I needed salt. The house we moved into the previous night had no salt at all. The water for the pasta was boiling and the people we invited to enjoy our shady house and cool swimming pool were on the way. It was a hot summer Sunday, and the nearest shop where I could buy some was about ten kilometers away and closed. I got in the car. There must be some neighbors who will be generous with their salt, I thought. But our part of Tuscany was a sort of waste land. We wanted it that way, would it not have been for the lack of salt. There was no one on the farm closest to our house. A mile on, there was a renovated fancy villa with the huge lock on the entrance gate. Further down the road, I saw a sign that read “Frantoio” and “Trattoria,” or ”Olive oil mill” and “inn.” I turned in, drove for awhile on what seemed to be a completely abandoned road. The drive ended at the small group of countryside buildings, a borgo of some kind. There was no sign of people, there was no sound of plates and forks, that lazy chatter typical of Sunday family lunch.
When they heard my car, a flock of little kids turned around the corner, all tweeting happily. I asked for their mom. They said upstairs. I talked to the kids for a while. They were from Bangladesh they said. Some of them were born in Italy and spoke good Italian. The oldest kid ran upstairs when a man’s voice from the upper floor of what seemed to be an old agricultural building–perhaps a storage–asked me in Italian what I wanted. I told him. I asked if he could sell or lend me some salt. No salt to sell, the voice behind the window said. Just a spoonful to cook pasta, I said, using an old Italian trick; it was around 1 p.m., perfect time for lunch. Wait, he said. I talked to the kids a bit more and then the girl came down with two perfectly wrapped packages of salt. One was a sale grosso and the other small package was a sale fino, the girl told me in perfect Italian. The coarse salt for cooking, the other for flavoring.
I thanked the man whose face I never saw and asked about frantoio. He said it no longer existed. For years. No rain, no olives. No frantoio. The mill has been transformed into a shelter for immigrants who can afford to pay some rent. The abandoned storage building is good enough for immigrants. It was hard in Bangladesh, but it is not easy here either, said the voice behind the mosquito screen. I have to drive every day to Sinelunga to work in a factory, the man said.
The land of Crete Senese is a void open space and whoever is coming there, in our days, is not coming to cultivate the land, but for the cheap housing on the abandoned farms. While the young Italians are escaping and searching for jobs–the youth unemployment in Italy is about 40 percent–the olds are awaiting their death, drinking their little cappuccinos. The refugees are filling in the empty spaces, offered cheap lodging by the local authorities or by a lonely elderly person. Small businesses in Arezzo, Asciano or any place you travel in the area are filled with new migrants of every kind. In Asciano, which already lost more than half of its population (down to 7000 from previous 17000) there are refugees, but also students from all over the world. They come to study Italian in Siena and living 35 kilometers away in Asciano is much cheaper than renting a room in the town, famous also for the oldest bank in the world. Then there are villas dotting the area and filled with the random foreign tourists like we were. We rented a house of a former local landowner, now the property of a British citizen of Indian origin.
Mario Luzi, the most notable Italian poet of the 20th century, called Crete Senesi an “open sea.” Was it because of its configuration of softly shaped hills and gullies, or because of the tides of immigrants that flooded the area from time to time? The Crete Senesi evokes the lunar landscape and has soil that has always been too sterile for the cultivation of olive trees and grapevine, crops that Tuscany is famous for. With its system of irrigation, built decades ago, corn and sunflowers became the common crop of this area. But without of drop of rain since last May, and very high temperatures that burned much of the plants, this year’s harvest may be compromised.
The harsh drought made the nude landscape glow even more intensely than usual, with its yellow nuances recalling the waste lands of California and Sicily–would it not be for the gentle ridges that make this part of the world so special. But beyond the apparent beauty that may make a traveler sigh or inspire a poet, this is hard land to live on. This, an already semi-arid area, suffered extreme depopulation due to plagues in the Middle Ages when the prolonged lack of cultivation facilitated an almost complete erosion of the topsoil. Only much later was the land repopulated by Sicilians who were able to establish sustainable cultivation of wheat on the Sienese clays. To this day, the Sicilians, not the Tuscans, are the only ones to cultivate this arid land.
And yet thousands and thousands of pilgrims have walked across this land during the centuries. They used the antique road Via Cassia, constructed by the Romans and renamed “via Francigena” by the emperors. The road is lined by many parishes, abbeys and small fortresses. The best monument from the times of many pilgrims is Santa Maria della Scala in Siena, an important civic hospital dedicated to caring for abandoned children, the poor, the sick, and pilgrims. When the hospital, active for centuries, “moved from its ancient headquarters to a modern building in 1997, the city government gained possession of a long-neglected trove of medieval and Renaissance art. The walls in the vast decaying complex were dotted with the remnants of magical frescoes, and storerooms held priceless archaeological pieces that had not seen the light of day for centuries,” reported Elisabeth Rosenthal for the New York Times a decade ago.
That art and the beauty are still there. But compared to ten years ago, Siena, for instance, is now a hard place to walk around. The massive attack of global and cheap tourism is already revealing the exhaustion of the place. Sitting in the Piazza del Campo, where the famous Palio––the horse race contest among the 17 contradas in the city–takes place twice a year, you can only get high priced, fake Italian food. If you want to see the Santa Maria della Scala, il Duomo, and other cultural highlights in the city, you better be ready to spend around 100 euros. The institutions are trying to pump the money out of the tourist’s pockets simply by raising the entrance fees of places that have been there for centuries. The sign of economic depression. I do not think that there is a coincidence between this fact and the news that the oldest and once strongest bank, Monte Paschi di Siena, which has been a great sponsor of the culture of the city, has been pulped out by the corrupt politician and is now being bailed out by the already empty coffers of the government in Rome.
The things are changing, no doubt. But looking at the landscape of Crete Senesi, its ancient and religious art, while touching the solid stone buildings that are no longer being built, one wonders what kind of change we are approaching. The times of the Medici are long gone and everything I loved or was brought up with is getting a new meaning. It is becoming dysfunctional in the age of instant, digital and global. From this point of view, or better from the point of view of those who are coming –generational and geographical–even the Rome that for me remains the most beautiful city in the world is nothing more than a playground, a Disneyland. We have to accept this, there is no way we can fight this. Because if we do, Greece, Rome and all of Italy may end up in the same way as Iraq and Syria. It will be crushed and bulldozed as an uncomfortable testimony to the cradle of a culture that no longer exists. The owners of the new upcoming culture and civilization, whatever that might be, will have to destroy it in order to justify their own future culture, and they’d do it unsentimentally.
You can see this happening just by walking the streets of Rome. The city is sinking, along with its eternal beauty. Nobody cares about it. The only new project that has been discussed for three years in Rome is a new soccer club stadium. And the things that have really been improved in the country are the high-speed trains and the airport in Rome. Those are to facilitate the coming of people and the leaving of them, faster than ever.