volcanic eruption of 79 A.D. A little further down, we find the Murge and the Stones of Matera, where from the time of the Paleolithic era men created villages from the tufa stone, reclaiming and transforming this indefinably lunar landscape into something more civilized. Today, it resembles a nativity scene (it has often been used as a setting for several films to recreate the places where Jesus of Nazareth spent his life, including, most recently, Mel Gibson’s popular and widely disputed The Passion). Over the past few years, Salento, with its olives and dry stone walls, sea and ‘masserie’ (typical local farmhouses), has become a sought-after tourist destination. It is a warm, welcoming place that is well worth visiting. On the other side of the ‘Boot’, we find Calabria with the plateau of Sila. The area is renowned for its lush vegetation, abundant wildlife and wild, unspoilt scenery which is not found anywhere else in Italy. Here too, the sea is nearby and, despite being one of Italy’s least well-known regions, or possibly because of this, several of its beaches hold some delightful surprises in store for those visiting them. On the subject of beaches, we must mention Sardinia which has some of the dreamiest beaches, white sand, scalloped coves and crystalline water that you’ll ever find without leaving Europe. In this case, it’s not actually a question of places ‘just waiting to be discovered’ but instead is renowned for the beauty of its sea and, in summer, its beaches are packed to overflowing. However, it will not disappoint, especially when accessed by boat. Finally, there’s Sicily, another excellent example of Italy’s magnificent blend of nature and history, untamed beauty and art. It is not by chance that in the first edition of the ‘Landscape Day’ promoted by MiBACT, the landscape prize was awarded to the Archaeological and Landscape Park of the Valley of Temples of Agrigento which will represent Italy in the framework of the Landscape Award of the Council of Europe. The award, linked to a project of re-launch and protection,
embraces a unique area where the traces of Magna Grecia have become one with the rocks and vegetation of the area. In addition to its marvelous temples, the park hosts the socalled ‘vegetable patriarchs’, or species that have grown here since the dawn of time: olives, carob trees, myrtle, almonds and pistachio trees. An enthralling, enchanted place.
As previously mentioned, in Italy, the exchange between nature and art has given marvelous results. Human art has shaped the landscape, making it unmistakable, while the distinct personality of the Italian landscape has ended up as the subject of art itself. In bygone days, the Romans painted landscapes to decorate the walls of their domi or houses (the most dazzling example is that of the mosaics of Villa Adriana in Tivoli). On the other hand, Early Christian art only considered nature from a symbolic point of view, meaning that we had to wait until the late medieval era to see a realistic representation of the landscape. It was at that point that Duccio di Buoninsegna, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Giotto and Cimabue arrived to move us with their narrative imagery. In the 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci was the first artist to invent the technique of linear perspective, giving life to the spectacular era known today as the Renaissance. The Baroque period saw a return to classic landscapes, where biblical and mythological figures were interspersed with a lush, realistic portrayal of nature. Then, in the 18th century, Canaletto’s ‘Vedutism’ finally focused on portraying cities which, during that time, became the destinations of the Grand Tour, the ‘voyage of initiation’ undertaken by young European intellectuals. Over time, it has become increasingly clear that Brunelleschi’s Dome in Florence, the Tower of Pisa, the Vatican walls and even Leonardo’s Last Supper or the Sistine Chapel are as much a part of the ‘Italian landscape’ as the sea and hills of Chianti. It is here, where generations of conquerors have left their mark, that art appears to be a product of the earth, and is by now indistinguishable from the fruits of the soil.
SPIRITUAL BEAUTY The spectacular site of San Galgano, near Siena: above, the remains of the medieval basilica; below, the fields of sunflowers that surround it in summer. Facing page: Cala Luna in Sardinia.
ITALIAN PANORAMA The diversity of the Italian landscape, clockwise: the ‘Stones’ of Matera’, the ancient olive trees of Salento (Puglia), the vineyards of Central Italy and the breathtaking scenery of the Dolomites.
SEAVIEW The town of Manarola is part of the ‘Cinque Terre’, one of the most panoramic areas in Liguria, a coastal region of north-western Italy.