Chianti from the Etruscans, Romans and Lombards through mediaeval times to the conflict between Florence and Siena, the mezzadria and modern Chianti
The Chianti hills have been inhabited for millennia, making the history of Chianti rich and varied. The mild and healthy climate, the forest abounding in game and the fertile soil have attracted the human species since at least 2000 BC. The first Chiantigiani to leave an impression on the Chianti landscape were the Etruscans. The Etruscans make their appearance in the history of Chianti during the transition from nomadic herdsman to sedentary farmer, and they introduced the cultivation of grapes and wine production into Chianti. A number of place names bear witness to the presence of the Etruscans in Chianti. In particular, the suffixes –na and –ne are evidence of an Etruscan origin, as in Adine, Avene or Avane, Rietine, Nusenna and in addition the names of Starda, Galenda and Vercenni have Etruscan roots.
The origin of the name “Chianti” is rather uncertain. The Etruscan name for the area is documented neither in Etruscan inscriptions nor Roman history sources, but, based on certain topographical names, it is inferred to have been “Clante”. For example, “Clanis” seems to have been the Etruscan name of a stream, originating near Montegrossi in Gaiole, the present name of which is the “Massellone”. The name Clante seems always to be associated with water. Clante was also the name of important Etruscan family from the area that appears in numerous inscriptions. Whether the family took its name from the territory or vice versa cannot be determined at present, but it is fairly certain that the name “Chianti” is derived from “Clante”.
The oldest documentary record so far known of the name “Chianti” is a 12 C copy of a deed of donation dated 790. This deed states that the brothers Atroald, Adonald and Adopald, sons of Atripert, who were obviously of Longobard (Lombard) descent, gave various pieces of land to the monastery of San Bartolomeo ‘a Recavata’, later known as San Batolomeo a Ripoli and possibly the oldest nunnery on Florentine territory. The monastery was founded by their grandfather.
The Etruscans were absorbed by the Romans, who further developed agriculture in Chianti, introducing, among other things, the cultivation of olives on a large scale, not only as a food source but also because olive oil was used in lamps. With the fall of the Roman Empire and the onset of the barbarian invasions, Chianti experienced centuries of decline, leaving little trace in the form of archeological finds. With the advent of the Longobards and the Franks, Christianity gradually became predominant, replacing the ancient pagan religion, and substituting churches for temples, sometimes on the same foundations, but settlements were sparse, and dwellings and parish churches were fortified.
In the mediaeval period, Siena, loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor (Ghibelline), and Florence, ally of the Pope (Guelph), clashed repeatedly as they strove to expand their possessions in the Chianti area that lay between them. The hostilities between these two city states experienced a temporary lull at the beginning of the 13 C, and, with the treaty of 1203, the Lodo di Poggibonsi, a definitive boundary line between their territories was established. This treaty ratified Florentine control of Chianti.
As soon as Florence had taken possession of the border territories towards Siena, a process of reorganisation of all of her possessions into leghe, leagues, was initiated, and around the middle of the 13 C the Lega del Chianti was founded although is it documented for the first time only in 1306. The Chianti League was a military-political organisation with the purpose of governing an extensive territory, and was consequently divided into the terzieri corresponding to the three current municipalities of Castellina in Chianti, Radda in Chianti and Gaiole in Chianti. It was based on a treaty signed with Florence at the Castle of Mugnana in 1198. Castellina was initially chosen as the administrative centre of the Lega but later the leader of the Lega, the Podestà (Lord Mayor), resided at Radda. Although the three villages with their surrounding territory were to all intents and purposes independent, they were subordinate to the authority of the Podestà, and they were obliged to aid and assist one another other, supplying funds and soldiers, when required. The three municipalities became part of the regional territory of Siena at the beginning of the 19 C, during the period of French domination in Tuscany, and were confirmed as belonging to the province of Siena when Italy was unified in the 1860’s and 1870’s.
The majority of Chianti architecture that we visit today belongs to the mediaeval period. Before the emergence of towns in Chianti, the most common form of inhabited nucleus was the rural hamlet, often referred to as a “borgo“. These Chianti hamlets were often located on hilltops and consisted of modest dwellings huddled together around a parish church or a castle keep. Houses were built and enlarged in a haphazard manner, according to the need of the moment, a characteristic feature of mediaeval urban and village vernacular architecture that is still much in evidence in many Chianti villages.
There are numerous examples of these borghi throughout Chianti.
In Castellina: Ricavo, Tregole and Sommavilla.
In Radda: Selvole, Collepetroso and Capaccia.
In Gaiole: Ama, Adine, San Marcellino and Vertine.
In Greve: Borgo di Sugame.
At the end of the Dark Age in Italy (9 C -10 C) and again at the height of the clashes between Siena and Florence during the High Middle Ages (12 C and 13 C), the unprotected villages of Chianti were fortified and many castles were constructed. At the centre of these fortified settlements, surrounded by heavy walls and guard towers, stood the fortified tower, the residence of the feudal lord. Apart from the noble family, this fortified settlement housed farmhands, servants and a few artisans. Mediaeval agriculture was based on bare self-sufficiency, since little more than what was strictly necessary could be produced. No “profit” as such was generated. With the rise of the cities and a class of rich merchants and bankers, of whom the early Medici were examples, men outside of the aristocracy began to buy land to generate a profit, and a new form of agriculture developed. This was the mezzadria, a type of sharecropping, based on the podere or farm, which, apart from the casa del lavoratore, where the peasant and his family lived and worked, consisted of an expanse of arable land and of woodland, which was able to keep the whole extended family gainfully employed. Often the landowner would construct a casa del signore on the land of the podere, not just to enjoy a life of leisure in the country, but also the keep an eye on the activities of his workers, especially at harvest time.
The sharecropper compact specified that the owner of the land provided seed, implements and housing but left the cultivation of the land to the colono (peasant) or mezzadro (crofter), with the production and earnings being divided equally between them. This system started to spread in Chianti around the year 1000, but the transformation from feudalism to mezzadria was only completed in the 16 C. This sharecropping system gave rise to a more productive use of agricultural resources and permitted a development from simple self-sufficiency to the production of surplus – profit, in other words.
The rivalry between Florence and Siena gradually became more severe, and Chianti, the territory that lies between them, was the principal scene of the resulting military confrontations which continued throughout the Middle Ages. The armies which passed through Chianti were by no means only those of Florence and Siena. Chianti was also periodically invaded by more or less “foreign” gangs of soldiers, mercenaries and “masterless men”. First, during the war between the Visconti of Milan and Florence at the end of the 14 C, and then later during the Aragonese invasions, originating from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the second half of the 15 C. These onslaughts left Chianti destroyed and desolate.
The 16 C remained turbulent for the population of the Chianti. The plague struck and, in 1527, the imperial troops as well as the forces of Charles V, heading for Florence to restore the Medici in 1529, passed over Chianti like a swarm of locusts. Peace came to Chianti only after Montalcino was finally taken by Florence in 1555 and Siena utterly defeated. Chianti now became worth investment by the Florentines. The agricultural system based on poderi (farms) became popular and had a lasting influence on the rural landscape and economic structure of Chianti. More small farmhouses were built and castles abandoned. Steep and uneven stretches of land were rendered tillable by construction of the terraced fields supported by dry-stone walls so characteristic of Chianti even today. The agricoltura promiscua (mixed cultivation), became the predominant mode of agriculture almost everywhere in Chianti: rows of vines and olive trees at fixed intervals with wheat grown in between.
Around the middle of the 16 C, Vasari painted a black rooster on a golden background, a symbol of Chianti, on the ceiling of the salone del Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio of Florence. Chianti wine became so famous that the poet Francesco Redi mentioned it in his Bacco in Toscana, and describes it as a “magnificent” and “grand” wine. Chianti wine was soon known and appreciated beyond local and regional boundaries, and even achieved official recognition. In 1716, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III, defined the production areas of the most important wines produced on Florentine territory, in order to regulate the wine trade. In this decree, he specified the boundaries of the region where Chianti wine was to be produced: “from Spedaluzzo until Greve, and from there to Panzano, comprising all of the potesteria of Radda, Gajole and Castellina and stretching right up to the border of the state of Siena”. These boundaries thus included the initial part of the valley of Greve (as seen from Siena), apart from the historical territory of the Lega del Chianti.
An important contributor to the Italian Risorgimento (the unification of Italy) and great benefactor of Chianti was the “Iron Baron”, Bettino Ricasoli. He was not only a politician but also a progressive agronomist who, at his estate, the Castello di Brolio, undertook enological experiments, which led him to propose a specific combination of grapes that made him the originator of Chianti wine of today. His formula to obtain a longer-lasting and more flavourful wine was followed for many years and has contributed in no small measure to the fame and appreciation of Chianti wine. In 1878 the wine was presented with great success at the World Exhibition of Paris, and its reputation grew steadily, only to be interrupted by the devastation caused by the wine parasite, phylloxera, and the two World Wars.
As a result of the growing demand for Chianti wine, the areas of production were continuously enlarged. As early as 1924, an unsuccessful attempt was made to establish the boundaries of the area of production with the setting up of the Consorzio del Vino Chianti Classico. However, a symbol was successfully chosen: the “Gallo Nero”, a black rooster on a golden background, the old symbol of the Lega del Chianti.
Following the end of World War II and the industrialisation of the cities of the north, the depopulation of the countryside began in many parts of Italy, not least in Chianti. The mezzadria system, which had for centuries defined everyday life in Chianti, was satisfactory neither to the increasingly impoverished or absent landowners nor to the increasingly educated rural population. The quality of life under the mezzadria was poor even when the landowners were enlightened, with bad roads, and little motorised transport, electricity or even acceptable drinking water being available. The majority of farmhouses were in dire need of restoration due to the war and the years of neglect before that and no funds were available for this purpose even had there been interest in it. The crisis quickly deepened and within few years the Chianti was depopulated and in a state of decay.
The depopulation of Chianti that began in the 1950s came to an almost complete stop during the 1970s, thanks to the revitalisation of Chianti wine production. During the 1950s, many agriculturalists had lost hope in wine production in Chianti, with some going so far as to advocate tearing up the vines and growing grass. The mezzadria system having disappeared, agricultural reorganisation encouraged the planting of vineyards designed for mechanical maintenance. The imagination of a few revolutionary winemakers, inspired by the first of them, Piero Antinori, led to the introduction of grape varietals additional to the indigenous grape varieties of Chianti, to the super Tuscan wine phenomenon and ultimately to a much-needed revision of the stipulated grape types used to make Chianti Classico. Wine quality improved dramatically right at the moment when post-war demand for wine worldwide began to recover.
The disappearance of agricoltura promiscua and the planting of modern Chianti vineyards left its mark on the landscape, with tidy rows of vines no longer being mixed with olive trees and other crops, and the olive groves themselves more orderly in appearance. The rediscovery of Chianti by the English and later by the Germans as a place to live also contributed to the restoration of innumerable villas and case coloniche with a consequent improvement in the appearance of the countryside and input into the Chianti economy. The rejuvenation of wine production and the influx of foreign residents coincided with the discovery of Chianti as a quality tourist destination. Visitors from all over the world were attracted by the traditions, the landscape, the climate, the gastronomy and the wine of Chianti. The tradition of restoring old houses has been taken up with enthusiasm and skill by local residents over the past 25 years, making available the highly popular rural tourist accommodation phenomenon loosely referred to as agriturism. For now, the outlook for Chianti is positive, especially as the Chiantigiani and their political representatives have realised that development must not compromise the traditions and look that make Chianti so pleasing not only to its residents but to the thousands of happy tourists that contribute so much to local prosperity.