I’ve wanted to tell the story of Dante Alighieri and the Maremma for a very long time.
I have absolutely no idea whether anyone wants to hear it or if I’m the only one who finds it even the slightest bit interesting.
But if you read my blog with any regularity, you’ll know I’m never satisfied with boasting about the Maremma at face value.
The Maremma is breathtaking, there’s no doubt about it, but I can assure you, it’s history and legends bring a whole new meaning to the monuments and cities, and will leave you gawping long after the sensory impact has worn off.
They’re not something tourists tend to know about either. The locals over here are ridiculously proud of their roots and the stories they tell generation after generation are the ones that separate them from the rest of Tuscany – the stories of butteri, briganti, streghe and draghi.
I mention Dante Alighieri a bit throughout this website. The Eternal Bard of the Italian language was intimately familiar with the Maremma. If you’ve never heard of him, he’s sort of the Italiano version of William Shakespeare, except I’m pretty sure he could spell his own name.
To be perfectly blunt, Dante didn’t like the Maremma. Actually he hated it and spent a good portion of his most famous work, La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) trashing the place.
According to the locals, and I tend to agree, Dante had a bit of superiority complex. All Florentines of his era had a superiority complex about anything outside of Florence. Dante just happened to really dislike the poor (and slightly criminal) Maremmani.
He also held a big enough grudge to immortalize his dislike in novel form.
In one section of the Divine Comedy, he scoffs at Talamone for being stupid enough to build a port that no one wanted. In another, he bludgeons Manciano as the den of thieves. In another still, he tells the story of the beautiful countess Pia dei Tolomei, brutally murdered by her pig of a husband in Castel del Pietra after he decided to marry someone else.
Technically, all of these things are correct. Talamone never did reap the rewards of its ill-advised port, and you couldn’t travel anywhere in Manciano without losing your wallet… or head. And a human skull was discovered at Castel del Pietra.
I wouldn’t say we deserved the criticism, but Dante had a point. The Maremma wasn’t a habitable, let alone pleasant, place during the 14th century. Imagine a giant swamp. The people lived a short and hard life, scraping their existence off a land that only gave them malaria in return.
Brigands or highway robbers were common, pushed into crime by greedy landlords and a questionable altruism. If they were caught, they’d claim they were stealing for the rich to give to the poor, but most were simply stealing for themselves.
In traditional Italian, the word ‘Maremma’ doubles as a blasphemous swear – it was that bad ass a place.
Things improved for the region when the Dukes of Lorraine drained the swamps in the 19th century, but by then, Dante was long dead.
Before he parted this world, he did leave one enchanting, if slightly unsettling, legacy to the Maremma.
Inferno opens with these ominous lines:
“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita”
Or in English:
“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
La selva oscura is the gate to Hell. A dark and dank forest, so thick you can barely see through the trees. Immediately, you get a sense of dread. La selva oscura conjures up images of magic and bad omens.
If you believe the locals, and I always tend to in these situations, Dante’s selva oscura was the vast oak forests of Monte Amiata. Now that might just sound like wishful thinking, but it’s quite plausible.
The forest Dante describes isn’t the sort of thing you’ll find anywhere near Florence. Dante travelled through Monte Amiata frequently to get to his home city, and given his mistrust of the region, he probably wouldn’t have had pleasant memories of its wild forests.
The analogy isn’t exactly positive, but it’s nice to know (as the locals will smugly tell you) that Dante chose the Maremma to be his muse for the gates of Hell and the beginning of his epic poem. Talk about grudges…