Extract from ITALY’S PARADISE, by Alistair Moffat

  19 Jan '24   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Italy’s Paradise, by Alistair Moffat, is the only modern history of Italy’s most popular tourist destination available in English. Insightful, readable and imbued with the author’s own enthusiasm for Tuscany, this book includes a wealth of information not found in tourist guides.

1. Pitigliano

The town is asleep, fast asleep under the dark blanket of the night. It is long past midnight and in the Piazza Petruccioli only a handful of yellow streetlights twinkle. No-one is about and the silence seems deepened by the fluttering of umbrellas outside the shuttered cafés. Over the parapet by the arched entrance to the town, the ravines plunge down into fathomless blackness. And the high ramparts of the massive bastion disappear into the night sky. On the gentle breeze the warmth of the day still lingers, and there is no need to hurry, head down, through the silent streets. History waits in the shadows of Pitigliano, the story of Tuscany waits to whisper its secrets.

Many of them are to be found in Pitigliano, a spectacular hilltown built on a tongue of rock with sheer cliffs on three sides. In the southernmost quarter of Tuscany, only 140 kilometres north of Rome, it is one of the oldest continuously occupied settlements anywhere in Italy. The cliffs of tufa, a soft volcanic rock, make Pitigliano easy to defend and the fertile countryside around it has nourished its people for a thousand generations and more. The stones of its streets and houses are steeped in Tuscany’s history, and on dark, silent nights the ghosts of an immense past murmur in the gloaming.

Through the arch under the bastion is the Piazza Garibaldi and the Municipio, the Town Hall. They cower below the brutal mass of the Orsini Fortress, its hundred-foot walls pierced only by a scatter of tiny windows. The citadel sits astride the eastern approach to Pitigliano, the only one not guarded by the sheer tufa cliffs. Recognising its ancient strength, a division of the Wehrmacht set up its headquarters in the fortress in 1944. Part of the Gothic Line, the brilliant fighting retreat which slowed the Allied advance up through Italy, Pitigliano became a key centre of operations. The grey uniforms of German grenadiers were seen patrolling the ramparts, their binoculars searching the horizon for enemy movement, and below them armoured cars rumbled through the archway under the bastion, past the Medici aqueduct and into the Piazza della Repubblica. Blood-red banners bearing the black swastika were tumbled out of the high windows above the gateway to the fortress, and Pitigliano waited for the attack that would surely come.

On the morning of 7 June 1944 the townspeople heard the fighters before anyone saw them. Screaming out of the cloudless sky, they strafed the walls of the fortress and the buildings close by. Circled stars on their wings, American bombers droned over the summer countryside, the engine noise growing ever louder, and they scored direct and devastating hits on Pitigliano. They completely missed the Orsini Fortress and the German headquarters but destroyed most of the houses on the western side of the Piazza della Repubblica. Eighty-eight were killed, many of them women and children. Even in the darkness and silence after midnight, the only modern buildings in the town loom up across the deserted piazza like new tombstones in an old graveyard.

Piercing them like a sunken road, the Via Roma burrows into the maze of medieval lanes, narrow and shadowy, winding its way back into the past. Stray cats sidle warily along the street – and suddenly swim under the ancient oak doorways of storehouses and stairways.

On each side dark alleyways open, running away downhill towards the houses which perch on Pitigliano’s cliffs. Five hundred years ago all of Tuscany’s towns were like this. In Florence, Pisa, Lucca and Siena people lived piled on top of each other, densely packed, constantly in contact. Gossip, news, argument and laughter left only the wealthy and the pious with anything like privacy or quiet. And unobserved under the cover of the night conspirators met and muttered behind their hands.

Just as the canyon of the Via Roma seems to crowd in overhead, it suddenly opens upon an apparition. The ghostly white marble façade of a cathedral rears up, and an ancient medieval bell-tower soars away into the night above it. St Peter and St Paul look down from their niches, the pillars of Holy Mother Church, its rock and its founding theologian. But the telling dedication, what explains this startling building, is to be found on a discreet street sign. Beyond the shadows of the Via Roma is the Piazza San Gregorio VII and it commemorates the greatest of medieval popes. Born into the Aldobrandeschi family the lords of Pitigliano, and known as Ildebrando before he was crowned with the tiara, Gregory VII achieved political miracles.

Elected in 1073 by the College of Cardinals, he promulgated a remarkable document, the Dictatus Papae, the ‘Supremacy of the Pope’. For the fi rst time it elevated the doctrines of papal infallibility, of the right of popes to nominate all bishops and established that God’s Vicar on Earth was supreme over all other rulers. And despite the fact that Gregory had no army to back his huge claims, he forced their adoption.

After Charlemagne had been crowned Emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day 800, and had revived and reinvented the Holy Roman Empire, the ancient title had been held by a succession of powerful German kings. When the challenge of Gregory VII’s Dictatus Papae became clear, the Emperor Henry IV threatened war, mustered armies and planned an invasion of Italy. The impertinent pope would be deposed. But what became known as the Investiture Contest eventually degenerated into a humiliating defeat for the German emperor.

When Gregory VII excommunicated him, casting Henry and his family out of the Church, denying them the sacraments and condemning them to eternal damnation, the emperor’s authority began to crumble. The winter of 1077 was more severe than anyone could remember, but Henry and a small imperial party were forced to make a dangerous journey across the Alps. At the end of January they reached the castle at Canossa in the mountains on the northern borders of Tuscany. There Pope Gregory was under the protection of the powerful Countess Matilda, and when news of the Holy Roman Emperor’s journey to Italy became known, an attack on the fortress was expected. But behind its walls the Holy Father would be safe.

Alistair Moffat was born and bred in the Scottish Borders. A former Director of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Director of Programmes at Scottish Television and founder of the Borders Book Festival, he is also the author of a number of highly acclaimed books. From 2011 he was Rector of the University of St Andrews. He has written more than thirty books on Scottish history.

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